So Long, Charles Durning: The Best Little Sidestepper in Movies

26 Dec
Charles Durning_Hugh

Charles Durning won the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008, a fitting tribute to a true professional who gave many memorable performances in a variety of genres not only in films but also on stage and on television.

Two great American character actors passed away earlier during the week while we were all finishing up our last minute Christmas shopping, etc.  Jack Klugman, revered for his work with Tony Randall in the TV adaptation of Neil Simon’s popular The Odd Couple, passed away at the age of 90 on December 24th. Klugman actually portrayed the show’s slobby sportswriter Oscar Madison on Broadway when original star Walter Matthau left the cast. Klugman won two Emmy awards for his performance in the TV show. He earned a total of 10 Emmy nods not only for The Odd Couple but also for the long running Quincy M.E. His first Emmy came years before The Odd Couple when he appeared on The Defenders in the early 1960s. Additionally, he also garnered a Tony nomination for his role as Herbie in the original Broadway production of the long-running musical Gypsy.  The second actor to pass away on the 24th  is  Charles Durning.

This one is for Charlie. Durning was 89 years old. Per the IMDb, his filmography includes 207 appearances in movies and on television, going all the way back to the old You are There TV series from the 1950s. His most recent credits include Scavenger Killers (still in production) and the well-received Dennis Leary series Rescue Me (for which Durning earned one of his nine Emmy nominations).  In between, he appeared in scads and scads of offerings, including The Sting (Best Picture, 1973), Dog Day Afternoon (a 1975 Best Picture nominee), David Mamet’s State and Main, the original creepfest When a Stranger Calls (1979) along with a made for TV knockoff, When a Stranger Calls Back. His credits also include a pair of Coen titles, The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). He had key roles in a few movies that I adore that almost everyone else despises, The Man with One Red Shoe (1985) and V.I. Warshawski (1991).  Durning was a four time Golden Globe nominee, taking home one of the Hollywood Foreign Press trophies for The Kennedys of Massachusetts (a 1990 mini-series about America’s most fascinating political clan). He also earned, as noted, a whopping nine Emmy nominations, including a pair for his work on the once popular sitcom, Evening Shade starring Burt Reynolds–with whom Durning co-starred in Starting Over (1979), Sharky’s Machine (1981), Stick (1985), and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982).

Ah yes, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, big screen version of the Tony winning stage show–originally co-directed and co-choreographed by Texas’s own Tommy Tune–that fictionalizes the story of a real-life house of prostitution that operated illegally for decades, with the complicit cooperation of local law enforcement, to clarify, until its demise became the objective of a zealous news reporter.  The movie was retooled as a starring vehicle for Parton–and Reynolds–by director Colin Higgins with whom Parton had enjoyed major box-office success in 1980’s 9 to 5. This is the movie in which Parton re-introduced her famous ballad “I Will Always Love You,” which both she and Linda Ronstadt had previously recorded–and which Whitney Houston would immortalize a decade later in The Bodyguard…but I digress.

The movie version of The Best Little Whorehouse…is a mixed bag though Parton, Reynolds, and even Jim Nabors all have their moments, but ask just about anyone: as the Good Ole Governor, Charles Durning  pretty much steals the show in one little amusing number entitled ‘The Sidestep.” Indeed, his performance in the film earned him the first of his two Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominations. Okay, when I first saw Durning break into his clever song and dance–at the long gone AMC Prestonwood 5–I had an instant hunch that I was watching a likely Oscar nominee. When Durning was named one of the finalists, I was pleased though not the least bit surprised.  I’ll let the experts argue about whether an actor who steals scenes can really be considered “supporting.” All I know is Durning’s stint makes audience members sit up and take notice of a fierce talent. He gives the movie a kick…so to speak. I still think of Durning almost each and every time I hear/see politicians being interviewed on TV, which has been quite a lot lately, given that we’ve just come through a nasty election year.  Sidestepping is what politicians do; they just don’t do it with the same panache as Durning did onscreen.

Just to seal the deal, During also appeared in that same year’s Christmas smash, Tootsie. In that one, another major Oscar contender, he played Jessica Lange’s folksy dad, a set-in-his-ways farmer who’s fiercely protective of his daughter and who lets his gruff exterior down long enough to become smitten by Lange’s new co-star and mentor, Dorothy Michaels–who, as we all know, is really a previously out-of-work actor (played by Dustin Hoffman) in drag.  Durning has some glorious moments in the film as he tries to woo Dorothy; later in a local tavern he does a slow burn that would have likely earned him an Oscar nomination had he not already been so righteous in Best Little Whorehouse.  Durning lost that year–to Louis Gossett Jr., who gave a riveting performance as the the tough-minded drill sergeant who helps whip Richard Gere into shape in An Officer and a Gentleman. During would later re-team with Lange on Sam Shepard’s Far North; however,  a year after  The Best Little… and Tootsie, he earned his second Oscar nod in the Mel Brooks remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942), which starred Jack Benny and Carole Lombard; the remake teamed Brooks with his real-life wife Anne Bancroft. Durning lost that go-round to Jack Nicholson’s randy astronaut in Terms of Endearment.

I think it’s great that Durning scored two Oscar nods, even if he never won, because his performances speak for themselves. Oscar or no,  he eked out a glorious moment or two of cinematic immortality in The Best Little Whorehouse. Furthermore, the race for Best Supporting Actor is generally considered the most competitive of all the acting categories, in that it is simply the most populated, that is, more eligible candidates each and every year scrambling for only five slots on the final ballot–and Oscar campaigns entail a lot of work and, oh yes, more than a just a little bit of luck. Truly, being nominated is an honor in itself.

Furthermore, Durning was a Broadway vet who earned a Tony and a Drama Desk award for his performance as “Big Daddy” in the 1990 revival of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring Kathleen Turner. He had previously shared a Drama Desk award with his cast mates in the original Broadway production of Jason Miller’s Pulitzer winning play, That Championship Season in 1972.

Finally, in addition to all his accolades as an actor, Durning was an honored war veteran who fought during the D-Day invasion at Normandy Beach.  (Klugman, btw, also served during WWII.) Durning earned a Silver Star and three Purple Hearts for his service though, according to a quote in USA Today, he did not like to talk about his war years: “Too many bad memories.”  On the other hand, he found great joy and even a reason to live through acting, once remarking that he could barely stand it when he wasn’t working–often driving his wife “crazy” in the process. Of course with over 200 credits, it appears he didn’t sit still too long before he was up and ready to go again. Sidestepping, indeed.

Thanks, Charles….

Charles Durning’s obituary at USA Today:

Durning at the Internet Movie Database:

Durning at the Internet Broadway Database:


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