LOS ANGELES – Charles Durning grew up in poverty, lost five of his nine siblings to disease, barely lived through D-Day and was taken prisoner at the Battle of the Bulge.
His hard life and wartime trauma provided the basis for a prolific 50-year career as a consummate Oscar-nominated character actor, playing everyone from a Nazi colonel to the pope to Dustin Hoffman’s would-be suitor in Tootsie.
Durning, who died Monday at age 89 in New York, got his start as an usher at a burlesque theater in Buffalo, N.Y. When one of the comedians showed up too drunk to go on, Durning took his place. He recalled years later that he was hooked when he heard the audience laughing.
He portrayed blustery public officials, comic foils and put-upon everymen, but Durning may be best remembered for his Oscar-nominated, over-the-top role as a comically corrupt governor in 1982’s The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
A year later, he received another Oscar nomination, for his portrayal of a bumbling Nazi officer in Mel Brooks’ To Be or Not to Be. He was also nominated for a Golden Globe as the harried police lieutenant in 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon.
Dozens of notable portrayals followed, including the villainous seller of frog legs in The Muppet Movie and Chief Brandon in Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, and the pope in the TV film I Would be Called John: Pope John XXIII.
I never turned down anything and never argued with any producer or director, Durning told The Associated Press in 2008, when he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Durning was born into an Irish family of 10 children in 1923, in Highland Falls, N.Y., a town near West Point. His father lost a leg and was gassed during World War I, so his mother supported the family by washing the uniforms of West Point cadets.
The younger Durning himself would barely survive World War II. He was among the first wave of U.S. soldiers to land at Normandy during the D-Day invasion and the only member of his Army unit to survive. He killed several Germans and was wounded in the leg. He was captured in the Battle of the Bulge and survived a massacre of prisoners.
Durning was 12 when his father died, and five of his sisters lost their lives to smallpox and scarlet fever.