Triple Purple Heart holder, Silver Star recipient and award-winning character actor Charles Durning, who died at 89 on Christmas eve of natural causes, will be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, Va., Feb. 21.
Born in Highland Falls, N.Y., adjacent to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where his mother was a laundress for the cadets and his father a soldier, Durning was the fourth of 10 children. He had four brothers who lived into adulthood, but his five sisters died from smallpox and scarlet fever as children.
Known as Chuck by friends, Durning was drafted and found himself in the Army in one of the first waves to land on the beach at Normandy on June 6, 1944, D-Day. Just nine days later he earned his first Purple Heart when he was seriously wounded by a German mine at Les Mare des Mares.
Following a six-month recovery in England, he was rushed to the front lines to fight against the German Ardennes offensive. During the Battle of the Bulge, Durning suffered wounds, this time in hand-to-hand bayonet combat for which he would later receive a second Purple Heart.
Still able to fight, Durning would earn his third Purple Heart when he moved into Germany in March with the 398th Infantry Regiment, where he was severely wounded in the chest in March 1945. Durning was then evacuated to the U.S. to spend the remainder of his time in the Army recovering until he was discharged in January 1946 as a private first class.
In addition to the Purple Hearts, Durning was awarded the Silver and Bronze Stars for valor and the World War II Victory Medal. In 2008 the French consul presented him with the National Order of the Legion of Honor.
Following the war, Durning boxed professionally while enrolled in acting classes on the G.I. Bill and performing on the New York stage. But it wasn’t until he was 40 that he entered the film world where in 1962 he played the role of a G.I. in the “Password is Courage.” Then at 50 he had his breakout role as a corrupt policeman who hustles professional con artists in 1973’s “The Sting” with Robert Redford and a follow-on as a detective in “Dog Day Afternoon” with Al Pacino in 1975.
While Durning continued to be a stage actor, his film career took off, he had performed in more than 100 films by his death, working virtually every year between 1973 and 2011 in such films as “Breakheart Pass,” “Captains and Kings,” “The Muppet Movie” and “Tootsie.”
And, if he wasn’t performing on the big screen, he was active doing voice-overs for “Family Guy,” and playing roles in other television movies and mini-series such as the 1980s “Attica,” 1990s “The Kennedys of Massachusetts” and 2004s “NCIS.”
Durning said he had never turned down a part regardless of the role. He loved the Christmas season and to that end the portly, 5’8″ thespian played the role of Santa Claus no less than five times in his career.
His significant honors include Academy Award Best Supporting Actor nominations in 1982 for “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” and in 1983 for Mel Brooks’ comedy-drama “To Be or Not to Be.”
He also received six Emmy Award nominations, a Tony Award in 1991 in the Best Actor-Play category and four Golden Globe nominations, including a win in 1991 for Best Support Actor. In January 2008 he was honored with the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Durning participated in various functions to honor American veterans throughout the years, including serving a year as chairman of the U.S. National Salute to Hospitalized Veterans. For many years he also served as guest speaker at the National Memorial Day Concert held at the Capitol Building in Washington.