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The Boston Globe

Obituaries

Charles Durning, 89; acclaimed character actor

Mr. Durning and Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie.”

Columbia Pictures

Mr. Durning and Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie.”

NEW YORK — Charles Durning, who overcame poverty, battlefield trauma, and nagging self-doubt to become an acclaimed character actor, whether on stage as Big Daddy in ‘‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’’ or in film as the lonely widower smitten with a cross-dressing Dustin Hoffman in ‘‘Tootsie,’’ died Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 89.

Charles Durning may not have been a household name, but with his pugnacious features and imposing bulk he was a familiar presence in American movies, television, and theater, even if often overshadowed by the headliners.

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Alongside Paul Newman and Robert Redford’s con men, Mr. Durning was a crooked cop in the 1973 movie ‘‘The Sting”; he was a dedicated assistant football coach in ‘‘North Dallas Forty’’ (1979); and he was a hypocritical power broker in ‘‘True Confessions’’ (1981).

If his ordinary-guy looks deprived him of leading roles, they did not leave him typecast. He could play gruff and combative or gentle and funny. In the comedy ‘‘Tootsie’’ (1982) he was a little of each, playing Jessica Lange’s unsuspecting father, who falls for an actor masquerading as a woman.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Durning’s two Oscar nominations were for supporting roles, in the musical ‘‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’’ (1982) and in the 1983 remake of “To Be or Not to Be.” starring Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft.

His television credits were voluminous, from guest spots to substantial parts in TV movies and miniseries. He had recurring roles as a priest on ‘‘Everybody Loves Raymond’’ and as the ex-firefighter father of Denis Leary’s Tommy in the firehouse series ‘‘Rescue Me.’’ In all, Mr. Durning received nine Emmy Award nominations.

His Big Daddy in a 1990 Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ ‘‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,’’ brought him a Tony Award for best featured actor in a play. Frank Rich, for The New York Times, likened the performance to ‘‘a dying volcano, in ­final, sputtering eruption.’’

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“Cat’’ was Mr. Durning’s first Broadway hit since 1972, when he drew praise as a small-town mayor seeking reelection in Jason Miller’s ‘‘That Championship Season.’’Despite his success, Mr. Durning fought a lifelong battle with himself.

‘‘I lack confidence as an actor,’’ he told The Toronto Star. When asked what he thought his image was, he said: ‘‘Image? Hell, I don’t have an image.’’

Charles Edward Durning was born into poverty in the Hudson River village of Highland Falls, N.Y., the ninth of 10 children. His father, James, had been sickened by mustard gas and lost a leg in World War I. He died when Charles was 12. Five sisters died of smallpox or scarlet fever in childhood, three of them within two weeks.

Never a good student, young Charles dropped out of school and fled to Pennsylvania. He worked as a farmhand and in other menial jobs before moving to Buffalo, where again he took odd jobs. One was as an usher in a burlesque house.

One night a frequently drunk comedian failed to show up, and Mr. Durning, who had memorized the comic’s jokes, persuaded the manager to let him go on. He ‘‘got laughs,’’ he later recalled, and was ‘‘hooked’’ on show business. He made his stage debut in Buffalo.

His experiences in World War II were harrowing. He was in the first wave of Army troops to land on Omaha Beach on D-day and his unit’s lone survivor of a machine-gun ambush. In Belgium he was stabbed in hand-to-hand combat with a German, whom he bludgeoned to death with a rock.

By the war’s end he had been awarded a Silver Star for valor and three Purple Hearts, having suffered gunshot and shrapnel wounds. He spent months in hospitals and was treated for psychological trauma.

Mr. Durning ‘‘dropped into a void for almost a decade’’ before deciding to study acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, he told Parade magazine in 1993. He was dismissed within a year.

‘’They basically said you have no talent and you couldn’t even buy a dime’s worth of it if it was for sale,’’ he said.

He went from being doorman to dishwasher to cabdriver. He boxed professionally for a time, delivered telegrams, and taught ballroom dancing, meeting his first wife, Carol, at an Arthur Murray studio. Every so often he won a bit part in a play.

His big break came in 1962, when Joseph Papp, founder of the Public Theater and the New York Shakespeare Festival, invited him to audition. It was the start of a long association with Papp, who cast him, often as a clown, in 35 plays.

His work in ‘‘That Championship Season,’’ first produced at the Public Theater, led film director George Roy Hill to tap Mr. Durning for the part of a corrupt police lieutenant in ‘‘The Sting.’’ Two years later he played a beleaguered police hostage negotiator squaring off against Al Pacino’s manic bank robber in‘‘Dog Day Afternoon.’’

He continued to act almost until his death. ‘‘Scavenger Killers,’’ a crime thriller, is scheduled to open next year.

Mr. Durning’s first marriage ended in divorce; he was separated from his wife, Mary Ann Amelio. Besides his daughter Michele, He leaves two daughters, Jeanine and Michele, and a son, Douglas.

In Parade, he recalled the hand-to-hand combat.

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