Ordinary actors; extraordinary lives
Two iconic actors passed away on Christmas Eve. Jack Klugman was 90; Charles Durning was 89. Neither one had matinee looks or leading man charisma, but they both had long careers that endeared them to the public.
Klugman may have had several years as Quincy, but to me, he will always be Oscar Madison. He probably would have had a longer career if cancer had not taken a vocal chord in 1989. The most bizarre fact about Klugman may be his marriage to Brett Somers, who was mostly known as a staple on Match Game during the 1970s. She also made a few appearances on The Odd Couple as Oscar’s estranged wife, which mirrored real life. Klugman and Somers separated in 1974 but remain married until her death in 2007. At that point, Klugman married a woman with whom he had been living since the late 1980s. For some reason, divorce must not have been an option.
But the real obit surprise this week was that of Charles Durning. He has been in many great movies, including The Sting, Dog Day Afternoon, Tootsie, Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? But I never knew that he was the ninth of ten children, 5 of whom died of small pox. I never knew that he was in the first wave of GIs to storm Omaha Beach on D-Day and his unit’s lone survivor of a machine-gun ambush. I never knew that he was wounded in hand-to-hand combat with a Nazi soldier, whom he bludgeoned to death with a rock.
Let’s pause right there for a moment. Charles Durning bludgeoned a Nazi soldier to death with a rock. Holy crap. If there’s an afterlife, I’m betting that Nazi is thinking, Hmmm. If someone had to bludgeon me, I’m glad it was that guy from Tootsie.
Fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, he and the rest of his company were captured and forced to march through a pine forest at Malmedy, the scene of an infamous massacre in which Germans opened fire on almost 90 prisoners. Mr. Durning was among the few to escape.
By the war’s end he had been awarded a Silver Star for valor and three Purple Hearts. He spent months in hospitals and was treated for psychological trauma. For almost a decade after the war, still mentally troubled, Mr. Durning “dropped into a void” before deciding to study acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. The school dismissed him 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 told the New York Times in 1997.
He spent years in odd jobs, from doorman to dishwasher to cabdriver to boxer. He delivered telegrams and taught ballroom dancing, meeting his first wife, Carole, at an Arthur Murray studio. Every so often he landed 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. Papp went on to cast him in 35 plays, many by Shakespeare. Here’s his amazing obit in the Times, the source from which I stole most of this post.
How amazing is it that he then embarked on a decades long career as a comedic actor?
Here’s to two journeymen actors, just a couple of regular guys who embedded themselves into our memories with their unforgettable characters.
Wait, Charles Durning killed a Nazi with a rock?