Charles Durning was unforgettable as Jessica Lange’s rough-hewn father in Sydney Pollack’s TOOTSIE (1982), falling for Dustin Hoffman’s faux female leading lady in a performance both hilarious and heartfelt. He received Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nominations as the governor in Colin Higgins’ THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS (1982) and Col. Ehrhardt in Mel Brooks’ TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1983). And he was recognized with nine Emmy Award nominations for his work on television.
But Durning’s first role was his greatest: war hero.
Drafted in 1943 at the age of 20, the New York native survived the assault on Omaha Beach on D-Day, but was wounded in the thighs, hand, head and chest by a German S-mine on June 15, 1944, at Les Mare des Mares, France. He convalesced at a military hospital in England and recovered, only to be attacked a few months later by a bayonet-wielding German soldier in Belgium.
Durning survived eight stab wounds in that attack, but again recovered fully enough to fight in the Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944. During that offensive he was captured by German soldiers and barely survived a massacre of other prisoners. It took a bullet in the chest a few months later to end his heroic service in the War, and to begin a lengthy recovery process.
At the 2004 National Memorial Day Concert, broadcast on PBS, Durning shared some of his memories from D-Day, which began on June 6, 1944 and marked the beginning of the end of the war in Europe:
“My sergeant said, ‘Are you scared, son?’” he recalled. “And I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ And he said, ‘That’s good. It’s good to be scared.’ He said ‘we all are.’”
Durning continued acting until his death at age 89 on Christmas Eve in 2012. The recipient of the Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals received a hero’s burial in Arlington National Cemetery and “Taps” was sounded in his honor at the National Memorial Day Concert in 2013.