Charles Durning: War Hero

DurningCharles 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.

This post is part of the “What A Character” blogathon, hosted by my friends Kellee, Aurora and Paula. You can read other great posts in the series from Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3


About willmckinley

I'm a New York City-based writer, producer, and digital marketing consultant. I've been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by Robert Osborne), NPR, Sirius Satellite Radio, and the official TCM podcast. I've written for, Game Show Network, getTV, Sony Movies, and NYC weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News. I'm also a contributor to four film-and-TV-related books: "Monster Serial," "Bride of Monster Serial," "Taste the Blood of Monster Serial," and "Remembering Jonathan Frid."
This entry was posted in Classic Film, In Memoriam and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Charles Durning: War Hero

  1. Pingback: What A Character! Monday posts | Paula's Cinema Club

  2. My son was watching “The Muppet Movie” on the weekend where Mr. Durning has a whale of a time stalking and tormenting Kermit the Frog. My daughter walked through the room and spotted Durning and paused to say “the old soldier” (we would sometimes watch those concerts from Washington). His legacy continues.

  3. Pingback: WHAT A CHARACTER! blogathon FINAL LIST « Once upon a screen…

  4. Aurora says:

    LOVE HIM, Will! I’m super happy he made his way into the blogathon!! Durning is, in fact, my favorite thing about Tootsie, which I enjoy immensely! Some life and career. Thanks so much for submitting this to the event! 🙂


  5. NO WAY. I can’t believe he was injured so badly, only to be sent back into action and be wounded again. That is a remarkable story. Had no idea.

    Thanks for posting this. I’ve always admired Durning’s work, but now I respect him even more.

  6. Aubyn Eli says:

    Charles Durning was a wonderful actor. It takes real talent to fall for a cross-dressing Dustin Hoffman and be so believable and so funny at the same time, all while keeping his dignity intact.

  7. Tom says:

    Unfortunately, it turns out that most of Charles Durning’s stories of his wartime heroics were a lie. There’s simply no other word for it. He was a fine actor and did serve in the Army in Europe but stories of being in the first wave at Omaha Beach on D-Day and fighting in the Battle of the Bulge including the story of being wounded by a German soldier with a bayonet are simply untrue. He was wounded by a German S-mine at some point after D-Day (not during combat) when he landed as a replacement some time after D-Day. A researcher at the National Archives in St. Louis has uncovered much of his true story. I first found many of the details from this thread:

    I posted there as “Tom” and include the story of how I became interested in the topic. The later postings are the most informative. I have been in touch with Steve – see the postings by “Steveland”. I received from him just today more documents from the researcher definitely proving he was nowhere near the Battle of Bulge in addition to his earlier research. Some of his lies were fairly easy to uncover, like his story of enlisting at age 17 vs. being drafted at age 20. Since his previous stories of his heroics were accepted without question, he became quite brazen about it.

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