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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 16, 2000. All rights
Just Call Him Charlie: Charles Durning
Standing out among the sleazy, money-hungry, cheating
hotheads of "Glengarry Glen Ross," not only because of his
girth, but also because of his half-century of grand and lauded
performances, is Charles Durning.
"When I walk down the street, people don’t call me `Mr. Durning,’
they call out `Hey, Charlie,’" Durning tells me during a
snowstorm-enforced rehearsal break. So I guess it can be formally
acknowledged that "Charlie" is in town, working at McCarter
Theater. At the personal request of playwright David Mamet, Durning is
playing one of the leading roles in Mamet’s 1984 play about a quartet
of ruthless real estate salesmen.
Durning has the plum role of "Levene the machine," the
old-timer whose "closings" are getting fewer and farther
between. New York-born, Durning’s impressive career in the theater,
which never paused from the day the decorated soldier returned from
his stint with the Army during World War II, has spanned more than 50
"I quit school at 16, never went to college — never mind what
some of the bios say — worked as an usher in a burlesque house,
and never had an acting lesson," says the actor who has won many
of the theater’s highest awards. These include two Drama Desk awards
for outstanding performances ("That Championship Season" in
1972, and "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof" in 1990), a Tony for
"Cat On a Hot Tin Roof," plus two Oscar nominations, for his
role as governor in "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" in
1982, and as the Nazi commander in "To Be Or Not To Be" in
1983. But these don’t begin to tell the story of the actor who has
appeared in "over 100 plays since the middle 1940s."
"I’m an instinctive actor," Durning says, putting out to
pasture just about any and all acting techniques and dramatic school
philosophies either of us could think of — except, that is, the
one in which he finds himself immersed in Mamet-land. Performing Mamet
evidently suits Durning. "I just walk on stage and say my
lines." Easy to say for the talented, heavy-set actor whose
instincts propelled a once slim-and-trim ballroom dancer weighing in
at "111 pounds" into one of the most admired character actors
in films, television, and the stage.
If instinct led Durning to insert a dance for himself and his co-star
Julie Harris into the glorious 1997 Broadway revival of "The Gin
Game," a scene that the author has now added to the revised
script, an instinct must also serve this consummate professional to
respect the precision and timing that comes with doing a Mamet play.
Speaking of Mamet’s powerful use of that all-purpose four-letter
expletive that blends so naturally and humorously into the play’s
earthy, fugue-like lyricism, Durning says, "It’s like music."
Undeterred by a lack of formal training, Durning can boast 22
Shakespearean roles for Joseph Papp at the New York Shakespeare
Festival. With more than 50 feature films behind him, including
memorable performances in "The Sting" (1973), "The
Hudsucker Proxy" (1994), and "Home for the Holidays"
(1995), Durning may have had his greatest visibility as the blustery
small-town doctor Harlan Elldridge in the CBS sitcom "Evening
Shade" from 1990 to ’94.
My questions about an actor’s motivation for a role and the use of
his own life as a motivational device are brushed aside by Durning
"I spend about five hours a day, besides the rehearsal time, going
over and over my lines. One of my first words is `cocksucker.’ The
language is what is important. I don’t have to think about who I am
when I’m offstage. The audience will figure that out when I’m
says Durning with the same unflinching note of authority he used when
he played prosecuting attorney Matthew Brady opposite the late George
C. Scott in the 1996 Broadway revival of "Inherit the Wind."
Is this production Broadway bound? "I’ll stick with the play if
it continues. I’m in for the duration," says the actor who has
been around for the duration. So, just remember. Only if you yell
"Hey, Charlie," as you walk down the street, are the chances
good that Mr. Durning will turn around and wave. And no expletives
— Simon Saltzman
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