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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 16, 2000. All rights

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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

years.

"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

as "nonsense."

"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

onstage,"

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

please.

— Simon Saltzman


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