Mr. Durning appeared in almost 200 movies, countless television shows and dozens of plays, portraying a range of characters from Shakespearean fools to crooked cops to military veterans haunted by the past. He was nominated for two Academy Awards and nine Emmy Awards and won a Tony Award for his performance as Big Daddy in a 1990 Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
But the short, thick-bodied Mr. Durning was virtually unknown until he was almost 50. He got his major break in Jason Miller’s 1972 Broadway play about the aging members of a high school basketball team, “That Championship Season.” A year later, he appeared as a corrupt police officer in the con-man caper movie “The Sting,” with Paul Newman and Robert Redford.
By then, Mr. Durning had accumulated a lifetime of real-world experience. He had held dozens of menial jobs and, while serving as an Army infantryman, was among the first soldiers to land on the Normandy beaches during the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944.
He was wounded in battle three times, captured by Nazi troops and killed a soldier in hand-to-hand combat. He later helped liberate the Buchenwald concentration camp.
It took years for Mr. Durning to recover from his physical and psychological wounds.
“It’s your mind that’s hard to heal,” he told The Washington Post in 1994. “There are many horrifying secrets in the depths of our souls that we don’t want anyone to know about.”
After keeping silent about his wartime experiences for decades, Mr. Durning appeared several times at Memorial Day observances at the Capitol and Arlington National Cemetery. More than 50 years after he had left the battlefield, he still had nightmares, he said.
After the war, determined to pursue acting, he studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York until he was kicked out.
“They basically said, ‘You have no talent,’ ” he later recalled, “ ‘and you couldn’t even buy a dime’s worth of it if it was for sale.’ ”
He took speech lessons to overcome a stutter and attended dance class as a form of physical therapy. He became so adept that he became a professional ballroom dancer and teacher.
His other jobs included working as a comedian, night watchman, dishwasher, sightseeing guide, bridge painter, bricklayer, plumber’s helper, bartender and cabdriver. At 30, he was delivering telegrams, while appearing in plays where his payment came from the passing of a hat. From such a life did the character actor develop his character.
When he took on a working-class role, he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2001, he needed no preparation.
“I could be one of these guys,” he said. “I dug ditches and built foundations and poured and mixed concrete. I still remember: ‘One shovelful of cement to six shovelsful of sand.’ ”