A recent California magazine article listed the Top 500 in Hollywood power and popularity: the A-list of restaurants, schools, agents, etc. A final category, nestled at thebottom of the page, was "scene stealers," where Charles Durnings's name sat squ arely in the middle. It's characteristic for Durning-never left out, but never a headliner.
Despite the respect Durning wins (including Oscar and Emmy nominations) and his prodigious re'sume' (180 plays, more than 60 movies for screen and television), most audiences have to wait for the credits to crawl by before they can attach a name to the beefy pink-skinned figure on the screen. They may have a particularly hard time recognizing Durning in his current role in "Stick," which opened recently in Washington.
Durning plays Chucky, the smarmy center of a dissolute southern Florida crime ring. As Durning puts it, "There is hardly anyone among them that deserves to be saved." Chucky is a noir grotesque, a hyperactive, Quaalude-addicted drug dealer who doesn't blink at eliminating unwanted companions.
To understand Chucky, Durning says he pored over Leonard's novel and asked, "Which emotions are closest to the surface? I look at three areas -- the head, the heart and the groin. Which is leading? For Chucky, it's the groin.
"I mentally cast Charles Laughton in the role and asked myself, 'How would Laughton have taken Chucky over the top?' You never get embarrassed with Laughton."
Early in his career, Durning was given a tip by director Robert Aldrich: To get the audience's attention, play the victim or the murderer -- nothing in between. "Chucky is on an irreversible course," as Durning puts it, "and he has to follow it to its end." And he adds: "Acting is telescopic life. You have to punch out a whole life in an hour and a half."
Leaning against the railing of his hotel room balcony, Durning looks down on Fort Lauderdale, the site of "Stick," spreading luxuriantly 12 stories below. Condominiums and high-rise hotels, tennis courts and shimmering blue canals comprise this vision of the upscale New South. "You'd never guess there's a depression going on," Durning drily remarks in his resonant bass.
At first glance, Durning's imposing 5-foot-8 body seems an ungainly instrument for an expressive performer -- "You are looking at a man that has lost and gained a ton over the years," Durning says. Yet it is the same body that has housed a graceful dancer ("Queen of the Stardust Ballroom"), a boxer (his one-time profession), a snappy hoofer ("The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas") and Cyrano de Bergerac (his dream role).
Bayonet scars -- the result of his activity in the Korean war -- are visible on his neck and right arm, and his jowly face reflects his 62 years. He appears to have won this place in the effortless Florida sun only by strenuous battle.
Durning's profile is much higher within the acting profession than with the public, in part because there is no single Durning "type." He has, in his words, "the blessing and misfortune to look like a cop," and this mixed blessing has landed him meaty roles as policemen in "Dog Day Afternoon," "The Sting" and "The Choir Boys." It is still a long way from a straitjacketed image -- his recent roles range from a monsignor and a guardian angel to a comic Nazi (the latter, in "To Be or Not to Be," won him an Oscar nomination).
Durning says that his mother, shortly before she died, said, "Charles, when are you going to get a steady job?"
The question reflects the bleak circumstances of Durning's early years. He was born in Highland Falls, N.Y., in 1923, the ninth child in a family marked by tragedy. Five of his sisters had already died -- three within a space of two weeks. His father, a career Army man, was wounded in World War I; in Durning's words, "He was only half a man by the time I knew him." After his father's death, when Durning was 13, his mother supported the family as a laundress at West Point. In this home, Durning says, he learned the art of determined survival.
Leaving home at 15, Durning headed for the coal fields of Pennsylvania, where the going wage was 50 cents a day. Before he even departed his home-town railway station, he had been swindled out of his lone $10 bill. "I look back to that event," recalls Durning, "as my loss of innocence."
Two decades elapsed between Durning's stint in the Pennsylvania slag heaps and his professional acting debut. He served in the Army in World War II and Korea, and was awarded a Silver Star and a Purple Heart. But he emerged from combat a broken man. His bayonet wounds were the least of it -- his legs were badly damaged and the psychological stress left him unable to converse normally. Instead, he stuttered and averted his eyes, talking only through clenched teeth, his chin on his chest. Acting lessons were suggested as a form of therapy -- not because it was thought that he had the makings of a thespian, but because it might enable him to function as a social being.
After six months at the American Academy of Dramatic Art, his instructor sat Durning down. "You don't have enough talent," was his conclusion, "and you're too short." So much for the academy -- although it still proudly displays Durning's photograph in its gallery of prestigious graduates. The rejection turned Durning from acting for 11 years; he survived as a jack-of-all-trades, embodying everything from a bouncer to a Fred Astaire dance instructor.
His crash course in theater came from an amateur group that staged a different play each week. Durning would ricochet from daytime odd-jobbing to classical repertory at night. His sense of comic timing arose from a different performing sphere -- burlesque and singing in front of a band. The discipline of burlesque provided the closest thing to technical training Durning ever encountered.
Joseph Papp, director of the New York Shakespeare Festival, provided Durning with his first steady employment, repeatedly casting him as a Shakespearean clown, and gave him the role in "That Championship Season" that brought national recognition in 1972.
Currently Durning splits his time between New York and Los Angeles with his second wife, Mary Ann, a childhood sweetheart. He describes his life as routine, devoted only to acting.
"Everything I do -- every action on the street, every book, every record -- is stored and brought back to draw on for a performance. I go to parties and don't get involved in conversations; I observe. I like humanity, but I don't like people. Everything is for my craft."
His unvarying daytime routine -- devoted to reading, music and a 45-minute swim -- is merely a prelude to the evening, when he brings out a selection from his collection of 4,000 films. Before he retires at 4 a.m., at least two films have been shown.
The scene Durning projects most frequently is James Cagney's climactic eruption in "White Heat," where the imprisoned Cagney learns that his mother is dead. After a moment of complete stillness, Cagney explodes so wildly that his rage fills the vast mess hall.
"That scene is a lesson in acting," Durning says. "I'm getting to the point in life where it's no longer dangerous, but in my youth, I'd get terrible white headaches. When I'd come out of it five minutes later, destruction had reigned. One time I set fire to my house. Other times I threw all the kitchen furniture out of the back door, or bit a plate, or put my fist through the window, or decked someone." Papp once remarked that if Durning had not become an actor, he might have ended up a killer.
"Acting is like a mistress," Durning concludes. "Everyone has to love someone or something -- it doesn't have to love you back. I just loved -- and do love -- acting. What's it all about? Why do I perform? A little poem I wrote says everything I know about performing."
And he reads his poem:
I never heard or saw a poem
That ever made me cry.
But a musty old fiddle
Sawed in the middle
And I don't know why.