There are some performers where you can tell an awful lot about a person by the first place they think of the performer from. Tim Curry, for example, or Hugo Weaving. Charles Durning is definitely one of those. For me, and I think for a lot of people my age, he’s Doc Hopper first and foremost, because we saw The Muppet Movie in our formative years. 108 movies? 98 TV shows? A career stretching back to 1953? Sure, okay. But he tried to make Kermit sell french-fried frogs’ legs!
It may also have something to do with my family’s connections with the puppetry industry, of course. But still. It’s his most child-friendly role, and it came out when I was a very young child. So there it is. I’m actually not sure it’s the role of his I’ve seen most often, though, because he is also Pappy O’Daniel in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which is a movie that I am incapable of not watching once I catch a glimpse of it, so I’ve seen at least parts of that probably dozens of times now.
I’ve also seen him as Waring Hudsucker, as Moretti, as Lieutenant William Snyder, as Louis Bamberger, as Chief Brandon. I’ve seen any number of other roles over the years. Not all of them, by any stretch, and that’s even leaving aside that I haven’t seen most of his early TV performances where he’s a minor character on a single episode of The High Chaparral or something. But there’s a lot of career there, much of it worth noting and much of it not discussed much.
The best part is that his start came when he was working as an usher in a burlesque theatre, and one of the actors was too drunk to go onstage. So he took the guy’s role. He said that the laughter hooked him. He was twenty-eight. He’d been in World War II; he got a Purple Heart at Normandy, having taken serious shrapnel wounds. He’d worked as a professional ballroom dancer. And to the day he died, he loved acting. He loved the immediacy of the stage more, but one way or another, he loved acting.
And five of his sisters died as children of either smallpox or scarlet fever, three within two weeks of one another. We forget, I think, that such rates of childhood mortality are still within living memory, even in the US. (Sure, Durning was born in 1923 and is, obviously, dead, but he was younger than Kirk Douglas, who is still alive.) Smallpox has been wiped out by vaccination and scarlet fever (which my own grandmother survived as a child) is treatable by antibiotics, apparently, but imagine how different the history of movies would look if Charles Durning had been one of the children to die of one of those diseases.
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