DAILY | Remembering Charles Durning and Jack Klugman

We lost two extraordinarily likable character actors yesterday. Both Charles Durning, who was 89 and demonstrated the wider range, and Jack Klugman, who was 90 and will likely be remembered first and foremost as the half of The Odd Couple we identified with most, had a talent for connecting with audiences in an age when the struggles of middle-aged white guys just trying to get through the day would otherwise seem to be about the least interesting story to be told.

The AP notes that Durning “was dubbed the king of the character actors for his skill in playing everything from a Nazi colonel to the pope.” Sample a fine Durning moment from Jodie Foster’s Home for the Holidays (1995):

In the New York Times, Robert Berkvist writes that “Charles Durning may not have been a household name, but with his pugnacious features and imposing bulk he was a familiar presence in American movies, television and theater, even if often overshadowed by the headliners. Alongside Paul Newman and Robert Redford’s con men, Mr. Durning was a crooked cop in the 1973 movie The Sting; starring with Nick Nolte, he was a dedicated assistant football coach in North Dallas Forty (1979); in the shadow of Robert De Niro, he was a hypocritical power broker in True Confessions (1981). If his ordinary-guy looks deprived him of leading-man roles, they did not leave him typecast. He could play gruff and combative or gentle and funny. In the comedy Tootsie (1982) he was a little of each, playing Jessica Lange’s unsuspecting father, who falls for a television actor masquerading as a woman. Not surprisingly, Mr. Durning’s two Oscar nominations were for supporting roles, as a slippery governor in the Burt Reynolds film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) and as a lustful Nazi colonel in Mel Brooks’s To Be or Not to Be (1983).”

One more clip, this one from Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975):

Updates: “Durning knew first-hand the horrors of war,” writes Chris Wiegand in the Guardian. “Charles joined the army aged 17 and took part in the D-day landing aged 21. In a Memorial Day speech in 2007, he recalled: ‘I was the second man off my barge, and the first and third man got killed.’ Shot in the hip shortly afterwards, he spent months in hospital, then fought at the Battle of the Bulge. He received the Silver Star and three Purple Hearts. Durning was a boxer, ice-cream seller and dance instructor before establishing himself as an actor. He cut his teeth in Shakespearean productions staged by Joe Papp and, in 1972, won a Drama Desk award for his performance in That Championship Season on Broadway. By then, he had played his first film roles. In Brian De Palma’s Hi, Mom! (1970), he is the slobbish superintendent who shows off an unsanitary apartment to a prospective tenant (played by Durning’s friend Robert De Niro, who recommended him for the part). He re-teamed with De Palma for Sisters (later Blood Sisters, 1973) and The Fury (1978); in the latter, he is the director of a research facility judging psychic ability, and supervises a female patient who unlocks his own troubling secrets.”

“[H]e was always a sign that a supporting sidekick or villain role was in very good hands,” writes Josh Wolk at Vulture. “He was nominated for two Oscars and nine Emmys, won a Tony for a 1990 revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (where he played Big Daddy), and in 2008 was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Screen Actors Guild.”

Update, 12/29: “In 1985 I began working with producer Joseph Papp on Free for All, an oral history of the celebrated New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater,” recalls the Los Angeles TimesKenneth Turan. “I ended up interviewing more than 160 individuals, including actors known for their powerful personalities, like James Earl Jones, Tommy Lee Jones and George C. Scott. But no one I talked to made more of an impression than Charles Durning…. Durning in person was a much more compelling and complicated man than even his wide-ranging résumé indicates. I ended up talking to Durning for quite a while, upward of six or seven hours spread over several days in his Manhattan apartment. This was partly because of the key role Papp and the Shakespeare Festival had played in his career and partly because Durning was such a consummate storyteller—witty, incisive, profane—that you didn’t want him to stop talking.”

Update, 1/5: “His appearance onstage toward the end of O Brother, Where Art Thou? in 2000, prancing and singing with George Clooney and his fellow scalawags, pushes that loony odyssey toward a rousing finish,” writes Richard B. Woodward for the Wall Street Journal. “Durning belongs in the classic lineage of Gaelic-American character actors, a Hollywood fraternity that includes Thomas Mitchell, Kenneth McMillan, Pat Hingle, Carroll O’Connor and Peter Boyle. A welcome guest on television, too, appearing in dozens of series, from Everybody Loves Raymond to Rescue Me, Durning won’t vanish anytime soon. Even as you’re reading this, he is probably somewhere on cable, brightening a scene with his chatter, stepping lightly.”

Jack Klugman “was the last surviving member of the cast that played the jury in 12 Angry Men, the classic 1957 movie drama about deliberations in a first-degree murder trial,” writes Dennis McLellan in the Los Angeles Times. “He was also a veteran of live TV dramatic anthology series in the 1950s and appeared in several episodes of Twilight Zone.”

“Mr. Klugman, who grew up in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood in Philadelphia, wasn’t a subtle performer,” notes Bruce Weber in the NYT. “His features were large and mobile; his voice was a deep, earnest, rough-hewed bleat. He was a no-baloney actor who conveyed straightforward, simply defined emotion, whether it was anger, heartbreak, lust or sympathy. That forthrightness, in both comedy and drama, was the source of his power and his popularity. Never remote, never haughty, he was a regular guy, an audience-pleaser who proved well-suited for series television.”

“In the 1970-75 small-screen adaptation of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, he played a jerk who was also the show’s most lovable character,” writes Slate‘s June Thomas. “As Oscar Madison, Klugman channeled a bear trapped in a tiny Manhattan apartment with Tony Randall’s mosquito of a neatnik, Felix Unger. No matter how slobbish and inconsiderate Oscar might be, Klugman’s winning smile—and Oscar’s extraordinary patience with Felix’s uptight ways—made it impossible to dislike him. As the titular Quincy, M.E., in the show that aired between 1976 and 1983, Klugman created another TV template: the brilliant medical examiner who uses science to identify murderers who would have gotten away with their crimes if it weren’t for his dogged persistence.”

In a 1998 interview, Klugman recalled scoring the role of Oscar:

“An exemplary performer, and he sounded like a pretty exemplary man, too,” writes Glenn Kenny. “Rest in peace.”

Updates: “[N]ot many TV good-time hours have been premised on the idea of loneliness,” notes Time‘s James Poniewozik. “Fortunately, Jack Klugman… was not like many stars—a leading man, rough-voiced, with a face like a weathered stone, who could play hilarious comedy while giving just a hint of the soul and emotion behind a guy like blunt-talking sportswriter Oscar Madison…. Klugman made him a man—rough around the edges, blustery, sometimes ridiculous but never a buffoon. It would be easy to suggest that they don’t make actors like Jack Klugman anymore. But really Klugman, as the greats do, made himself.”

“In movies, he played one of Jim Brown’s partners in crime in the heist movie The Split (1968), one of Frank Sinatra’s colleagues on the NYPD in The Detective (1968), Ali MacGraw’s father in Goodbye, Columbus (1969), and a degenerate gambler in Two-Minute Warning (1976),” notes Phil Dyess-Nugent at the AV Club.

Update, 12/26: From Ronald Bergan in the Guardian: “Young Jack, who worked as a street peddler, later observed: ‘Poverty can teach lessons that privilege cannot.’ This background may have contributed to many of his impassioned and gritty performances. After serving in the army in the second world war, Klugman was able, under the GI bill, to enter Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he studied drama. But after his first audition, his teacher told him: ‘You’re not suited to be an actor. You’re more suited, Mr Klugman, to be a truck driver. Not that there’s anything wrong with truck drivers, but you’re really not ready for this.’ However, he persevered, and in 1949 made his stage debut at the Equity Liberty Theatre, New York, in a play called Stevedore, with Rod Steiger.”

12/26: “Hollywood and the theater world lost two actors who remained remarkably employable for more than half a century because they were masters of the kind of effortless-looking acting that makes ordinary, often secondary characters believable,” writes Neil Genzlinger in the NYT. “Acting is essentially a look-at-me profession, so taking on one don’t-call-attention-to-myself role after another is an admirable career path. Few movies, plays or television shows can succeed with only an A-list star; supporting players are the infrastructure. There is an anonymous army of actors (of both sexes) who make a living doing just that sort of work. When they die, you see their obituaries and a photo and say, ‘Oh, yeah; him.’ You recognize the everyday face but are hard-pressed to put a name to it. Mr. Klugman and Mr. Durning were at heart part of that fraternity, but they managed to transcend it and achieve household-name status.”

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