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It’s all in the eyes, when you get right down to it.

For longer than I care to remember, I’ve enjoyed the privileges afforded only to God and the professional voyeur—I’ve sculpted stories utilizing pictures, music, sound, and some of the world’s best (and worst) actors, and I've been paid to do it. As a film editor locked in the dark, sometimes wrestling other times dancing with words-turned-to-virtual reality before my eyes, I never cease to be amazed at what some actors can do to an audience just by doing “nothing.”

There are infinite degrees to the art of appearing “natural” and “interesting” on film. The more obvious technique involves being drop-dead gorgeous and knowing it. Handsome will get you a long way in the eyes of a voracious if not-so-demanding public. No less an artist than the director Martin Ritt once gave me an afternoon lecture on the necessity of a “high fuckability quotient” on the part of every actor and actress he had ever cast. A second, more famous, director pronounced that “a great actor is always something less than a man, and an actress is always something more than a woman.” But I was young in those days. I had not yet looked into the eyes of Gene Hackman, John Travolta, Martin Sheen, Trevor Howard or Blythe Danner over and over again, all day long, fascinated, perplexed, searching for the moment that makes you fall in love.

It’s a game on one hand, and on the other it’s deadly serious. And like most things in life, it requires balance and experience. I was delighted, once, when an actress proclaimed to her director, my friend, “I love river. He makes the blink of an eye mean something.”

Of course. It’s what I do. Because life, after all, happens in the blink of an eye.

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Two million men fought for three months in Normandy in 1944. One of them may be the finest actor I have ever seen.

Charles Durning was a 21-year-old Army Ranger on Omaha Beach, June 6th, 1944, sixty years ago today. He was the only soldier in his outfit to survive the initial assault, and he had to endure serious wounds and kill seven Nazi gunners to do it. Following that, as the Allies worked their way through Belgium, he was stabbed seven times by a German teenager wielding a bayonet. Mr. Durning eventually bludgeoned the Nazi soldier to death with a rock.

He was taken prisoner during the Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944, and survived the infamous machine-gun massacre of over 100 US POWs at Malmady. He returned to the site of the crime to help identify the bodies.

Finally, as the war wound down and he helped to liberate the Nazi death camps, Charles Durning took a bullet to the chest, effectively ending his tour of duty.

He was awarded three Purple Hearts and the Silver Star. And he spent the ensuing four years in and out of hospitals.

“I dropped into a void for almost a decade,” the actor confessed in an interview years later. “The physical injuries heal first. It’s your mind that’s hard to heal. There’s only so much you can witness.”

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Like so many American boys his age, Charles Durning grew up loving the movies. He was born February 28, 1923 in Highland Falls, New York, the son of an army sergeant and a West Point laundress. He left home at 16 and worked as an usher in a burlesque house in Buffalo. In time-honored tradition, he went on one night when one of the comics was too drunk to do so himself.

Following the war and his rehabilitation, he studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and worked Off-Broadway, in small clubs, and even as a dance instructor. (He remains to this day an excellent ballroom dancer, surprisingly, for a man of his age and girth.)

It wasn’t until 1973—dreams deferred for over thirty years—that Mr. Durning achieved his career-changing role in That Championship Season on Broadway. He was soon cast prominently as the police lieutenant in The Sting with Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and thus began his life as one of American’s best-known character actors. To date he’s made over 80 movies and 50 television shows, in addition to his work in hundreds of plays. With three films in production this year, at the age of 81, he shows no signs of letting up.

“There are many secrets in us, in the depths of our souls, that we don’t want anyone to know about” he says. “There’s terror and repulsion in us, horrifying things we keep secret. A lot of that is released through acting.”

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Six thousand ships. Seventy thousand men ashore by the end of the first day. 40% casualties on Omaha Beach. 37,000 Allied soldiers dead, 15,000 on D-Day alone. Over 450,000 Germans wounded, killed, or captured.

It is through the eyes of that Depression-born young man, and—not so incidentally—millions like him, that we are allowed to glimpse reflections of some of life’s great truths.

As a filmmaker, a veteran, and a human being, I am honored to know Charles Durning. A little. So much as his eyes, which have mirrored history, have allowed me to know.

(Though I once watched him cut a rug with Brooke Shields. But that's another story.)






Editors note:Charles Durning died of unknown causes at his home in Manhattan, New York on December 24, 2012 at the age of 89.

Charles Durning Filmography

Death and Texas - Marshall Ledger
Dead Canaries - Jimmy Kerrigan, Director
Hunt for the Devil - Actor
Jesus, Mary and Joey - Teddy the Bartender
One Last Ride - Mr. Orlick
The Last Man Club - John 'Eagle Eye' Pennell
The Naked Run (short) - Congressman Davenport
Mother Ghost - George
L.A.P.D.: To Protect and to Serve - Stuart Steele
Turn of Faith - Actor
Lakeboat - Skippy
Never Look Back - Actor
State and Main - Mayor George Bailey
The Last Producer - Syd Wolf
Very Mean Men - Paddy Mulroney
O Brother, Where Art Thou? - Pappy O'Daniel
Hi-Life - Fatty
Jerry and Tom - Vic
Shelter - Capt. Robert Landis
The Secret Life of Algernon - Norbie Hess
Elmo Saves Christmas (video) - Santa Claus
The Land Before Time IV: Journey Through the Mists (video) - Archy
One Fine Day - Lew
Recon - Actor
Spy Hard - The Director
Home for the Holidays - Henry Larson
The Grass Harp - Reverend Buster
The Last Supper - Reverend Gerald Hutchens
I.Q. - Louis Bamberger
The Hudsucker Proxy - Waring Hudsucker
The Music of Chance - Bill Flower
V.I. Warshawski - Det. Lt. Bobby Mallory
Fatal Sky - Colonel Clancy
Dick Tracy - Chief Brandon
Cat Chaser - Jiggs Scully
Brenda Starr - Editor Francis I. Livright
Étoile - Uncle Joshua
Far North - Bertrum
Cop - Dutch Peltz
A Tiger's Tale - Charlie Drumm
The Rosary Murders - Father Ted Nabors
Happy New Year - Charlie
Meatballs III - Pete, Heaven Doorman (uncredited)
Solarbabies - The Warden
Tough Guys - Deke Yablonski
Where the River Runs Black - Father O'Reilly
Big Trouble - O'Mara
Stand Alone - Louis Thibido
Stick - Chucky
The Man with One Red Shoe - Ross
Hadley's Rebellion - Sam Crawford
Mass Appeal - Monsignor Thomas Burke
To Be or Not to Be - Col. Erhardt, Chief of Gestapo
Two of a Kind - Charlie
Tootsie - Les Nichols
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas - Governor
Sharky's Machine - Friscoe
True Confessions - Jack Amsterdam
The Final Countdown - Senator Samuel Chapman
Die Laughing - Arnold
When a Stranger Calls - John Clifford
Starting Over - Michael Potter
North Dallas Forty - Coach Johnson
The Muppet Movie - Doc Hopper
Tilt - Harold 'The Whale' Remmens
The Greek Tycoon - Michael Russell
An Enemy of the People - Peter Stockmann
The Fury - Dr. Jim McKeever
The Choirboys - Spermwhale Whalen
Twilight's Last Gleaming - President David Stevens
Harry and Walter Go to New York - Rufus T. Crisp
Breakheart Pass- Frank O'Brien
The Hindenburg - Capt. Pruss
Dog Day Afternoon - Det. Sgt. Eugene Moretti
The Front Page - Murphy
The Sting - Lt. William Snyder
Sisters - Joseph Larch
Deadhead Miles- Red Ball Rider
Questions - Actor
Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues - Murphy
The Pursuit of Happiness - 2nd Guard
I Walk the Line - Deputy Wylie Hunnicutt
Hi, Mom! - Superintendent (as Charles Durnham)
Stiletto - Actor
Harvey Middleman, Fireman - Dooley
A Boyfriend for Christmas (TV movie) - Santa
The Detective (TV mini-series) - Mr. Ernst
Rescue Me (TV series) - Actor
Mr. St. Nick (TV movie) - King Nicholas XX (Santa Claus)
Bleacher Bums (TV movie) - Scorekeeper Victor
First Monday (TV series) - Justice Henry Hoskins
The Judge (TV movie) - Judge Harlan Radovich
Hostage Hotel (TV movie) - Det. Charlie Duffy
Backlash (TV movie) - Moe Ryan
Chicken Soup for the Soul (TV series) - Actor
The Premonition (TV movie) - Det. Charlie Duffy
Hard Time (TV movie) - Det. Charlie Duffy
A Chance of Snow (TV movie) - Earl Pulmer
Mrs. Santa Claus (TV movie) - Santa Claus
A Woman of Independent Means (TV mini-series) - Papa Alcott
Leslie's Folly (TV short) - Actor
Texan (TV short) - Vaughn
Roommates (TV movie) - Barney
Harlan & Merleen (TV movie) - Dr. Harlan Elldridge
When a Stranger Calls Back (TV movie) - John Clifford
Tales from Hollywood (TV movie) - Charles F. Money
The Water Engine (TV movie) - Tour Guide
The Story Lady (TV movie) - Judge (uncredited)
The Return of Eliot Ness (TV movie) - Roger Finn
Evening Shade (TV series) - Dr. Harlan Elldridge (1990-1994)
The Kennedys of Massachusetts (TV mini-series) - John 'Honey Fitz'
The Nearly Wasn't Christmas (TV movie) - Santa
Dinner at Eight (TV movie) - Dan Packard
Prime Target (TV movie) - Mulcahaney
Unholy Matrimony (TV movie) - Reverend Samuel Corey
Case Closed (TV movie) - Les Kabowski
Kenny Rogers as The Gambler, Part III: The Legend Continues
(TV movie) - Sen. Henry Colton
The Man Who Broke 1,000 Chains (TV movie) - Warden Hardy, Fulton County Camp #9
I Would Be Called John: Pope John XXIII (TV movie) - Pope John XXIII
Death of a Salesman (TV movie) - Charley
Eye to Eye (TV series) - Oscar Poole
Mister Roberts (TV movie) - The Captain
Working (TV movie) - Retired Man
Dark Night of the Scarecrow (TV movie) - Otis P. Hazelrigg
The Girls In Their Summer Dresses and Other Stories by Irwin Shaw (TV movie) - McMahon (story 'The Monument')
The Best Little Girl in the World (TV movie) - Frank Powell
Casey Stengel (TV movie) - Casey Stengel
Crisis at Central High (TV movie) - Jess Matthews
A Perfect Match (TV movie) - Bill Larson
Attica (TV movie) - Commissioner Russell Oswald
The Muppets Go Hollywood (TV movie) - Actor Studs Lonigan (TV mini-series) - Paddy Lonigan
Special Olympics (TV movie) - Carl Gallitzin
The Ashes of Mrs. Reasoner (TV movie) - Actor
Captains and the Kings (TV mini-series) - Ed Healey
The Cop and the Kid (TV series) - Officer Frank Murphy
Switch (TV movie) - Phil Beckman
Queen of the Stardust Ballroom (TV movie) - Alvin 'Al' Green
The Trial of Chaplain Jensen (TV movie) - Budd Rogers
The Connection (TV movie) - Frank Devlin
Another World (TV series) - Police Chief Gil McGowan
Look Homeward, Angel (TV movie) - Actor
Broadway: The Golden Age, by the Legends Who Were There (documentary) - Himself
AFI's 100 Years, 100 Thrills: America's Most Heart-Pounding Movies (TV special documentary) - Himself
Jazz (TV mini-series documentary) - Voices (voice)
Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony (TV mini-series documentary) - Actor (voice)
America in the '40s (TV documentary) - Host
The City of Greater New York: The Story of Consolidation (TV documentary) - Mayor William Strong (voice)
The Directors: Sydney Pollack (video documentary) - Himself
The American Revolution (TV documentary) - Benjamin Franklin (voice)
The 44th Annual Tony Awards (TV movie) - Himself - Winner: Best Supporting Actor in a play



On Hollywood and filmmaking:

Below the Line

sex drugs and divorce

a little life, interrupted
  1. Hecho en Mejico
  2. Entrances
  3. Sam's Song
  4. Hemingway and Fortuna
  5. Hummingbird on the Left
  6. The Long and Drunken Afternoon
  7. Safe in the Lap of the Gods
  8. Quetzal Birds in Love
  9. Angela in Paradise
  10. And the machine ran backwards


a secondhand coffin
how to act
Right. Me and Herman Melville
Scylla and Charybdis Approximately
snowflakes and nylon


I could've kissed Orson Welles
the broken dreams of Orson Welles
the last time I saw Orson Welles
The Other Side of the Wind


ASC
avid
Below the Line
Charles Durning
completion bond
D/Vision
Film Editing
Film Editor
Final Cut Pro
forced development
HD Video
insert
king of the queens
Kubrick polishes a turd
movies from space
moviola
Panavision
Persistence of Vision
Sven Nykvist
Wilford Brimley


21 Grams
A.I.
Andrei Rublyov
Apocalypse Now Redux
Collateral
Ivan's Childhood
The Jazz Singer
Mirror
Nostalghia
The Sacrifice
We Were Soldiers
Wild Strawberries



Biographies:

The Johnny Appleseed of LSD
Lucky Baldwin
P.T. Barnum
Peter Bogdanovich
Anita Borg
Lord Buckley
Bud and Travis
Camaron de la Isla
Butch Cassidy
Bruce Chatwin
Dickey Chapelle
Bikram Choudhury
Cyril Connolly
Gordon Cooper
Amanda Davis
David Dellinger
Wild Bill Donovan
Charles Durning
Gloria Emerson
Mimi Farina
Richard Farina
John Gardner
Sidney Gottlieb, the real-life "Q"
Alfred Hubbard
Lucia Joyce
Hamid Karzai
king of the queens
Thomas Knowlton
Parisoula Lampsos
Paco de Lucia
Malinche
the Real McCoy
Robert K. Merton
J. Fred Muggs
David Myers
Sven Nykvist
Patrick O'Brian
Harvey Penick
Sabicas
Bernardino de Sahagun
W.G. Sebald
Nicholas Shakespeare
Rudolf Steiner
A. J. Weberman

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