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Charles Durning appears in a scene from the 1982 musical film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. - Provided courtesy of Universal Pictures

Charles Durning dies at 89 - 9 facts about 'character man,' 'Whorehouse' actor

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12/25/2012 by Corinne Heller

Charles Durning, an Oscar-nominated character actor known for roles in movies such as "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," "Tootsie" and "The Sting," recently died at age 89.

He passed away at his home in Manhattan on December 24, a rep for the actor said in a statement obtained by OTRC.com. Durning, who is also a World War II veteran, is survived by his three children -- Michele, Douglas and Jeanine Durning, who all live in New York City as well. Their mother is his first wife, Carole. He married his second wife, Mary Ann, in 1975.

"Not only was Charlie a World War II hero but he was also a hero to his family," his step-daughter, Anita Gregory, said in a statement obtained by OTRC.com. "Charlie loved Christmas and if he could have chosen a time to pass, he would have chosen this day. He loved that holiday and played Santa Claus many times in films and TV shows."

"Charlie lived the spirit of Christmas each and every day of his life," she added. "He taught me to believe that nothing was impossible. He brought joy and a smile to everyone's life. He lit up the world by his wonderful sense of humor and his amazing talent. He was truly a great and kind man, a hero in every sense of the word. He will be so deeply missed by his wife Mary Ann, his family, and all who loved him."

A private family memorial service is planned and the actor is set to be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Check out 9 facts about Charles Durning.

1. He was raised by his mother, who gave birth to 10 children.

Durning was born in New York in 1923. He told the Evening Independent newspaper in 1976 that his father, a World War I veteran who worked at the U.S. military academy West Point, died when he was 13 and that his mother raised him and his siblings and earned her living doing laundry at the West Point. He said she had 10 children and five of them died young. He is the second youngest child.

2. He is a World War II veteran, has suffered injuries and blindness and took up dancing and acting as therapy.

Durning fought in Europe during World War II before he began his on-screen acting career in the early 1950s. He was injured several times and took part in iconic operations such as the Normandy Invasion of France on D-Day in June 1944.

Durning was awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and Three Purple Hearts. In 2006, the French government honored Mr. Durning for his military service, awarding him the National Order of the Legion of Honour, in the rank of Chevalier (Knight).

"I was wounded very badly," the actor told the Associated Press in 1981, regarding his service. "I spent three years in hospitals. For a little while, I was blinded, but my sight came back. I'd been shot up in my legs and I had psychological problems, which left me with a bad stutter."

"When I got out of the hospital, I took some dance lessons to strengthen my legs and I went to a drama school for speech therapy," he said.

Durning was a regular supporter of the Wounded Warrior Project, which helps raise awareness and funds for injured service members.

3. This World War II vet earned an Oscar nomination for playing a Nazi colonel in a Mel Brooks comedy movie.

Durning earned his second and Oscar nomination for playing a bumbling Nazi officer named S.S. Colonel Erhardt in Mel Brooks' comedy movie "To Be Or Not To Be." (Jack Nicholson took home the award for "Terms of Endearment.)"

Durning earned his first Oscar nomination in 1983 for his role as the corrupt governor of Texas in the film "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," which stars Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds. (The Academy Award went to Louis Gossett Jr. for "An Officer and a Gentleman.") In the film, Durning's characer sings and dances to the song "The Sidestep."

"They didn't know I was a dancer," Durning told the Houston Chronicle in 2007, regarding the musical's creators. "They were creating a dance for me, and I said, 'I've got a little something to add to that.'"

Larry L. King, the playwright of the original "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" musical, died on December 20.

4. He was kicked out of acting school.

"I never really studied," the actor told The Hour, a Connecticut publication, in 1996. "I went to the American Academy of American Arts on the G.I. bill but after about three months, they kicked me out, telling me I had no talent."

Durning told the Associated Press: "When I went to drama school, they told me I had no talent and I was too short, that I should go into some other profession. That really turned my head around. I didn't get one acting job for 11 years. I thought they were right. They were the experts."

He then met a theater producer and went on to appear in plays off-Broadway. The then producer told him to go to Hollywood, "make some money and come back," he told The Hour.

5. It took 25 years for him to "make it" in show business.

After starring in small plays, Durning eventually made his Broadway debut in 1964 in "Poor Bitos." By then, he had been acting on television and in movies for more than 10 years.

"It took about 25 years for me to make a living in this business," he told the Associated Press. "By the time I work up to the fact that maybe everyone was right -- I wasn't going to make it --- it was too late. I had nothing else to go to. I had no college education. I wasn't equipped to do anything and I was crowding 40."

6. He has played Santa five times.

Durning, who died on Christmas Eve, played Santa five times -- in the 2004 TV movie "A Boyfriend for Christmas," in the 2002 TV film "Mr. St. Nick," in the 1996 TV movie "Mrs. Santa Claus," in the 1996 "Sesame Street" video "Elmo Saves Christmas" and in the 1989 TV movie "It Nearly Wasn't Christmas."

When asked why he is such a popular choice for the role, Durning told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2004: "I'm fat, for one thing, although I have lost a lot of weight. I have lost 60 pounds. I still need to get a little thinner. I'm only kidding about the other thing. But I think that, you know, I'm a congenial fella and they look around and say, 'Let's go with the congenial fella.'"

7. He has played religious leader many times as well.

Durning has played a priest, minister and reverend in several projects -- in the sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond," in the drama series "Touched By An Angel," in the 1980s movies "The Rosary Murders" and "Where the River Runs Black," in the 1988 TV film "Unholy Matrimony" and in the 1990s movies "The Grass Harp" and "The Last Supper."

8. He has starred in more than 200 projects, has won a Golden Globe and has been nominated for an Emmy nine times.

Durning's first on-screen role was that of a U.S. military colonel on an episode of "You Are There" in 1953. He went on to star on shows such as "Another World" and the 1970s movies "The Sting" and "Dog Day Afternoon," which earned him his first Golden Globe nomination, in 1976.

He earned two more nods -- for "To Be Or Not To Be" and the mini-series "Captains and the Kings" before he finally took home a Golden Globe for his role as John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald in the 1990 mini-series "The Kennedys of Massachusetts."

Durning also starred in films such as "The Muppet Movie" in 1979, "True Confessions" in 1981 and the 1982 movie "Tootsie," a cross-dressing comedy starring Dustin Hoffman.

He has also appeared in "Dick Tracy," which features Madonna and Warren Beatty and Al Pacino and the shows "Cybill," "NCIS," "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "The Practice." He has been in two films by Joel and Ethan Coen -- "The Hudsucker Proxy" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," which stars George Clooney.

Durning also provided the voice of Francis Griffin, Peter Griffin's stepfather, on the FOX animated series "Family Guy."

In 2004, he began starring on the FX firefighter-themed show "Rescue Me." He played the recurring role of Michael Gavin, the father of main actor Denis Leary's Tommy and a retired New York City Fire Department firefighter and World War II veteran. Durning earned his ninth Emmy nomination for the part.

"Charlie Durning RIP. Hero of WW2. Fighter. Dancer. My fake Rescue Me Dad," Leary said on his Twitter page on December 25.

In the fall, production began on Durning's latest movie, "Scavenger Killers," a horror film that also stars Eric Roberts and "Saved By the Bell" actor Dustin Diamond.

9. He always knew he was a character actor.

"There are people who are born leading men and people who are born character men," he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I was born a character man. I mean, I have played leads in films, but it was always a character lead."

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