"I was the second man off my barge, and the first and third man got killed."
Born in Highland Falls, New York, Charles Durning was the ninth of ten children. Five of his siblings died due to scarlet fever and smallpox, and much of his early life was spent in hardship. Although he displayed a passion for entertaining others, a high school teacher told him that he was talentless in art, language, and math and was better suited to working in an office. He was undeterred, however, and would become one of the greatest character actors in living memory.
Durning was drafted into the U.S. Army just in time to fight in World War II. He was part of the landing forces at Normandy during the initial invasion of France by Allied forces. Although he survived the initial assault relatively unscathed, he was wounded by a German mine a few days later and earned a Purple Heart. After recovering for six months, he was put back on the front lines to combat the German Ardennes offensive.
During the German attack, Durning reported that a particularly young soldier charged him, but Durning couldn’t bring himself to fire. The two fought with their bayonets, and Durning suffered further injury during the fight. Durning killed the German infantryman which became a particularly painful memory. After the offensive, Durning received his second Purple Heart.
Before the war was over, Durning received a third Purple Heart and the Silver and Bronze Stars for valor. The chest wound which earned him the Purple Heart prompted his evacuation to the United States for recovery where he spent the remainder of his time with the Army. He was discharged in 1946 as a private first class.
It took Durning 5 years after leaving the military to eventually make his way into acting. While working as an usher at a burlesque theater, he was hired to replace a comedian who was too drunk to perform. From there he worked in a variety of plays. He debuted in film in 1965's "Harvey Middleman, Fireman." Although he gained traction in cinema, Durning still performed in plays including "Drat! The Cat!" and "Inherit the Wind."
Durning passed away on December 24th, 2012 due to natural causes and was buried in Arlington National Cemetary. Over the course of his life, aside from the medals he earned as a soldier, Durning won numerous accolades as an actor including a Life Achievement Award, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, 9 Emmy Award nominations, and an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
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