Famous Veteran: Charles Durning

Army vet Charles Durning was awarded 3 Purple Hearts during World War II before embarking on a distinguished career as a character actor. (Courtesy photo)

Born in Highland Falls, New York, Charles Durning was the ninth of 10 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 became 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 that 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.

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It took Durning five years after leaving the military to make his way eventually 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 died on Dec. 24, 2012, of natural causes and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Aside from the medals he earned as a soldier, Durning accumulated numerous accolades as an actor:

  • A Life Achievement Award
  • A star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
  • Nine Emmy Award nominations
  • Two Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actor

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