Ken Harrison 6:30 a.m., May 26
Would characters actors please refrain from dying long enough for me to unwrap my Christmas presents?
First Jack Klugman and now Charles Durning.
Charles Durning, the man who played Santa Claus five times (It Nearly Wasn't Christmas, Mrs. Santa Claus, Elmo Saves Christmas, Mr. St. Nick, and A Boyfriend for Christmas) died on Christmas Eve of natural causes at his home in New York City. He was 89.
Durning was a powerhouse, a compact, barrel-chested dynamo who quietly, or otherwise, commanded every scrap of film he graced. He even proved to be light on his tootsie when the former dance instructor appeared as the side-stepping Governor of Texas -- and the only bright ray -- in the otherwise slow-footed big screen adaptation of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
His talent as a dancer is even more amazing when you take into consideration the fact that at age 21 he took a bullet to the hip -- which he carried to his dying day -- at Omaha Beach. Durning was the only member of his platoon to survive the "D-Day" invasion.
In addition to finding work as a dance instructor, Durning was a professional boxer before the acting bug nipped him. Long after he began his career in television, Durning would turn to the Fred Astaire Dance Studios when acting jobs became hard to find. His daughter, Jeanine Durning, is a respected New York-based modern dance performer and choreographer.
Durning was in no hurry to become a movie star. His origins were on the New York stage where he would continue to return once or twice a decade. With but a few big screen credits to his name (bit roles in The Password is Courage and Hi, Mom!), Durning didn't begin leaving celluloid fingerprints of any significance until The Sting (1973). He was 50 at the time of its release.
For a period in the '70's it was virtually impossible to find a film shot that didn't feature Durning. Sisters, Dog Day Afternoon, Twilight's Last Gleaming and Starting Over are but a few of the many memorable films Durning added weight to.
His last performance -- a retired firefighter Michael Gavin on the tele-drama, Rescue Me, earned the actor an Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series.