I don’t normally post links to obituaries and the like, but today’s news about the death of Charles Durning contains some stunning and moving details.
From that lengthy obituary:
Then came World War II, and he enlisted in the Army. His combat experiences were harrowing. He was in the first wave of troops to land on Omaha Beach on D-Day and his unit’s lone survivor of a machine-gun ambush. In Belgium he was stabbed in hand-to-hand combat with a German soldier, whom he bludgeoned to death with a rock. Fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, he and the rest of his company were captured and forced to march through a pine forest at Malmedy, the scene of an infamous massacre in which the Germans opened fire on almost 90 prisoners. Mr. Durning was among the few to escape.
By the war’s end he had been awarded a Silver Star for valor and three Purple Hearts, having suffered gunshot and shrapnel wounds as well. He spent months in hospitals and was treated for psychological trauma.
After the war, still mentally troubled, Mr. Durning “dropped into a void for almost a decade” before deciding to study acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, he told Parade magazine in 1993. The school dismissed him within a year. “They basically said you have no talent and you couldn’t even buy a dime’s worth of it if it was for sale,” he told The Times in 1997.
He went from job to job, from doorman to dishwasher to cabdriver. He boxed professionally for a time, delivered telegrams and taught ballroom dancing, meeting his first wife, Carol, at an Arthur Murray studio. Every so often he landed a bit part in a play.
His big break came in 1962, when Joseph Papp, founder of the Public Theater and the New York Shakespeare Festival, invited him to audition. [...]
In the Parade interview [in 1993], he recalled the hand-to-hand combat. “I was crossing a field somewhere in Belgium,” he said. “A German soldier ran toward me carrying a bayonet. He couldn’t have been more than 14 or 15. I didn’t see a soldier. I saw a boy. Even though he was coming at me, I couldn’t shoot.”
They grappled, he recounted later — he was stabbed seven or eight times — until finally he grasped a rock and made it a weapon. After killing the youth, he said, he held him in his arms and wept.
It’s a touching piece about an extraordinary life, one of remarkable successes and hardships.
Durning was nominated for best supporting actor Oscars for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and To Be or Not to Be. He won a Tony for his role as Big Daddy in the 1990 revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.