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On Stage: An actor's actor

Charles Durning reflects on his turbulant stint at the Playhouse

Friday, February 12, 1999

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Editor

He almost killed the director who nailed him in a coffin, he got into an epic brawl with a staff member and the theater company was canned before the season ended - so went Charles Durning's year as an actor at the Pittsburgh Playhouse.

  Charles Durning in the lead role as Galy Gay in Bertold Brecht's "A Man's a Man" at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. (Post-Gazette photo)

That was 1966-67. Now, 32 years and more than 300 starring stage, movie and TV roles later, Durning is back in Pittsburgh playing opposite Julie Harris in "The Gin Game" at the Byham Theater (through Sunday).

Wednesday, he revisited that Playhouse stage, but not to reminisce: Nostalgia is "age's worst side effect," he said last week when he was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame on Broadway. Instead, Durning visited to sit on the big Playhouse stage and talk theater with several hundred Point Park College theater students.

About his own career, Durning is self-deprecating almost to obsession, laced with a healthy pragmatism. He is driven, he says, "by fear - the fear of not being recognized by your peers. Self-doubt puts your imagination to work: How can I do this differently?" Perfectly alert to the absurdity of a difficult profession, he has contempt for "flash." "Look at who's famous: Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise - that's 'star,' not acting. Well, once in a while Cruise does some acting," he conceded.

"You can be arrogant, pompous and full of yourself on stage, but off stage, you're just another guy. And look at Willis: he gets $20 million a movie and he says movies are expensive because of the Teamsters!"

A dedicated professional with more than 50 years of performing on every level, Durning is humble about his craft. Though he and Harris have been doing "Gin Game" for "going on three years," he said, "I just found a couple of new things in the show this week. And Julie did, too."

To the students, Durning advised not taking success too seriously: "You can be the actor du jour, but tomorrow it could be somebody with a different smile." While answering questions and eliciting gales of appreciative, youthfully knowing laughter, he insisted on the difficulty of an actor's life. "I lost a marriage because of it, and friends, a social life." His final advice to would-be actors: "Remember - not because you want to, but because you have to."

Then, with their standing ovation still reverberating around the Playhouse dome, Durning sat down for a one-on-one about that prior Playhouse year. We had talked about this some when he was last here, in 1990, playing Big Daddy opposite Kathleen Turner's in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" at the Benedum on the way to Broadway. But at last week's Hall of Fame ceremony he reminded me what a tumultuous year it had been, so I wanted to follow up.

Cast of John Osborne's "The Entertainer" at the Playhouse in December 1966 (left to right): William Hansen; Winifred mann, Carolee Campbell, Charles Durning and Hugh Alexander. (Post-Gazette photo) 

The 1966-67 professional season was the second that the Playhouse, after 28 years as a professionally led community theater, tried to go fully pro, with ambitious repertory offerings of classics and challenging newer works. William Ball had brought his fledgling American Conservatory Theatre here in 1965 and staged 12 plays in four months, starring actors like Richard Dysart, Sada Thompson and Rene Auberjonois. But Ball didn't see eye-to-eye with the Playhouse Board, a large group that was never sure it wanted to join this new and expensive world, so he took his theater off to San Francisco where it became world famous.

For the next full season, the Playhouse hired John Hancock, a commanding 27-year-old with off-Broadway kudos, plenty of self-confidence and a love of Brecht.

For Durning, it started when Hancock called his agent, who asked if he was available to spend a year in Pittsburgh. "What else is coming up?" Durning asked. "Nothing." "Then let's spend a year in Pittsburgh."

So he drove his broken-down car from New York City, laden with two young children and a pregnant wife. "She didn't like the apartment they had for us, too many steps to climb. ... So they found us a nice house in Squirrel Hill, near Schenley Park. We'd take the kids there every day."

Durning came partly for the roles he was offered: Galy Gay, the everyman lead in the season-opener, Brecht's "Man's a Man"; the title role in John Osborne's "The Entertainer"; and Bottom in "Midsummer Night's Dream." (As it is, a company ego problem required that he "relinquish" the latter role to someone else.) He also played Andrei in "Three Sisters."

In his vital 70s today, Durning was no youngster then, but a veteran of 40 who didn't suffer fools. One was Hancock, an immensely talented but imperious director who once stopped a live performance. When Durning stormed down to his dressing room to pack to leave, Hancock followed and Durning threw his steel makeup kit at him, narrowly missing. "You can probably still see the dent in the wall."

Then Hancock "waved his handkerchief at me," like a flag of truce. "He was funny. I calmed down, because I was scared."

"Hancock was a good director," he said, "but he tried to shock you with his tongue." During rehearsals for "Man's a Man," he told Durning he wanted to experiment and asked him to climb into a coffin. (In the play, Galy Gay delivers a eulogy at what is supposed to be his own funeral.) Durning grumbled, but he did it. Then Hancock nailed the lid down. "I went !#*! crazy in there," he remembered. "I have claustrophobia. I almost knocked the coffin off the stage kicking to get out, and when they opened it, I came out like a raving maniac!" Hancock had wisely fled the building.

I didn't ask if it helped his performance. But I did ask about the actor who is supposed to have peed on stage, which is cited to this day by those who were glad when the Playhouse returned to more conventional entertainment.

"That was me!," Durning said. "But I did not unzip my fly" - he just turned his back and mimed it.

I brought up the Playhouse restaurant, then one of the city's best.

"Yeah, it was nice. But I got in a terrible fight with the bouncer." He was meeting his wife there on the way home, but the officious staffer wouldn't let him in because he wasn't wearing a tie.

"I was a quiet guy, I never bothered anyone . . . [but] we got in a terrible fistfight, proceeding to bounce each other off the walls and all over the hallways. We covered a lot of ground. I was doing martial arts then, so I did leg sweeps, body checks, over-the-shoulder throws, but he was younger and I was running out of gas." When people finally pulled them apart, Hancock said, "Charlie, hear how you're breathing hard now? That's what I want in the play!"

Then came "The Entertainer."

"I stopped the show one night. I was in a quiet scene where I was talking about a black blues singer. Some kids in the front row thought that was derogatory so they were talking about it loudly. I said, 'I'm not continuing until that row is cleared.' The ushers cleared them out and I apologized to the audience, who applauded. But afterwards one of the producers told me if I was professional I wouldn't have done that. I said, 'If your ushers were professional I wouldn't have had to.' "

His Entertainer was praised - he remembers one critic saying no one could ever make you forget Laurence Olivier in the role, but that for two hours, Charles Durning did. And the show proved popular. But even during rehearsals, the Playhouse announced it needed to raise $300,000 or close down. Amid cries of concern from around the nation - the Pittsburgh Playhouse was then famous - funds were raised, but the handwriting was on the wall. Hancock was noisily not renewed and then simply fired. Durning's memory is that they at least finished the plays he was in.

He sees some justice in it all. "When Bill Ball left they stole everything in the joint," he said. Then some of the people in his own company did drugs, and one of them got a student intern from Carnegie Mellon pregnant.

"So [the Playhouse] decided to disband it and never have professional actors again," he said. "Maybe they were right, with that company." But the result was that it was nearly 10 years before Pittsburgh got its own resident professional company (the Public), some years after most big American cities.

But that year was just one more adventuresome passage in the eventful theatrical career of Charles Durning, a great American actor.

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