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Charles Durning's roles mirror the man

Sunday, July 22, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Charles Durning plays cops and crooks and priests, blowhard politicians and folksy Southern doctors. He may wear a white lab coat or a clergyman's robes, but most of the time we can sense the blue collar (or red neck) that lies beneath. Durning has spent a lifetime soaking up their experiences, which may explain why he is so good at replicating their essence on stage and screen.

In the movie "Lakeboat," opening Friday at the Harris Theater, he plays the captain of a Great Lakes freighter, a man known to one and all as Skippy, which describes his job but not his personality. His girth may be exceeded only by his profanity. But after hearing him chew out his men, you have the feeling he wishes he could join in their rough camaraderie.

When you look at Durning, you may forget that he started out as a song-and-dance man -- and that, at age 78, he still is. Just a few weeks ago he was playing the village elder in Civic Light Opera's production of "Brigadoon."

While in Pittsburgh, he took time to talk about "Lakeboat," an adaptation of David Mamet's first play. But he didn't stop there. It turns out that Durning is as talkative as Mamet is terse.

In between are the characters in "Lakeboat," who argue endlessly over nothing at all but, given the chance, will confess their deepest longings and most profound regrets. Durning knows the type.

"Yeah, there are those guys who don't say a lot -- but what they do say, you better pay attention. I know wiseguys living on 49th Street and 11th Avenue, which is Hell's Kitchen's back door. There were a lot of longshoremen and stagehands, truck drivers and taxi drivers.

"In those days it was all tenements. I lived in a five- or six-story walkup. The air conditioner was the fire escape. We were all living like that in those days. I was a Depression baby. Nobody had any money.

"When I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer. I wrote one short story one time, it took me six months to write it, I got $75 for it, and it was like digging a ditch. I wrote one other thing and they sent it back to me. I said, the hell with it. I'll let somebody else tell the story and I'll act it."

Born in Highland Falls, N.Y., up the Hudson River near West Point, Durning left home at age 16 "for no reason. I just felt it was time to get out." He worked on the slag heaps in Pittston and made barbed wire in Buffalo.

A few decades later, David Mamet spent a summer working on a freighter and turned his experience into "Lakeboat." It's not Durning's first Mamet work. He performed in the movie "State and Main" and in a TV adaptation of "The Water Engine," and he has won acclaim on stage in "Glengarry Glen Ross."

"He's an amazing guy," Durning said of the playwright. "We've all lived different lives in our lifetime, but he retains everything. He remembers dialogue and what happened at a certain time and why it happened. I don't have that kind of memory. I can remember incidents, but I don't remember dialogue.

"He's kind of an aloof man. If you talk to him, he listens. He's a man who observes a lot. You don't think he's paying any attention, and then he'll read back everything you said verbatim. He's a sponge, as opposed to a sponger. He's a man I would like to get to know better, but he drops the veil. You can't get close to him. And he hasn't got the time to do that with his life and be as prolific as he is."

Durning got into "Lakeboat" through his old pal Joe Mantegna, who directed the movie, which also stars Denis Leary, George Wendt, Robert Forster, Peter Falk and Tony Mamet, the playwright's brother. Though the movie takes place in Chicago and on Lake Superior, it was filmed mostly in Toronto and on neighboring Lake Ontario.

Durning lives in Los Angeles now but his work causes him to travel far more, he says, than his wife would like.

"I enjoy the quicksand I stand on. My passion are plays. You do the movies so you can do the plays. I do a play somewhere every year."

He made his professional stage debut at age 20, in Maxwell Anderson's "The Eve of St. Mark." But, he says, "I didn't even begin to think I was doing anything until I was in my middle 30s."

He did some singing with bands, some dancing, some nightclub work. "Then I ran into a guy called Joe Papp, who really taught me. I stayed with him for 12 years." Papp staged the classics with his Shakespeare in the Park and launched new plays at New York's Public Theater.

"That time in my life was my best time," Durning said. "I had no money at all, and he didn't pay much. You were getting a salary for performance plus a rehearsal salary. We would do three plays in Central Park for the summer. And then you'd do three to six plays every year down on Lafayette Street -- new plays by new writers: Sam Shepard, David Mamet, David Rabe, John Ford Noonan, Jason Miller."

Durning spent a year at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in the late 1960s. "My baby daughter was born at Magee Hospital," he said. "I was here when [imperious director] John Hancock was here. That was not a pleasant time. There were a lot of disgruntled actors and bad-boy actors."

These days, Durning grumbles about certain aspects of contemporary life.

"There are no heroes left, even in sports. They're head-butting the referees, our so-called heroes," he says. "My heroes were Joe Louis, Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth. They might have been doing what these guys are doing now, but it was not broadcast.

"How many of your politicians can you trust? We might not have been able to trust [ours], either, but it was all kind of glossed over. Now, everything is out in the open. Clinton was probably one of our better presidents in recent memory, but he was morally bankrupt. And we love him for that because if he can do it, we can do it.

"The actors we had then were distinctive: Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, John Wayne, Gary Cooper. Every one of these people that are there now are out of the same cookie cutter. They look alike and sound alike."

Of the younger generation, he likes Sean Penn and Edward Norton. He cannot fathom the popularity of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Not only is he concerned about runaway production, in which movies (including "Lakeboat") shoot in Canada to take advantage of tax breaks and a favorable exchange rate, he even resents it when a movie like "L.A. Confidential" casts two Australians -- Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe -- as American cops.

Durning prefers authenticity, but he doesn't do any research for his roles. He doesn't have to.

"I'm playing a guy. I could be one of these guys. I was a construction worker for years. I worked as a boilermaker. I dug ditches and built foundations and poured and mixed concrete. I still remember: 'One shovelful of cement to six shovelsful of sand.' I was a hod carrier. It's that kind of life."

And it is also the rock upon which Durning has built, to quote a Mamet title, a life in the theater.

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