With an extraordinary range from cops to Muppets, from Broadway to Sunset Boulevard, Charles Durning has survived World War II and Hollywood to become one of the most reliable and respected character actors in the industry. As a soldier, he landed in Normandy on D-Day and fought his way through France, escaping a German firing squad with a handful of other POWs. He earned three Purple Hearts and a Silver Star. But it's his on-screen exploits that have impressed audiences since the 1960s. He started in show business as a trained dancer and won a Tony. Durning will be playing Santa (a character he has reprised at least four times) in the Hallmark Channel holiday movie "A Boyfriend for Christmas," airing Saturday.
Q. You have a lot of experience playing Santa -- any reason you are such a popular choice for that role?
A. I'm fat, for one thing, although I have lost a lot of weight. I have lost 70 pounds. I still need to get a little thinner. I'm only kidding about the other thing. But I think that, you know, I'm a congenial fella, and they look around and say, "Let's go with the congenial fella."
Q. You have always been a big guy. Were you ever asked to drop a few pounds to increase star power?
A. No. But I have been told I've lost jobs by losing weight. One time I was going to be doing a film and I had lost 120 pounds because I was up to 285, and the doctor had advised me to lose some weight, and I did. When I did, I lost the job. They said they thought I looked terrific and said we can hardly wait for you to start the film. Then when I left they asked my wife what was wrong with me. They said I looked sick. So I lost that job. By innuendo they make you keep the weight on or the weight off, whatever.
Q. How did you survive the massacre at Malmady, France, during World War II?
A. I escaped. I just took off. I don't like to talk about that. You can't describe it. And you wouldn't believe it, so I don't talk much about it. The eyes start rolling and people think, it sounds so fantastic that it couldn't happen.
Q. In your opinion, does Hollywood do a good job with war stories as far as accuracy?
A. I haven't seen one that ... well, I don't go to many war movies. They tell me that "Saving Private Ryan" was wonderful, at least the first 20 minutes. Then it became idiotic. I have only seen two films that I thought were anywhere near [the real thing]. One was called "A Walk in the Sun" with Richard Conte, and the other one was "The Story of G.I. Joe" with Robert Mitchum and Burgess Meredith. Burgess Meredith played a news reporter.
Q. What is your measure of professional success?
A. I can only describe what Mr. [James] Cagney told me one time. "Mind your mark, look the guy in the eye and tell him the truth. And that's acting," he said. People go to school for it, but he didn't understand how you could be taught emotion. And if you look at him, he did exactly what he said -- he looks the guy right in the eye, and he tells him what he thinks. It was easy for him. I've been around a long time, and I hope to be around a longer time.
Q. When you first got into acting, did you have dreams of being a leading man?
A. No, I knew who I was. There are people who are born leading men and people who are born character men. I was born a character man. I mean, I have played leads in films, but it was always a character lead. Cagney was a character man. Nobody ever gave him a shot [as a leading man], though, except for one time, and he won the Academy Award.
Q. Do character actors get more or less respect than they did in the glory days of Hollywood?
A. I think they got more respect in the early days. I mean, when you think of who there was -- Thomas Mitchell, Gene Lockhart, Edward Arnold -- they were really great actors. Walter Connolly. They were wonderful, and when they were in a scene you weren't watching the stars, you were watching those guys.
Q. Do you think too many actors want to be stars and aren't willing to be character actors today?
A. I really don't think there are many stars. There are a lot of celebrities. Not many stars. There aren't very many character actors today, either.
Q. So I guess you will have to hang in there.
A. (Laughs.) Yes, barely!
Patricia Sheridan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.