I saw Charlie Durning for the first time onstage in the Broadway production of That Championship Season at the Booth Theater on West 45th St. At the age of sixteen I was already certain I wanted to be an actor and that play, and all the performances, made a very strong impression on me. So much so that I stole the poster from the local train station in Larchmont, NY and kept it in my bedroom through the remainder of my high school years. Years later I did the first revival of That Championship Season in New York in the role of ‘Tom’ and kept a replica of the original poster in my dressing room.
In 1988 I had the pleasure of doing a TV film entitled Unholy Matrimony, in which Charlie and I played con men busted by Patrick Duffy after murdering a young woman. Beside the need to pay my mortgage I took the part because Charlie had already been cast and I jumped at the chance to work with him. One look at his work onstage or in films like The Sting or Dog Day Afternoon and you got the immediate sense that he had great instincts, a pugnacious demeanor, and would be a blast to work with, which he was.
The film we did wasn’t so great but one story comes to mind about Charlie that I don’t think he’d mind me telling. We were in San Antonio, TX, staying at a posh hotel. The next day we were flying to Phoenix, AZ to change locations. That evening a young man who was in town for a Herbalife convention approached me in the lobby.
“Mr. O’Keefe,” he said earnestly, “I see you’re here with Mr. Durning and I just want to say I can’t let this opportunity pass by.”
“Really?” I replied. “How so?”
“Well, the man is obese and I think I can help him. I’m here with Herbalife and if I could just get a chance to speak with him I believe I could be of service.”
“I’m sure you could,” I said, concocting a bit of a plan on the spot. “Here’s the thing, Charlie, um, Mr. Durning is a very early riser. Your best bet is to call him around 4:30 or 5 AM and make your pitch.”
“You all are staying here in the hotel, aren’t you?” the young man asked.
“Oh yeah,” I said. “We’re here. You ring Charlie up. Early. Real early. It’s going to go over like a song.”
The next morning the entire cast was outside the hotel at 9 AM to catch a van to the airport. I came outside to a sunny morning with a bright-eyed feeling, spied Charlie, and said, “Hiya Charlie, how’s it going?”
“Fuck you,” Charlie replied. And I burst out laughing, as did the other actors after both Charlie and I explained what had gone down. I thought that was the end of it and we were none the worse for the wear.
At the airport all of us checked in together and I took all of the claim checks for the luggage and put them on my ticket, which I carefully placed in the inner pocket of my sport coat. We’d need those in Phoenix.
Upon arriving and walking as a group to baggage claim I was dismayed to find I didn’t have my ticket or the baggage claim stubs so I ran double time back through the airport to the plane, which was still at the gate. I went over the plane a number of times and still couldn’t find them.
Back at the baggage claim, prepared to grovel for all the luggage belonging to our cast, I was greeted by the sight of the entire cast in a van, with all the luggage, including mine, waiting for me. Charlie had lifted my ticket with all the stubs from my jacket without me noticing. He had the last laugh and it was a well-deserved one.
In the movie business chances are you will make more clunkers than memorable films and what you have when you’re done is not necessarily what you meant to do but what you did. After learning that lesson I learned that the relationships you have with your co-workers are imperative, not just because we all depend on each other to get the work done, but because when it’s done all you do have is the memory of having done it.
My memories of Charles Durning are vivid and enduring. He was funny, dangerous in the right way, and knew how to hit his marks and speak the truth. I’ll miss him but, thankfully, I’ll have his many amazing performances to remind me of how talented he was and how lucky I was to get to know him.
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Michael O'Keefe is the author of Swimming From Under My Father (Noble Swine Press 2009). He has many film, television, and theater credits. His new pilot King and Maxwell will premiere on TNT in early 2013. His films, Neighbors, Junction, and A Thousand Cuts will be released in 2013. Apt. 143 (Emergo) is available on demand on most cable networks. Bonnie Raitt recorded Marriage Made in Hollywood, which O'Keefe co-wrote with Paul Brady. It is on Raitt's new record Sliptream, which was just nominated for a Grammy in the Americana category.