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Durning Takes On The 'Peasant Pope' For Pbs

September 15, 1987|JUDITH MICHAELSON | Times Staff Writer

From the moment Charles Durning fills the screen wearing the scarlet robes of Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, the actor bears an uncanny resemblance to the man he is playing in the one-man special, "I Would Be Called John: Pope John XXIII." Durning has the diffident gestures, the broad nose, kind eyes, and yes, the similarly rumpled portly shape of Pope John, who served as pontiff for four years, seven months and six days from 1958 to 1963.

The 90-minute PBS program, conveniently timed for Pope John Paul II's second trip to the United States, airs here Wednesday (at 8 p.m. on Channels 50, 15 and 24, and at 9:30 p.m. on Channel 28). It is the fourth in a series of one-man shows about major 20th-Century figures, underwritten by General Dynamics for public television. This fall also marks the 25th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II, which Pope John--the peasant Pope, the ecumenical Pope--convened "to make the human sojourn on Earth less sad."

The text for the special, produced by the Susskind Co., was written by Eugene Kennedy, author, former priest and professor of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago. "Not all are his words but 80%-85% of them are, and all the incidents (are factual)," Kennedy said. His material was gleaned from sources such as the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, official documents, interviews, the Pope's diary, "and from my effort to submerge myself into his personality."

Kennedy recalls that when he and the late David Susskind talked in May, 1986, about who should play John, both of them gazed out the window of the producer's New York office, turned to each other and said, simultaneously: "Charles Durning."

Durning, an Irish Catholic, is an actor with a wide range of roles in stage, film and TV under his belt. A veteran of Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival, he co-starred in the "That Championship Season." He was twice nominated for supporting Oscars ("The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" and "To Be or Not to Be"). He plays a priest in the current film "The Rosary Murders." He also did a one-man performance as the Yankees' Casey Stengel on PBS.

At home in Westwood, Durning was ruddy-faced and relaxed, looking not at all like Pope John. The 54-year-old actor shrugged: "That makeup guy (Bob Laden) was wonderful. I worked with him on 'Death of a Salesman'."

Asked whether special skills were required for doing a one-man show, Durning dismissed that notion. "I think it requires special skills from the director (Charles Jarrott). . . ."

Had Durning gained weight to play the part of John? "No, it's something I've taken on myself," said the 5-foot-8 actor, who figures he's in the 240-pound range. "I'm tired, tired of dieting. I do a little exercising when I get up in the morning, stretching more than anything else. I'm too old to do the track anymore. I used to fence, I box. . . ."

He lost a lot of weight playing Yankees manager Stengel in 1981. "I had been on a diet. I lost 112 pounds in five months, I weighed 170, and as a result I didn't work for a year. People would say you look wonderful, and then call my wife and say, 'When is the funeral?' "

As a Catholic, was it a special burden to play a Pope? "It may give you a burden, but it doesn't give you an edge," Durning said with a laugh. "The burden is going to be 9 million people will say, 'Why didn't they get an Italian to do it? He doesn't have an accent. . .' "

"I got the script and I loved it," Durning said. "The man's generosity and his humility, and his love of mankind, his sense of fairness."

There is a certain humility about Durning who hasn't gone Hollywood. He readily confesses to hating celebrity parties. He'll watch "I Would Be Called . . . " at home because that's what his wife Mary Ann wants. He grew up in West Point, N.Y., the fourth of five children of an Army sergeant, who had been born in Ireland and was badly wounded during World War I, and a mother who, to help support the family, worked in the West Point laundry.

He's pleased that Jane Fonda, after seeing him in "On Golden Pond" at the Ahmanson in 1980, "told Mary Ann that was why she bought the play for her father." Would he have liked to do the movie? "He (Henry Fonda) was terrific; he ain't chopped liver."

Durning said he did not "listen to any of (Pope John's) speeches, I didn't read his diary until afterwards, because you might get caught up in an idiosyncrasy. I watched some videotape. He had a directness about him. When he spoke to you, he was focused on you. That was what I learned. That helped me because I used the camera as a friend."

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