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An Old Pro at This Game

Charles Durning's love for shows like 'Gin Game' hasn't waned after five decades of acting.

November 29, 1998|DIANE HAITHMAN | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

Charles Durning is the kind of guy you call up in Cleveland in the middle of November and he'll tell you how nice it is there this time of year. "It's very cold, but there is no storm," he said, with emphasis on the good-news half of that observation.

Durning is speaking by phone from that much-maligned Midwestern city, his latest stop on a 15-city national tour of "The Gin Game," a National Actors Theatre revival of D.L. Coburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning play in which he stars with Julie Harris. The play opens in Los Angeles at the Wilshire Theatre on Wednesday.

Durning is so unfailingly positive and chipper about Cleveland, his more than 50 years as an actor and life in general that it's almost weird. In fact, the closest he will come to a complaint is a mild reference to a delayed takeoff from Chicago, where he and Harris had flown to accept an award, en route to Cleveland. "We didn't think we were going to get off the ground because the winds were, like, 55 miles per hour," he noted, his offstage voice surprisingly tentative and soft. "And I'm a white-knuckler anyway when it comes to flying.

"But I love Chicago. And Cleveland--I'm surprised what a great theater town Cleveland is. My goodness, I couldn't believe it! They have this whole complex downtown, just like Broadway, five or six theaters."

Durning was also surprised and pleased to find that one of his daughters, a modern dancer, was in town performing with the David Dorfman dance troupe, right there in the same complex. "David [Dorfman] saw me on the street, and he jumped out of a car and rushed over--I thought I was being kidnapped."

"The Gin Game" debuted on Broadway in 1977 starring Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. This latest revival, directed by Charles Nelson Reilly, had its Broadway debut at the Lyceum Theater in spring of 1997. The current tour began Oct. 27 in Durham, N.C., and ends in Boston in May. Local audiences may have caught Durning and Harris in a separate engagement of the show in January at the McCallum Theater in Palm Desert.

Even after more than a year of performances, Durning says he has not become bored with the play, the story of a pair of lonely souls engaged in a heated battle of wills over a gin game in a seedy retirement home.

"Working with Julie Harris--how can you be bored?" he exclaims. "She is so much in the moment, there are few actors who can do that. George Scott is one of them; Colleen Dewhurst, God bless her; Maureen Stapleton--I've worked with her, I've worked with all of them.

"I have not worked with that many young actors who have done that much stage work; most of their training is in TV and the movies, and the concentration is not there. Neither is the voice. Julie and I have big voices, Colleen had a big voice, Maureen, Eli Wallach. . . . "

That's another thing about a conversation with Durning, besides his relentless optimism--long strings of famous names that would stretch from here to Cleveland. Even his failures are bathed in celebrity: Early in his career, he was kicked out of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where his fellow students included Dewhurst, Jason Robards and Don Rickles.

He was dismissed, he says cheerfully, "because I had no talent. Colleen was the only one who would talk to me, in the whole school. I left there, but I continued; what I wanted to do was act. You do acting not because you want to, but because you have to."

It's not that Durning is a deliberate name-dropper, it's just that in a stage and screen career that includes 12 years of Joseph Papp's Shakespeare in the Park; a Tony Award for his Broadway role as Big Daddy in 1990's "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"; movies including "Dick Tracy," "Tootsie" and "Dog Day Afternoon"; and a regular role in the TV series "Evening Shade" with Burt Reynolds, he has performed with just about everybody. That is, except Anthony Hopkins, with whom he would love to do a play or a movie.

As one of the early members of Papp's company, Durning recalls, he got to play most of Shakespeare's famous clowns, although he never had the chance to portray Bottom in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" or Falstaff--both of whom he would still like to do someday.

He also wanted to escape the clown mold once in a while--he still hopes to essay King Lear--"but Joe said, 'You're here to serve our needs, we're not here to serve yours,' " Durning says. Papp did, however, give Durning the role he believes launched his career--that of the small-town mayor in 1973's Tony Award-winning play "That Championship Season."

When pressed, Durning says shyly that he wouldn't mind if he and Harris someday enjoy the same sort of note as Cronyn and Tandy when it comes to being the pair most likely to be cast together as irascible senior citizens on stage and screen. Durning and Harris have also been seen together in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theatre in "On Golden Pond" in 1980 and on Broadway in "The Au Pair Man."

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