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.”

Although the production was taped a year ago, Durning remembers certain lines, such as the one after the Pope’s election when he tried on three cassocks, “not one of them fit” and he felt like “a baby in swaddling clothes.” He also liked the moment when members of the Curia, the conservative Vatican bureaucracy with whom John constantly battled, debated whether the Pope should address the American First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy as Madame or Madame President.

“Then the doors opened,” said Durning, “and he said, ‘Ah, Jackie!’ ”

Durning said he particularly “liked the parts after he (Cardinal Angelo Roncalli) became Pope . . . He was the first Pope who would not allow his family to become princes of the church. He said they were farmers, they’re going to remain farmers, and he couldn’t see them walking around with tuxedoes. . . .”

Even as he was being photographed, Durning continued to talk about the man who became John, blending incidents that are not in the script with those that are. “He hated Mussolini. He hated what his contemporaries were doing, melting down their crosses and sending the gold . . . He was helping Jews (during World War II) by (giving them) forged birth certificates.

“I believe John was an innovator,” Durning said, “and John Paul is trying to consolidate. Maybe he’s retrogressing a little bit, although he is a great admirer of Pope John XXIII. I think if Pope John had lasted, he would have talked them into decreeing priests and nuns marrying. He was getting into (birth control) too. . . .”

A former altar boy, Durning said the one change he regrets is that the Mass is no longer said in Latin. “A lot of the mystery has gone out of it. Maybe it’s because I’m a romantic.”

Of his career, Durning sounded down: “It’s in a state of flux. I’m at a plateau right now.” Last Tuesday, Durning was set to go to Minnesota on a movie written and directed by Sam Shepard. On Wednesday, his publicist said financing had fallen through.

Last winter Durning’s part in a Woody Allen movie was written out. “I wasn’t the only one knocked out. Sam Shepard is gone, Chris Walken and Maureen O'Sullivan, and she’s practically Woody’s mother-in-law. Woody and I talked. He said, ‘I want to work with you again.’ ”

The actor brightened when his wife came in. The couple have been married almost 14 years. “This is my second marriage,” Durning said as she went upstairs to her exercise bike. “She’s my childhood sweetheart. We were kids when we first spied each other, but she married someone else and I married someone else.” He said they got together when her then 16-year-old daughter came backstage while he was in “Championship Season.” He said he asked the girl, “Is your mother happy?” The daughter replied that her mother had been separated, and he replied he was divorced. “Do you think I can call her?” Durning asked.

Mary Ann Durning, nee Amelio, returned and noted that they had gone out for several years as teen-agers. “My father asked what Charlie did for a living and I said an actor, and he said, ‘You’re crazy.’ He forbade me to see him. So we went out sneaking around, but in those days we did what our parents wanted. Besides I was a good Italian girl. Sometimes Charlie kids around and says it was because he’s Irish, but he was an actor and had no college. Then I thought maybe my father was right.”

“He was right,” Durning said breaking up with laughter.

“So I married the other guy, an engineer,” she said, “and we lived together about 17 years, and then we got separated and that’s when my daughter went backstage. I had told her, ‘Say hello to Charlie. I used to go with him.’ And he nearly died. She told me his mouth dropped open, and he said, ‘You could have been my daughter.’ ”

He called that same night, she said, and they made a date for the next evening. “We dated for a year and a half, and got married.”

After she left, Durning added: “I wish we had someone like Pope John now. I’m a fallen away Catholic. I am Catholic but I don’t go to church much. If I am a Catholic, I’m excommunicated, because we’re both divorced, and they don’t buy that.”

He said that he and his wife didn’t want annulments, because he has three children by his first marriage and she has two, “and how do you do that (to your children)? If you are annulled, it means the marriage never occurred. So it’s kind of hypocritical for me to sign a paper that wipes that out. But I think if Pope John XXIII had been around, we might have had a different . . . it might have been a little easier for people.”