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An Old Pro at This Game

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.”

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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.

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“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.”

Durning never saw Cronyn and Tandy in the play but says audiences can expect a different “Gin Game” under Reilly’s direction. “We don’t play it the way Hume and Jessica played it--and they were very good,” he says. “We have more movement; we have more laughs. And they wrote a dance into it for us--it was Julie’s idea, because she likes dancing.

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“That’s what one of the critics said here in Cleveland--you expect a card game from two old fuddy-duddies to be boring, but all of a sudden, it’s Godzilla versus King Kong. Charlie is a hell of a director.”

The dancing is not just for Harris. En route to becoming an actor, Durning held a list of odd jobs almost as long as his list of illustrious co-stars, and one was teaching ballroom dancing. The rotund Durning, who at 75 proudly claims to have “the body of an 84-year-old,” acknowledges that no one ever guesses that one.

A native of Highland Falls, N.Y., near the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Durning has no actors in his ancestry. His Irish father served in the Army, lost a leg in World War I and died from the effects of exposure to mustard gas when Durning was 12. One of 10 children, Durning lost five sisters to smallpox and scarlet fever. His mother struggled to support the family alone.

Durning himself was injured three times in World War II and was among the first group that landed on Omaha Beach in 1944, but he will no longer discuss the war, according to a spokesman, because he doesn’t want to relive the nightmare.

Before the war, a high school dropout at 16, Durning went to Pennsylvania, where he got a maintenance job at a munitions factory and worked in slag heaps, selling coal. After that, he went to Buffalo, N.Y., where he claimed to be 18 and began to work in burlesque.

After the war and a long period of recovery from his physical and psychological wounds, Durning began doing nightclub work, singing with bands and performing in musicals. (He also completed high school.) It was in one of these shows that he was eventually spotted by Papp.

“I’m so lucky to be working, because of what I used to do--I was a taxi driver, construction worker, bricklayer, plumber’s helper, iron worker; I carried a lot of hod,” Durning says. “I taught ballroom dancing on and off for about five years; I was a night watchman down on the docks in New York. Nobody guesses that I was an elevator operator, a hat-check guy in restaurants and clubs. And I was a Western Union boy when I was 30 years old. I worked on Wall Street, as an IBM operator.”

When asked the key to his long success as a character actor, Durning thinks for a moment before his modest reply. “The only thing I can think of is that you are a professional. You come in, you’ve got your lines down, you don’t cause trouble and you don’t arrive late. You don’t argue too much, you do the job that you were hired to do. You don’t want to become a writer, a director--you just want to be an actor. I think that’s why. I don’t rock the boat. That’s all, do the work and come home.

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“You do what you are being paid to do. You don’t have to display your ego with your fellow workers; your ego should be on the stage.”

Durning adds that he has no plans to retire from the grueling business of touring theater. His goal remains to do one play a year. “My wife questions that too--she thinks I should be home waiting for a movie,” he says. “I can’t do that. I’d like to do movies, but I like to be working; I don’t want to be sitting around. I’m a bear when I’m not working. I get antsy.

“I don’t have any hobbies--golf is a waste of a good walk; I don’t play tennis. I play poker once a week with a bunch of guys. But you’ve got to get your juices going. And this is a very energetic play.”

*

“THE GIN GAME,” Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. Dates: Opens Wednesday. Plays Tuesday to Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Ends next Sunday. Prices: $35-$50. Phone: Ticketmaster, (213) 365-3500.


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