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Two actors we loved knowing, who seemed to know us

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

NEW YORK – What a couple of mugs, sporting less-than-perfect physiques in the bargain.

But was there anything lovelier than Jack Klugman or Charles Durning doing what they did for an audience?

Rumpled Klugman exploding at his prissy flat-mate Tony Randall in the long-running sitcom “The Odd Couple.” Portly Durning hoofing, fleet of foot, and singing how “Ewwwww, I love to do a little sidestep” in the film “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” Each was a luminous display of the extraordinary possibilities of the ordinary.

Klugman and Durning (both of whom died Monday, Klugman at 90 in Los Angeles, Durning at 89 in New York) spent storied careers building catalogues of roles that classified them indisputably as “character actors.”

Even with a certain “always-a-bridesmaid-never-a-bride” taint attached to it, the term “character actor” commands respect and affection among audiences, even audience members who may not quite realize their level of investment in such artistry.

Traditional stardom – “leading man” status – is conferred on the actors who embody a fantasy, an ideal. They are famously out of reach of a ticket holder or a couch potato, other than through sitting back and watching from afar. Dreams are a powerful engine of Hollywood, and these actors – whether Clark Gable or Will Smith – are thrilling dream agents.

But there’s another breed of actor – the group in which Klugman and Durning reign supreme – who sustains us in more comfortable ways. If a star like Brad Pitt stirs the frisson of eternal longing in the audience (oh, to be with him, or be him!), a character actor serves another need: cinematic kinship.

Klugman solving crimes as a lab geek on his series “Quincy, M.E.,” or Durning as a stressed-out cop (“Dog Day Afternoon”) or a romantic who’s smitten with Dustin Hoffman in drag (“Tootsie”) – these are actors we identify with, instantly and eagerly. Nothing seems to stand between us and what they do. They, with their just-coping-with-life heroics, show us who we are, or could be if we try a little harder (or warn us of the jam that might befall us if we don’t). They are our proxies.

They never go out of style. They never lose their appeal. They are never put away because their looks have faded or their waistline thickened. We stick with them, just as they stick with us. (Durning was working into his late 80s in a recurring role as the irascible father of Denis Leary’s firefighter protagonist on the drama “Rescue Me”). In this way, too, they resemble everybody we truly love: We love them in every phase of their lives.

Like most of us, the character actor seldom if ever gets the girl or saves the world. They aren’t flashy. But with their own special magnetism, they remind us, in role after role, that everyday people are special, too.

Sure, we love being dazzled by Hollywood glamour. We love stars who make us weak in the knees.

But an actor like Klugman or Durning bears a message that applies far beyond the realm of Tinseltown, a message worth remembering with every performance: Beauty is, as beauty does.

Now, with their passing, we don’t feel the pain of loss as much as gratitude for all the happy hours shared with Durning and Klugman. We are so glad for knowing them. Never mind we never met.

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