This is the story of a man who lived a horrific youth, and through acting found a way to use those terrible events to touch people’s lives, whether on stage, in movies or on television shows.
Charlie, who passed away on Christmas Eve, 2012 in his Manhattan apartment at the age of 89 was, for the last 40 years of his life, a busy actor. Whether performing Shakespeare or being the corrupt cop in “The Sting” (1973) opposite Robert Redford and Paul Newman,
or in “Tootsie,” (1982), or as the priest in the television comedy series “Everybody Loves Raymond,” or in his many other roles, he was always working.
On http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001164/ is a long list of his acting credits.
How did Charlie become a successful actor, and why did it take so long for his career to jell? It is a powerful story.
Charlie was born to a family in extreme poverty, on February 28th, 1923 in Highland Falls, N.Y. He was the 9th of 10 children, and medical care was so scarce and living conditions so hard, that five of his sisters died in childhood from smallpox or scarlet fever, and three of them died within a two week span.
Charlie’s father was an Irish immigrant, who lost a leg in World War 1 and suffered so severely from a mustard gas attack during that war, that he died when Charlie was just 16. This forced Charlie to drop out of high school and go out on his own so that as he saw it, he would be one less mouth to have to feed for his mother, a laundress.
To support himself, Charlie worked in a munitions factory and then he got a job in the mining slag heaps selling coal, each job offering barely enough money to keep a roof over his head.
Then during World War 2, Charlie enlisted in the Army and his combat experiences were in some of the worst battles the U.S. fought in Europe. On D-Day, he was among the initial wave of troops to land on Omaha Beach, and was the only member of his unit to survive a machine gun attack.
Also, he and his Army Company were captured during the fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, and while the Company was being forcibly marched through a forest, the Germans opened fire killing nearly 90 prisoners. Charlie was one of the few who escaped.
Charlie reportedly killed at least several Germans, but the worst of his fighting was in a hand to hand battle to the death he described to Parade magazine in a 1993 interview. “I was crossing a field somewhere in Belgium,” he recalled.
“A German soldier ran toward me carrying a bayonet. He couldn’t have been more than 14 or 15. I didn’t see a soldier, I saw a boy. Even though he was coming at me, I couldn’t shoot.” Instead, the hand to hand fighting began and Charlie was stabbed seven or eight times.
Finally, to save his own life, Charlie grabbed a rock and smashed the boy, killing him. He then held the boy’s lifeless body in his arms and cried. This event would live within Charlie for the rest of his life.
By the end of the war, Charlie had been presented a Silver Star for valor and three Purple Hearts, for he had suffered gunshot and shrapnel wounds, in addition to the boy stabbing him.
After the war, Charlie suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder and “dropped into a void for almost a decade,” he told Parade magazine in that 1993 interview. It was then he decided to try acting, likely as much for its therapeutic effect as anything else.
Charlie studied at the famed American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. But as he told The New York Times in a 1997 interview, within a year, the school terminated his studies. “They basically said you have no talent and you couldn’t even buy a dime’s worth of it if it was for sale.”
He told the Los Angeles Times also in 1997, “They told me, ‘You’re too short, too fat and have no talent,” adding “I was a dreadfully shy person then and this shook me to my foundations. I thought they knew what they were talking about.”
His acting career seemingly over, Charlie meandered from job to job. He briefly tried professional boxing, and he was a cabdriver, construction worker, dishwasher, doorman, night watchman and for about six years, he taught ballroom dancing at an Arthur Murray studio.
But refusing to give up on acting, Charlie also took bit part acting work on the few occasions he could get it. And then in 1962, Joseph Papp, founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival and founder of the Public Theater began to cast Charlie in plays, many of them by Shakespeare.
To perform Shakespeare demands the pinnacle of acting talent and over the next 10 years, Charlie gained invaluable acting experience, if not money and fame. Then Papp cast him in what became a Broadway hit, “That Championship Season.”
At the age of 49, Charlie was now widely visible as an actor. As a result Director George Roy Hill chose him to play the corrupt police lieutenant in “The Sting.” And the roles kept coming, and continued to come for the rest of Charlie’s life.
Even in death, in 2013 he will star in “Scavenger Killers,” a crime drama also starring Eric Roberts and Robert Loggia, a movie filmed near the end of his life. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2375906/
In Charlie’s personal life, his first marriage to Carole Doughty, whom he married in 1958 ended in divorce in 1972. The couple had three children, who survive him, Michele, Jeanine and Douglas. In 1974, he married his high school sweetheart, Mary Ann Amelio, from whom he was separated at the time of his death.
But Charlie is also survived by the many millions of people all over the world who have seen his remarkable acting skills and by the many millions more who will see his movie and television work.