In later years, he refused to discuss the military service for which he was awarded the Silver Star and three Purple Hearts.
"Too many bad memories," he told an interviewer in 1997. "I don't want you to see me crying."
Tragedy also stalked other members of his family. Durning was 12 when his father died, and five of his sisters lost their lives to smallpox and scarlet fever.
A high school counselor told him he had no talent for art, languages or math and should learn office skills. But after seeing "King Kong" and some of James Cagney's films, Durning knew what he wanted to do.
Leaving home at 16, he worked in a munitions factory, on a slag heap and in a barbed-wire factory.
Durning and his first wife had three children before divorcing in 1972. In 1974, he married his high school sweetheart, Mary Ann Amelio.
In addition to Gregory, he is survived by his children, Michele, Douglas and Jeannine. The family planned to have a private family service and burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
AP reporter Andrew Dalton contributed to this story.