Charles Lane: Such a Mean Old Man

In Hollywood there were old men and there were mean old men, and then there was Charles Lane. In a career that spanned seven decades, his sharp-faced features, scarecrow-like frame and harsh, clipped demeanor made him instantly recognizable to audiences, even if most of them never knew his name. But, whenever there was a need in the movies or on television for a wisecracking hotel clerk, nosy newspaper reporter or cold-hearted businessman, nine times out of 10–or at least that’s how often it seemed–Charles Lane was there to give the protagonist a hard time.

Born Charles Levison in San Francisco in January, 1905 (at the time of his death the actor was one of the last remaining survivors of the City by the Bay’s infamous 1906 earthquake), Lane worked briefly as an insurance salesman in the 1920s and took small stage roles before a colleague, future film director Irving Pichel, convinced him to make acting his full-time profession. Landing a job with the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse,  Charles later turned his attention to Hollywood and made his screen debut–uncredited, of course–as a hotel desk clerk in the 1931 Warner Bros. gangster film Smart Money, starring studio heavies James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson in their only movie together.    

Lane became a fixture on the Warner lot for the next few years, even if it was in such unheralded parts as “desk clerk,” “luggage room clerk” and “Amarillo radio operator,” but he was working opposite Cagney, William Powell,  Loretta Young and other top stars in popular films like Blonde Crazy, 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. One of his first notable supporting turns (the credits list him as Charles Levison) came courtesy of Columbia Pictures and director Howard Hawks, who cast him as Max Jacobs–rival stage producer to John Barrymore’s Oscar Jaffe–in the 1934 rail-based screwball comedy Twentieth Century. Later that year Lane began a long-standing collaboration with another Columbia filmmaker, Frank Capra, when he played a henchman of gangster Douglas Dumbrille in the horse racing tale Broadway Bill. Capra must have liked what he saw, because he would use Charles in eight more of his pictures over the next quarter-century. Remember Henderson, the IRS agent who tries to explain income tax to Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) in You Can’t Take It with You?  The aptly-named newsman Nosey in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? The Bedford Falls rent collector in It’s a Wonderful Life who warns miserly Mr. Potter (Barrymore again) that “One of these days this bright young man is going to be asking George Bailey for a job”? Those were all Charles Lane.

On a side note, Broadway Bill also marked the third joint screen appearance for Lane and a young actress named Lucille Ball. The two would form a lifelong friendship, and–once Lucy became a star–she would help Charles land supporting roles in her films You Can’t Fool Your Wife (1940) and Miss Grant Takes Richmond (1949). Lane also made several guest turns on I Love Lucy, most memorably as a father of six ( “All girls!”) waiting with father-to-be Desi Arnaz in the episode “Lucy Goes to the Hospital,” and played banker Mr. Barnsdahl in the first season of The Lucy Show.

Back to the big screen, where Lane was finishing up the 1930s working with Eddie Cantor in Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937), Alice Faye and Tyrone Power in Rose of Washington Square (1939), and Bob Hope in The Cat and the Canary (1939). His tally of 90-plus screen appearance for the decade would be matched in the ’40s, where Charles could be seen–sometimes credited, but often not–opposite Power again in Johnny Apollo (1940), The Marx Brothers in The Big Store (1940), John Barrymore in The Great Profile (1941), Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire (1941), Loretta Young in The Farmer’s Daughter (1947), and the simian title character of Mighty Joe Young (1949). He also had a recurring role as coroner Doc Prouty in the first four entries of Columbia’s Ellery Queen film series, which featured Ralph Bellamy as the famed sleuth. It’s a safe bet that Lane could have made it an even 100 movies in the ’40s had he not missed parts of 1944-45 while on Coast Guard duty in World War II. In fact, Lane claimed that he went to the movies once and was surprised to see himself up on the screen. As he said in a New York Times article at the time, “When I get in the car, turn on the switch and start home, I forget all about them.”  

The rise of television in the 1950s offered Charles the chance to bring his flinty persona to small-screen audiences,  an opportunity which he pursued with his usual vigor. Along with dozens of guest spots on such diverse series as The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, The Twilight Zone, The Untouchables, Bewitched (In which he played eight different characters in as many episodes), The Munsters, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Odd Couple, St. Elsewhere, L.A. Law and more, Lane had recurring roles on Dennis the Menace as druggist Mr. Finch and on Soap as the presiding judge at Jessica Tate’s murder trial. His best-known TV role, however, was undoubtedly as Homer Bedloe, the skinflint railroad executive who was always trying to shut down the Hooterville Cannonball train, on the hit CBS comedy Petticoat Junction. Amid all this activity, the actor still found time for movie work, appearing in Frank Capra’s Riding High (1950) and Here Comes the Groom (1951), playing the River City town constable in 1962′s The Music Man and the airport manager in 1964′s It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, and doing voice work for Disney’s animated The Aristocats (1970), among others.  

Lane continued his career throughout the 1980s and early ’90s, with his final big-screen turn coming as a pot-smoking priest in the 1987 comedy Date with an Angel. His swan song to TV acting came at the age of 90, when he appeared in a 1995 Disney remake of The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. However, when he was feted shortly after his 100th birthday at the 2005 TV Land Awards, Lane delighted the crowd by stating, “In case anyone’s interested, I’m still available!” In fact, Charles would ultimately make it to 102 before he passed away in July, 2007.  In an interview during his centennial celebration, the man known for playing Scrooge-like tightwads and abrasive authority figures said of his body of work, “You did something that was pretty good, and the picture was pretty good. That pedigreed you in that type of part, which I thought was stupid, and unfair, too. It didn’t give me a chance, but it made casting easier for the studio.” That audiences remembered him and looked forward to even a brief appearance by him speaks volumes for the talented performer beneath the crusty exterior.  

 

  • Wayne P.

    The ultimate type-cast supporting actor of the Studio Age!  Kudos to a fine article on Charles Lane, who, if am not mistaken, holds the record for most parts (mostly bit) in motion picture history…or, hes close to it, right?  One role where he had a slightly more substansial part was in 1940′s Primrose Path, with Joel McCrea and Ginger Rogers…there he helped Joel win back Ginger by not leading her further down the…well, think of the title  ;).  My other two fave performances of his were in You Cant Take it With You…his getting all tongue-tied matching wits and losing so well with the great Lionel Barrymore as the ‘IRS’ guy.  And, last but not least, as Potters hack in Its a Wonderful Life…well done, Charles and we will always remember you fondly as support like his made that age Golden!

    • Aldanoli

       As far as his having the most appearances in motion picture history, if one counts television, Lane has got to be #1 or very close — the IMDb lists 360 appearances — and that’s with, e.g., his 24 appearances on “Petticoat Junction” only counted as a single appearance! (IMDb assigns one number to each television series appearance, although it does list individual episodes and the number of those appearances separately.)  He had to have close to or exceeded 500 appearances when one counts each of those appearances individually (and IMDb is hardly the most accurate source; I’ve added appearances to the database myself that were made by actors and actresses — even series regulars — who were missing the first time I watched particular episodes of some T.V. series). Mr. Lane was a great talent and someone I’ll remember all my life — if only because he’s still there every time I turn on the T.V. or watch a movie!

      • JackJones

        I’m surprised no one has mentioned his role as the managing editor of the newspaper on the TV series Dear Phoebe where Peter Lawford wrote the “Advice to the Lovelorn” column. 

        • Bigloutexan

           Jack, I remember Dear Phoebe very well……another of the co-stars was Marcia Henderson……I recall it was on in the afternoons when I got home from school…….Charles Lane was the perfect touch for Dear Phoebe

      • Wayne P.

        Well said!  For those IMDB trivia buffs out there, it was noted somewhere for the AFI broadcast of the top 100 films of all-time (consensus), that Ward Bond had appeared in more of those movies than any other single actor and I believe thats true.  To show how much Studio ‘Golden’ Age focus on quality entertainment spanning multiple genres I have…when one mentions the moniker “King of All Media” I immediately think of Bing Crosby, and not some cheap modern era icon, somehow given that title by an idiot, like Howard Stern ;)

  • Juanita123516

    It seemed like he was in every movie of the 30′s and 40′s – he was so prolific. Happy to hear that he lived to such a great age and was acting until the end.

  • Grand Old Movies

    Great post on one of the most recognizable, and beloved, character actors in film. Charles Lane is one of the reasons why golden-age Hollywood is golden.

  • Blair Kramer

    For some reason,  I had a tendency to confuse Charles Lane with William Schallert, Patty Duke’s dad on THE PATTY DUKE SHOW.  As it happens, William Schallert is still alive and still working (I imagine he’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 years old).  I just saw Schallert on a TV horror mini-series called BAG OF BONES.

    • Tlynette

       Another terrific character actor! Schallert’s been in EVERYTHING! — and has always been great.

  • Marty

    When you speak of character actors or supporing cast, Charles Lane is always at the top of the list. He was unforgetable in Its A Wonderful Life

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=713983697 Gordon S. Jackson

    Charles Lane was one of the many character actors I enjoyed watching.  Others include Walter Brennan, Charles Watts, Ed Brophy and Eddie Waller.

    • Tlynette

      Love me some WALTER BRENNAN! Was he the best sidekick EVER in “Meet John Doe?” My family has been using the term “Heelots” for years, just because of Mr B!

  • Jim

    Many years ago there was a man that worked for Sears Roebuck
    that could pass for Charles Lane’s twin Brother, and I mean that literally. The
    resemblance was uncanny. However, this particular man was really mean and
    sadistic in many ways.  He was a credit
    manager for the store and was always in the spotlight belittling customers for discrepancies
    in their Sears charge cards. He often would take the customers card and hold it
    high and call the people “deadbeats” and many other names very loudly.
    Then he would cut the cards in half in front of a crowd of people all the while
    embarrassing the people even more. One time a customer jumped over the counter
    and beat the living hell out of the credit Mgr. before the police arrived. People
    were actually cheering his beating. He was infamous in that store and people
    hated him. Despite the fact he should burn in hell for all eternity, I did not
    approve of the cheering by the crowd. Many people mistook this man for Charles
    Lane thinking he was doing a commercial or something. Perhaps this was the true
    Jekyll and Hyde.   

  • Tlynette

    One of THE best character actors ever! He made the most of every scene from everything he was ever in — from that crabby Homer Bedloe, the smart-ass rent collector in “It’s a Wonderful Life” to the Scrooge-y guy he played in that Bewitched episode — he’s memorable, period!

  • Al

    I absolutely agree with Tlynette. I didn’t see the Bewitched episode though, but I remember him also in Mr. Deeds Goes To Town with Gary Cooper. He was always Fantastic!. Al.

  • Jo

    Fabulous character actor.  One of my favorites was in his later years where he played a crotchity old man getting a lift from James Garner in Murphy’s Romance.  The car was an old Model T and the fastest it could go was maybe 30 mph and he yelled at Garner to slow down he was speeding at 25.  Funny. 

  • Dr. Strangelove

    Lane is just another example of a great character actor whose skills are of the past.  It seems the age of the character actor is gone.  He was also great in Good Neigbor Sam with Jack Lemmon.

  • Netherlandj

    Oh, yeah, he was in at least 100 movies.  My favorite is in “The Mating Game” where he tells someone “Shut your piehole!” (or something to that effect); and in It’s a Wonderful Life where he tells Mr. Potter that he (Lane) might just be asking George Bailey for a job someday…..

  • Nils Goering

    It was fun to see him pop up in the science fiction film, ‘Strange Invaders’ (1983) – At the time I thought he was either retired or deceased.  But, bless him, he lived on another 24 years after this film!  He was a good actor and added ‘seasoning’ to any project he was a part of.

  • Preston Neal Jones

    Thank you, Gary Cahall, for a very well researched piece on one of my favorite actors.  A number of years ago the L.A. Times ran a profile piece on Charles Lane which began with the sentence, (as best i can recall), “One look at that kisser at the front door, and you know he’s there to foreclose the mortgage.”  Filmfax Magazine ran an interview with Lane during his last year which is well worth running down and reading.

  • Moviepas

    I certainly do know Charles Lane. There is a doctor in the late 1920s silent Sadie Thompson(Gloria Swanson) played by a Charles Lane but I don’t think it is our man. Acting a cranky old bugger in many small roles he was always a welcome sight in films and a lot of them too.

  • Sam Tomaino

    I do know Charles Lane! For Homer Bedloe and many more roles! I was one of a group that sent him birthday cards for his 100th. His appearance in the Untouchables episode “The Alcatraz Express” was at the end when he was the official signing Al Capone into Alcatraz. He looks Capone over and says “Name?” Capone can’t believe this guy doesn’t know him and says (proudly) “Capone.” Unimpressed, Lane says “FIRST name?” Capone, put in his place, says “Alphonse.” For once Lane played an officious bureaucrat as a hero. 

  • frankie

    One of those all-time classic character actors who seem to have been in every movie ever made ! God love him !

  • Daisy

    I remember that guy!  He was everywhere.  I just didn’t know his name before.

  • Donald

    I have seen a man that resembles Mr. Lane at Hollywood screenings of
    films that I have attended wondering if this man is Mr. Lane’s son.
    He is a ringer for the older man but is not very old himself! Does Mr. Lane
    have a son or grandson?

  • Blair Kramer

    My wife more or less forced me to watch a DVD of Disney’s THE UGLY DACHSHUND recently.  Charles Lane played a dour judge in a dog show and as always, he was spot-on perfect. Great character actors such as Lane are hard to come by.  

  • Mark Malak

    One of the greatest character actors ever.No matter how small his part may have been,he stole every scene he was in.Hollywood could use a few more like him.Glad to see he’s getting some recognition.He deserves it.

  • Christian Thomas Hirko

    I was his barber for over 10 yrs in Santa Monica always a delight great stories. He especially loved appearing on Bewitched, had fond memories of Elizabeth Montgomery, also Lucy of course.