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.

YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOULater 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.