Charles Lane

Active - 1921 - 1987  |   Born - Jan 26, 1905   |   Died - Jul 9, 2007   |   Genres - Comedy, Drama

Share on

Hatchet-faced character actor Charles Lane has been one of the most instantly recognizable non-stars in Hollywood for more than half a century. Lane has been a familiar figure in movies (and, subsequently, on television) for 60 years, portraying crotchety, usually miserly, bad-tempered bankers and bureaucrats. Lane was born Charles Levison in San Francisco in 1899 (some sources give his year of birth as 1905). He learned the ropes of acting at the Pasadena Playhouse during the middle/late '20s, appearing in the works of Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Noel Coward before going to Hollywood in 1930, just as sound was fully taking hold. He was a good choice for character roles, usually playing annoying types with his high-pitched voice and fidgety persona, encompassing everything from skinflint accountants to sly, fast-talking confidence men -- think of an abrasive version of Bud Abbott. His major early roles included the stage manager Max Jacobs in Twentieth Century and the tax assessor in You Can't Take It With You. One of the busier character men in Hollywood, Lane was a particular favorite of Frank Capra's, and he appeared in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Arsenic and Old Lace, It's a Wonderful Life -- with a particularly important supporting part in the latter -- and State of the Union. He played in every kind of movie from screwball comedy like Ball of Fire to primordial film noir, such as I Wake Up Screaming. As Lane grew older, he tended toward more outrageously miserly parts, in movies and then on television, where he turned up Burns & Allen, I Love Lucy, and Dear Phoebe, among other series. Having successfully played a tight-fisted business manager hired by Ricky Ricardo to keep Lucy's spending in line in one episode of I Love Lucy (and, later, the U.S. border guard who nearly arrests the whole Ricardo clan and actor Charles Boyer at the Mexican border in an episode of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour), Lane was a natural choice to play Lucille Ball's nemesis on The Lucy Show. Her first choice for the money-grubbing banker would have been Gale Gordon, but as he was already contractually committed to the series Dennis the Menace, she hired Lane to play Mr. Barnsdahl, the tight-fisted administrator of her late-husband's estate during the first season of the show. Lane left the series after Gordon became available to play the part of Mr. Mooney, but in short order he moved right into the part that came very close to making him a star. The CBS country comedy series Petticoat Junction needed a semi-regular villain and Lane just fit the bill as Homer Bedloe, the greedy, bad-tempered railroad executive whose career goal was to shut down the Cannonball railroad that served the town of Hooterville. He became so well-known in the role, which he only played once or twice a season, that at one point Lane found himself in demand for personal appearance tours. In later years, he also turned up in roles on The Beverly Hillbillies, playing Jane Hathaway's unscrupulous landlord, and did an excruciatingly funny appearance on The Odd Couple in the mid-'70s, playing a manic, greedy patron at the apartment sale being run by Felix and Oscar. Lane also did his share of straight dramatic roles, portraying such parts as Tony Randall's nastily officious IRS boss in the comedy The Mating Game (1959), the crusty River City town constable in The Music Man (1962) (which put Lane into the middle of a huge musical production number), the wryly cynical, impatient judge in the James Garner comedy film The Wheeler-Dealers (1963), and portraying Admiral William Standley in The Winds of War (1983), based on Herman Wouk's novel. He was still working right up until the late '80s, and David Letterman booked the actor to appear on his NBC late-night show during the middle of that decade, though his appearance on the program was somewhat disappointing and sad; the actor, who was instantly recognized by the studio audience, was then in his early nineties and had apparently not done live television in many years (if ever), and apparently hadn't been adequately prepped. He seemed confused and unable to say much about his work, which was understandable -- the nature of his character parts involved hundreds of roles that were usually each completed in a matter or two or three days shooting, across almost 60 years. Lane died at 102, in July 2007 - about 20 years after his last major film appearance.

Movie Highlights

See Full Filmography