It’s been said that aspiring actors dream of stardom in films, television, or on the stage. Then, reality sets in and most gladly settle for character roles. After all, a good character actor can build a career that lasts for decades, while the latest “stars” come and go.
Charles Lane was the perfect example of that maxim. Mr. Lane, perhaps the most prolific character actor in the history of television and film, passed away at his home in Brentwood, California on Monday, at the age of 102. During an acting career that stretched across seven decades, Lane amassed hundreds of screen, stage and television credits; he appeared in everything from Frank Capra films (he made nine pictures with the famed director, once called Lane “my #1 crutch), to sitcoms of the 1960s and 70s. Watch a few episodes of Petticoat Junction, The Beverly Hillbillies or The Andy Griffith Show on TV Land, and chances are, you’ll see Mr. Lane at work.
Whatever the film or television show, the role was inevitably the same. As the Los Angeles Times noted in his obituary, Charles Lane specialized in “meanies,”–dour authority figures “who suffered fools badly.” With his lean frame, sharp features, booming, stage-trained voice and rimless glasses, Lane was typically cast as a cantankerous skinflint, a role he first perfected on I Love Lucy in the early 1950s. “If you have a type established, though, and you’re any good, it can mean considerable work for you,” Lane told the Times in 1980.
“Considerable” would be an understatement. The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) lists at least 338 credits for Mr. Lane, dating back to his appearance in 1931’s Easy Money with James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. But it’s quite likely that they missed a few. Lane once told TV Guide that he sometimes saw himself in an old movie or TV show, and no memory of actually filming the role. He appeared in more than 100 films in the 1930s alone, sometimes shuttling between four different sets in a single day.
Lane may also be the most successful character actor who never starred (or co-starred) in a TV series. He was a semi-regular on The Lucy Show, Dennis the Menace and Petticoat Junction in the 1960s, the rest of his career consisted small, but memorable roles in television and films, including such classics as Howard Hawks’ 20th Century (he played the stage manager); Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (the rent collector) and the director’s 1944 version of Arsenic and Old Lace.
Lane also appeared in more than 100 productions at the famed Pasadena Playhouse, where he trained as an actor. A founding member of the Screen Actors Guild (in 1933), Mr. Lane was reportedly the oldest member of the actor’s union at the time of his passing. A documentary about Mr. Lane’s life and remarkable career entitled, You Know the Face, is now in production.
By all accounts, Lane was nothing like the crotchety old men he played–just a terrific character actor who worked steadily for over 60 years, in a profession where “careers” are sometimes measured in months.
He will be missed.