Friday, December 15, 2017

What a Character Blogathon: Charles Lane

This post is part of the 6th Annual What a Character Blogathon, hosted by, Outspoken & Freckled, Once Upon A Screen, and Paula's Cinema Club.

Charles Lane is one of those character actors whom even if you don't know his name, you probably know his work. Specializing in crabby authority figures, Charles Lane was the go-to guy when film or TV producers needed a mean miserly lawyer, judge, tax collector, banker, or landlord. A lot of actors complain about being typecast, but probably no one had more right to than Charles Lane. Then again with 361 IMDB credits and a career that spanned 77 years, he had a career that few could boast of.

Born in San Francisco on January 26, 1905 as Charles Levinson, he was one of the oldest living survivors of the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. As a young man, he spent a short time selling insurance before turning to acting at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1929. His first film appearance was as an uncredited man in train station in City Girl (1930), F.W. Murnau's second to last film. In 2005, he was honored at the TVLand Awards for his long career and 100th birthday. As he accepted the award, he told the audience, "In case anyone's interested, I'm still available!" He later appeared as the Narrator of a short adaptation of A Night Before Christmas, when he was 101 years old.

Many of his roles in the early 1930s were uncredited, playing desk clerks, cashiers, and salesmen, but by the mid-1930s, a pattern starts to emerge as you see more of the parts he would become known for, lawyers, judges, and a state examiner.  He appeared in many of director Frank Capra's best films:

  • Mr. Deeds Goes to Town - Plays Hallor, the crooked lawyer for Deeds' benefactor's commonlaw wife.
  • You Can't Take It with You - Plays Henderson, the IRS agent who informs Lionel Barrymore that he needs to file tax returns.
  • Mr. Smith Goes to Washington - Plays Nosey, one of the reporters who dupes James Stewart into making a fool of himself when he first hits Washington. 
  • Arsenic and Old Lace - Plays one of the reporters, who recognizes famous bachelor, Cary Grant, as he is trying to apply for a marriage license. 
  • It's a Wonderful Life - Again with Lionel Barrymore (Mr. Potter) as his rent collector who informs him that he's losing money from the poor suckers who are now leaving his slums to live in the affordable homes built and financed by George Bailey (James Stewart).
Other memorable Charles Lane film roles include, Larsen, the accountant for the Totten Foundation, the organization financing the encyclopedia, being written by Gary Cooper and the other professors in Ball of Fire, the landlord in the Christmas classic, It Happened on Fifth Avenue, and the airport manager who tries to keep Buddy Hackett and and Mickey Rooney from waking the drunk pilot/airplane owner, Jim Backus, in It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.

At times, Lane had so much work that he had to shoot two pictures on the same day. He would show up in the morning for wardrobe say his few lines of dialog on one film and then move to a different set for new wardrobe and another small part on a second film all on the same day. Sometimes, he would go to the movies, not remembering that he had appeared in the film he was watching until he showed up onscreen. 

Charles Lane was also founding member of both the Screen Actor's Guild and the Television Academy. Television turned out to be as much of a boom for Charles Lane as motion pictures had been for him earlier. He was a good friend of Lucile Ball, whom he had met when they were working on musicals at RKO. He appeared on multiple episodes of I Love Lucy and The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour and had a recurring role on The Lucy Show

One of the few times, you will ever see Lane smile a real smile onscreen
in the few seconds he thinks he has a son, before learning otherwise
Charles Lane appeared in one the most viewed episodes of I Love Lucy ever, "Lucy Goes to the Hospital," where little Ricky is born. At the time it first aired, over 70% of the people who owned a television in America tuned in to see this episode. He played Mr Stanley, an expectant father in the waiting room with Desi Arnaz. While Desi is a nervous wreck, Lane is calm and collected, he already has six children, all girls. When the nurse comes in to tell him she has a surprise, Lane is excited to learn that his wife has finally given birth to a son, but his elation is short lived. His wife has not given birth to a son, but triplets, three more girls. "Nine girls," he laments in that distinctive growl of his. 

"Well, you can always plan on a girls' softball team," quips William Frawley (Fred Mertz). 

Charles Lane appeared in dozens and dozens of TV shows. The following are just the ones I remember watching either in first run or in syndication:
  • Perry Mason
  • The Untouchables
  • The Twilight Zone
  • Maverick
  • Mr. Ed
  • Dennis the Menace
  • The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis
  • The Andy Griffith Show
  • Get Smart
  • The Munsters
  • F Troop
  • The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
  • The Wild Wild West
  • Gomer Pyle: USMC
  • Green Acres
  • Petticoat Junction
  • The Flying Nun
  • The Beverly Hillbillies
  • Bewitched
  • The Odd Couple
  • The Rookies
  • Medical Center
  • Rhoda
  • Chico and the Man
  • Maude
  • Soap
  • Mork and Mindy
  • Lou Grant
  • Little House on the Prairie
  • Hunter
  • St. Elsewhere
  • L.A. Law

Charles Lane's final feature film was a romantic comedy, Date with an Angel. He played a pot-smoking priest. How cool is that? I would like to say that this was a great capper to a wonderful career, but I can't. No, Charles Lane is not bad in the film. He's perfect as his typical crabby self, but it's a completely missed opportunity to do something different with him. 

Making things worse, Date with an Angel is an absolutely horrible movie. As you watch it, you find yourself thinking, Is this the worst movie I've ever seen? And then you think, No, it can't be. I've seen a lot of bad movies in this lifetime. But then you can't think of anything worse than what you are watching right now. The big problem with Date with an Angel is that it take what might be funny situations and then does absolutely nothing with them, like setting up a joke and not saying the punchline. A guy walks into a bar with a duck on his head. And that's it. By the way, the duck says to the bartender, "Can you get this guy off my ass." 

*** Spoilers Ahead, but don't worry about it. Date with an Angel is not worth watching, even for Charles Lane smoking pot. ***

Sorry for the poor picture quality, but it was the best
I could do taking a picture of the TV with my phone,
and I knew you'd want to see Charles Lane toking.
In Date with an Angel, an angel collides with a satellite and crashes into the main character, Michael Knight's, swimming pool. The angel has a broken wing and doesn't speak English. She just makes high-pitched squeaks, sort of like Beaker on The Muppet Show, except not cute or funny like Beaker, just annoying. Thus, she can't tell Michael Knight why she is there, so he takes her to a Catholic Church to ask the priest what to do. He opens the wrong door to the Confessional, the one where the priest is sitting, and there is an 82-year-old Charles Lane, smoking a doobie. Now you would think that this would be awesome, Charles Lane smoking a joint, but no. As with the rest of the movie, it introduces a potentially funny situation and then does nothing with it. Does Charles Lane act stoned? No. Does he offer one of those unique insights that you only think of when you're high? No. He just acts annoyed, like you have seen him do a thousand times. Okay, about 350 times. First, Charles Lane is annoyed that Michael Knight opened the wrong door and then that he's not Catholic and doesn't know what Hail Marys are. Ultimately, Knight tries to show Charles Lane the angel, but Lane thinks it's a joke and threatens to call the police and tells Knight to go to the Baptist Church down the street. It's a typical Charles Lane performance and about the only thing that almost makes it worth watching. It just could've been so much more. 

I ended up watching the rest of Date with an Angel, in hopes that Charles Lane might show up in another scene. No such luck. I did learn one thing though. How do you know when a romantic comedy is not working, when you're hoping that Charles Lane will come back for another scene.

I want to end with something that speaks to Charles Lane's influence on movies, TV, and pop culture in general. The longest running animated TV show in U.S. history is The Simpsons. Over the years, over a hundred celebrities have appeared on the series, as themselves or in parodies of their work. Limiting myself to just classic film people, The Simpsons have featured the following:

  • James Stewart
  • Ernest Borgnine
  • Mickey Rooney
  • Elizabeth Taylor
  • Mel Brooks
  • Lauren Bacall
  • Humphrey Bogart
  • Claude Rains
  • Ingrid Bergman
  • Clark Gable
The blue-haired lawyer is a character first introduced as one Mr. Burns many lawyers in Season 2. In one of the DVD commentaries, animator Jim Reardon said that the character was designed to look like none other than Charles Lane. The blue haired lawyer has never been given a name. In one episode he worked for the legal firm of "Luvum & Burnham: Family Law," so possibly his name is either Luvum or Burnham. In another episode, he is revealed to be the author of a science fiction novel, The 60 Foot Baby, but on the book cover, he is credited as, Burns' Lawyer. The blue-haired lawyer has appeared in dozens of episodes without being given a name, a perfect tribute to Charles Lane.


  1. Charles Lane was one of the first character actors whose name I learned, although I had a hard time not calling him Homer Bedloe, the recurring character he played on Petticoat Junction. However, my dad was a stickler for never misidentifying a character actor. Lane made roles memorable that others would have phoned in.

  2. I don't remember Petticoat Junction all that well. I was way more into Green Acres. He was great and did that type of part so well, it's almost like no one ever considered casting anyone else in that type of role. Thanks for stopping by, Chris

  3. So glad you chose Charles Lane. He's one of my faves, and your essay is a wonderful tribute.

    I didn't realize he was a founding member of the Screen Actor's Guild and the Television Academy. He sounds as remarkable off-screen as he was on-screen.

    1. He is great. I just kinda feel bad that he never got to do very, beside that one type of character. Thanks, Chris

  4. Talk about a long career! From the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 to TVLand Awards- and even The Simpsons! It's hard not to associate him with Frank Capra films. Excellent choice and I am delighted to learn so much... thank you! And thanks so much for adding this awesome post to our blogathon, Chris!

    1. It was fun doing the research. Kinda stumbled on The Simpsons thing. Thanks for letting me play in your pool.