Charles Lane, 102; perfected role of meanie

Special to The Times

Charles Lane, the anonymous yet highly familiar character actor who specialized in playing humorous cranks in hundreds of film and television roles stretching back to the early 1930s, has died. He was 102.

Lane died Monday night at his home in Brentwood, according to his son, Tom.

Though his name was not known to most, his sharply featured face and lanky presence were recognizable to generations of moviegoers as the man who suffered fools badly in such films as “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (a newsman), “It’s a Wonderful Life” (the rent collector), “You Can’t Take It With You” (an IRS agent), “No Time for Sergeants” (the draft board driver) and multitudes of others in which he played shopkeepers, professors, judges, bureaucrats, doctors, “a guy at the bar,” policemen and salesmen.


In the 1930s alone, he appeared in 161 films, sometimes moving from set to set to deliver a few lines in each of several movies in one day.

“And I was being paid $35 a day,” Lane told Associated Press writer Bob Thomas in an interview just before his 100th birthday. “When the Screen Actors Guild was being organized, I was one of the first to join.”

Starting in the early 1950s, Lane was also on dozens of TV programs, including “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show.” Perhaps most famously, he appeared in classic episodes of “I Love Lucy,” playing several characters who all seemed to have in common a stunned if comical lack of patience with the bumbling Lucy. He said it was on this show that he perfected the crusty skinflint role.

“They were all good parts, but they were jerks,” he told The Times in 1980 of his characters on “I Love Lucy.” “If you have a type established, though, and you’re any good, it can mean considerable work for you.”

And work he got. Throughout the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, Lane could be seen on “Perry Mason,” “Dennis the Menace,” “The Twilight Zone,” “Bewitched,” “Get Smart,” “The Flying Nun,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Lou Grant” and many other shows.

In the ‘60s, audiences got to know him as Homer Bedloe, a scheming trouble-shooter for the railroad on “Petticoat Junction.” In the ‘70s, he had running parts on “The Beverly Hillbillies” as Foster Phinney and on “Soap” as Judge Anthony Petrillo.

Max Baer Jr., who was Jethro on “The Beverly Hillbillies,” said that although Lane played “a gruff, arrogant kind of guy” there and in dozens of other roles, “that was not him at all; that was a character.

“When he first started acting, when people wanted a guy who was cantankerous, they cast Charlie,” Baer said.

After more than 60 years of acting, Lane last appeared in a TV movie in 1995. But he could be seen out and about in Hollywood for another decade.

In March 2005, he was pictured with a wide smile in Variety while attending a TV Land Awards event at which friends presented him with a birthday cake after he turned 100. At another centennial party two months earlier, held by family and friends, he modestly summed up his career of mostly smaller parts: “There was a character I played that showed up all the time, and people did get to know him, like an old friend.”

Lane was born Charles Levison on Jan. 26, 1905, in San Francisco and started his working life in the insurance business. In 1928, he joined the company at the Pasadena Playhouse -- which was known for training actors for the movies -- appearing in more than 100 productions over three decades. He made his film debut as a hotel desk clerk in “Smart Money” (1931) with Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney.

He eventually perfected the role of a meanie and, although he occasionally marveled at the roles written for him, he remained agreeable as he racked up myriad parts. His roles were so numerous that he told TV Guide in 1965 that he would occasionally see himself in movies on TV and have no memory of having played that role.

“He could do so many different parts; he was so versatile,” Paramount producer A.C. Lyles said. “People would say, ‘Try to get Charles Lane, and if you can’t get him, get someone like him.’ ”

Lane said his favorite director was Frank Capra, who directed him in eight films, including “You Can’t Take It With You,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

“He knew the camera better than the head cameraman,” Lane said. “He had an intuitive feeling with scripts.”

The actor kept a framed letter from Capra in his Brentwood study: “I am sure that everyone has someone that he can lean on and use as a crutch whenever stories and scenes threaten to fall apart. Well, Charlie, you’ve been my No. 1 crutch.”

Lane told friends and family at the 100th birthday celebration in January 2005: “Just think, I could have been in the insurance business!”

As he neared 101, Lane was working with filmmakers Garret Boyajian and George Ridjaneck on a documentary about his life titled “You Know the Face.” He told the Wall Street Journal that although he had trouble with his legs, “mentally, apparently, I’m pretty good.”

Lane served in the Coast Guard during World War II. His wife of 71 years, actress Ruth Covell, died in 2002. In addition to his son, of Santa Monica, he is survived by a daughter, Alice Deane, of Friday Harbor, Wash.; and a granddaughter.

A celebration of his life is being planned. Instead of flowers, the family suggests donations to the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Woodland Hills.