Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Charles Lane 1905-2007

I knew this day was coming but hoped it wouldn't be quite this soon. Sadly we have learned of the passing of fabled character actor Charles Lane on Monday at the age of 102 years and six months. According to his son Tom, "He was lying in bed with his eyes real wide open. Then he closed his eyes and stopped breathing.''

Born Charles Levison in San Francisco on January 26, 1905 he was one of the last survivors of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. He was working as an insurance salesman and doing some amateur theatre when a friend (reportedly actor and director Irving Pitchel) suggested that turn entirely to acting. He trained at the famed Pasadena Playhouse before making his movie debut in an uncredited role as a hotel clerk in the 1931 James Cagney-Edward G. Robinson movie Smart Money. It was the first of over 250 movies. In 1932, he married Ruth Covell, a marriage which lasted 70 years until her death in 2002. In addition to his son Tom they had a daughter, Alice Deane.

In the 1930s he began what turned into a long collaboration with director Frank Capra. He appeared in eight Capra films including Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, and It's A Wonderful Life. One of Lane's proudest possessions was a letter from Capra that said "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." It was also in the 1930s that he developed a friendship with a young chorus girl at RKO. Her name: Lucille Ball. Lane did a number of episodes of I Love Lucy and the follow-up Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, and played the banker, Mr. Barnstahl, in the first season of The Lucy Show. Accounts vary as to why he left the series. Author of The Lucy Book, Geoffrey Fidelman claims that Lane was let go because he trouble reciting his lines (difficult to believe). He told an interviewer that the main reason he had been let go was because Lucy wanted her longtime friend Gale Gordon in the role instead (Gordon had also been the first choice to play Fred Mertz. Gordon would co-star with Ball in all three of her post-I Love Lucy series). According to Lane, "Lucille was an extraordinary talent and I was madly in love with her. She had me doing this very big character part on a regular basis—and then Gale Gordon was again available, and she wanted him in the role. I was terribly disappointed, but I could understand perfectly." (Of course the same interviewer has Lane smoking a cigarette three years after the actor is supposed to have quit smoking.)

Lane's experience as a character actor in the 1930s led to him becoming one of the first members of the Screen Actors Guild. In 1933 alone he made 23 movies and as a contract player was being paid $35 a day. He said of the founding of the Guild "They'd work you until midnight and get you back at seven in the morning. The actors were taking a terrible licking physically. Generally, as the case with any union, you form it because people are abused." By 1947, thanks in part to the Guild, Lane was making $750 a week. Lane worked in so many movies over the years that he occasionally went to the theatre only to find that he was in the movie he had paid to see. The only real interruption to his busy schedule was during World War II when he served in the US Coast Guard aboard an attack transport. Between the end of 1942 and the beginning of 1946 he made only two movies – Mission To Moscow and Arsenic And Old Lace.

One of his earliest TV roles was an episode of the series Topper in 1954. TV soon became a regular venue for him, usually in a guest appearance as in his several appearances on I Love Lucy, or single episodes of other shows, but sometimes in recurring roles as in Dennis The Menace where he played Mr. Finch the storekeeper. He was a founding member of the Television Academy. His versatility – or the typecasting he was forced to endure – was such that he was equally at home in dramas and in comedies.

Still he may be best known to TV audiences for the role of Homer Bedloe in Petticoat Junction. Bedloe, vice-president of the C&FW Railroad was a grouchy curmudgeon with the heart of an adding machine who lived to see the Hooterville Cannonball on the scrap heap and Shady Rest Hotel boarded up. In a way, Bedloe may be comparable to Ahab in Moby Dick, or (to make things lighter) the Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons. The Cannonball is his white whale or his Roadrunner, a foe that he becomes obsessed with vanquishing to the exclusion of all sense of proportion. Bedloe is a perfect villain for the show and is used perfectly. He isn't a permanent presence seen every episode but he is a permanent threat because there is always the uncertainty of when he will show up with another scheme that Kate Bradley will have to thwart.

By the time he did Petticoat Junction Charles Lane was largely typecast as a grouchy curmudgeonly type. As his New York Times obituary puts it, "His bony physique, craggy face and the authoritarian or supercilious way he would peer through his spectacles at his fellow actors eventually led to his being typecast and locked into playing a succession of lawyers, judges, assorted lawmen and other abrasive roles." Like most actors who are typecast he resented it; he called it "... a pain in the ass. You did something that was pretty good, and the picture was pretty good. But that pedigreed you into that type of part, which I thought was stupid and unfair, too. It didn't give me a chance, but it made the casting easier for the studio."

As Charles Lane grew older he became a much beloved figure as well as the oldest living American actor. In 2005 on the occasion of his 100th birthday, SAG declared January 30 as "Charles Lane Day" and he was also honoured by the Television Academy at the 2005 Emmy Awards. The 2005 TVLand Awards honoured him as well. At the end of that tribute he announced "If you're interested, I'm still available!" Someone took him up on it – in 2006 he was the narrator for a short called The Night Before Christmas (interestingly this was filmed at the Henning Estate and the credits at the end not only thank Charles Lane but also his Petticoat Junction co-star – and Paul Henning's daughter, Linda Henning). Charles Lane was also interviewed for the soon to be released documentary You Know The Face, produced by Garret Boyajian, who also produced The Night Before Christmas.

Let's finish up with the tribute from the 2005 TVLand Awards, which interestingly enough doesn't include any scenes from Petticoat Junction, and only a fraction of the other TV shows he appeared on.

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