Published July 10, 2007
SANTA MONICA, Calif. – Charles Lane, the prolific character actor whose name was little known but whose crotchety persona and roles in hundreds of films made him instantly recognizable to generations of moviegoers, has died. He was 102.
His son, Tom Lane, said he was talking with his father at 9 p.m. Monday. "He was lying in bed with his eyes real wide open. Then he closed his eyes and stopped breathing."
Lane, whose career spanned more than 60 years, appeared in such film classics as "It's a Wonderful Life," "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" and "Twentieth Century." He also had a recurring role as the scheming railroad man, Homer Bedloe, on the 1960s TV sitcom "Petticoat Junction" and appeared often on "I Love Lucy."
His crisp, stage-trained voice and no-nonsense appearance made him a natural for playing authority figures. He was a judge in "God is My Partner," a prosecutor in "Call Northside 777," a priest in "Date With an Angel" and a member of Clark Gable's newspaper editorial board in "Teacher's Pet."
Although the roles provided a good living, Lane objected to being typecast.
"You did something that was pretty good and the picture was pretty good. That pedigreed you in that type of part, which I thought was stupid, and unfair, too," he told The Associated Press in a 100th birthday interview in 2005. "It didn't give me a chance, but it made casting easier for the studio."
He turned to the stage for variety, appearing in a wide range of roles in more than 100 plays, most of them at the storied Pasadena Playhouse.
Lane was working in the insurance business and dabbling in theater company productions at night when Irving Pichell, a well known actor of the time, advised him to study at Pasadena.
He was eventually spotted by a Warner Bros. scout and cast in his first movie, an Edward G. Robinson-James Cagney melodrama, "Smart Money," in 1931.
Lane remained at Warner Bros., sometimes working in three or four pictures a day. He would be rushed from one set to another and handed his few lines.
"I was being paid $35 a day," he recalled in 2005. "When the Screen Actors Guild was being organized, I was one of the first to join."
In 1934, Frank Capra, then on his rise to prominence, cast Lane in a horse racing film, "Broadway Bill." Capra liked the actor's work so much he included him in nine more movies, including "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "You Can't Take It with You." In Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life," he was a rent collector who shocks his boss, the evil Lionel Barrymore character, by telling him that hero James Stewart's character is a good businessman.
One of Lane's most cherished possessions, meanwhile, was a letter from the fabled director declaring, "Well, Charlie, you've been my No. 1 crutch."
Lane became good friends with Lucille Ball when she was a chorus girl and he was cast in RKO musicals, and she went on to cast him regularly in her 1950s TV show, often as an impatient bureaucrat at odds with the bumbling Lucy.
He was especially fond of his role in the "I Love Lucy" episode in which Lucy Ricardo gave birth to her son, Little Ricky. Papa Ricky (Ball's real-life husband, Desi Arnaz) was all nerves while Lane, as a fellow expectant father, was the picture of calm.
"This old guy was expecting his 10th child or something, and this nervous young man was expecting his first," Lane recalled in 2005. "It was a marvelous scene, and Desi was a fine actor."
The 1953 show attracted the biggest TV audience up to that time, no doubt aided by the news that Ball and Arnaz had their own son that same night.
Lane continued to act into his 90s, and when he accepted an award from cable television's TV Land channel in honor of his 100th birthday, he made a point of saying he was still available for work.
A widower with a son and daughter, Lane had no formula for his longevity, although he noted his mother lived to be nearly 100.
He was a lifelong teetotaler. But his son noted that his father smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for 70 years, quitting only when he became short of breath.
"I know that smoking kills people, and I must be the exception," Lane said then.
Tom Lane said Tuesday there would be no funeral for his father.