(This post is a part of the 5th Annual What a Character! Blogathon)
In one of the most memorable scenes in It's a Wonderful Life, Henry F. Potter's rent collector explains how George Bailey and the Bailey Building & Loan are cutting into Potter's business. The rent collector does not mince his words. He does not tell Potter what he thinks Potter wants to hear. Ultimately he is one of the few characters in the film, besides George, who actually talks back to Potter. That rent collector was played by character actor Charles Lane. Even though the rent collector only appears in It's a Wonderful Life for a few minutes, he remains one of the film's more memorable characters. It was Charles Lane's gift to be able to create immediately memorable characters even when he was given only a few minutes on screen.
Charles Lane was working as an insurance salesman and occasionally acting in theatre productions when in 1929 actor (and later director) Irving Pichel suggested that Mr. Lane study acting at the Pasadena Playhouse. A Warner Bros. scout discovered Charles Lane there and signed him to a contract. His first film role came in 1930 when he had an uncredited role as a pedestrian in a train station in City Girl. This was followed by a slightly more substantial role as a hotel clerk (the first of many) in Smart Money (1931). At Warner Bros. Mr. Lane was paid $35 a day. As a character actor it was not unusual for Charles Lane to work on three to four films a day. He would be rushed from one set to the next and given what few lines he would have. Given this, it should perhaps not be surprising that Charles Lane was among the founding members of the Screen Actors Guild when it was founded in 1933.
Sadly Charles Lane would be typecast. Throughout his career he would play a succession of hard-nosed, no-nonsense professionals. What is more, in most of his films his screen time would usually be limited to only a few minutes. That is not to say that Charles Lane would not get the chance to spread his wings from time to time. In Twentieth Century (1934) he played Max Jacobs, the self-important and overly confident producer. In The Music Man (1962) he played Constable Locke, the crotchety peace officer of River City. In It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) he played the unfortunate airport manager.
For the most part it would be director Frank Capra who would really give Charles Lane a chance to shine. Frank Capra liked Mr. Lane so much that he used him in ten different movies. His first film for Mr. Capra was Broadway Bill in which he played one of Morgan's henchmen. He had a more substantial role in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), in which he played the crooked lawyer Hallor. He had a plumb role in You Can't Take It With You (1938), playing the IRS agent Henderson, who tells Grandpa Martin Vanderhof (played by Lionel Barrymore) that he had better pay his income taxes or else. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) he played Nosey, the callous news reporter who phones in the news of the death of a senator. He would play another reporter in Arsenic and Old Lace (1943). Frank Capra obviously respected Charles Lane and viewed him with a great deal of affection. The director once sent him a letter in which he told him, "Well, Charlie, you've been my No. 1 crutch."
Charles Lane would fare a bit better on television, where he would receive more substantial roles. He had a regular role on the short-lived sitcom Dear Phoebe, on which Peter Lawford played Bill Hastings, a former professor who is the advice columnist (the "Phoebe" of the title) for the fictional Los Angeles Daily Star. Charles Lane played his much put-upon editor Mr. Fosdick. He had a recurring role as grumpy shopkeeper Mr. Finch on Dennis the Menace. On The Pruitts of Southampton Charles Lane had the recurring role of Maxwell, the IRS agent on the Pruitts' case, literally, about their overdue taxes. On the short-lived 1975 sitcom Karen he played the cantankerous founder of the citizen's lobby Open America, Dale Busch. He later played Judge Petrillo on Soap.
It would be on two classic sitcoms that Charles Lane would really get a chance to display his talent. On Petticoat Junction he played stern railroad executive Homer Bedloe, who wanted to shut down the Hooterville Cannonball. Homer was ill-tempered and could be mean-spirited, but he also had something of a sentimental streak that the citizens of Hooterville sometimes used to their advantage. Regardless, he never did succeed in shutting down the Hooterville Cannonball. It seems likely that Homer Bedloe is Charles Lane's most famous role besides that of the rent collector in It's a Wonderful Life.
Charles Lane did not have a recurring role on I Love Lucy, but he appeared on the show several times in different roles, as well as the Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz specials that followed the regular series. Charles Lane was a close friend of Lucille Ball, who, like Frank Capra, often relied on his talents. On I Love Lucy and the subsequent Lucy–Desi Comedy Hour he played his typical hard-nosed characters, including a casting director, a passport office clerk, a business manger, a claims clerk, and a customs officer. Perhaps his best known appearance on I Love Lucy was in the episode "Lucy Goes to the Hospital", in which he played Mr. Stanley, another expectant father waiting with Ricky in the waiting room. While Ricky and Lucy were expecting their first child, Mr. Stanley was expecting one more in an already rather large family. He also had a recurring role in the first season of The Lucy Show as banker Mr. Barnsdahl.
Charles Lane appeared frequently on television, often guest starring several times on any given show (playing a different character every time). Over the years he guest starred on such shows as Topper, Perry Mason, The Twilight Zone, The Real McCoys, Dobie Gillis, The Andy Griffith Show, F Troop, The Wild Wild West, Bewitched, and many others. While he started getting fewer parts as he got older, Charles Lane never really retired. He guest starred on L. A. Law at age of 84 and appeared as Regent Yarborough in the 1995 television remake of The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes at the age of 90. His last credit was as the narrator of a 2006 short The Night Before Christmas. He was 101 at the time.
Charles Lane died on July 9 2007 at the age of 102. He ultimately had one of the longest acting careers in film history. One also has to suspect that he was a SAG member longer than anyone else around.
Throughout his career Charles Lane played a succession of hard-nosed, white collar workers. He was not particularly happy about being typecast. On the occasion of his 100th birthday he told the Associated Press, "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. It didn't give me a chance, but it made casting easier for the studio." While Charles Lane was typecast in film and television, he did get to play a wider variety of roles on stage. He appeared in more than 100 plays, and he appeared regularly at the Pasadena Playhouse. Mr. Lane even appeared on Broadway once, in 1967 in the play Love in E Flat.
While Charles Lane was very good at playing stern, hard-nosed professionals, in real life he was nothing like the characters for which he was known. One never heard anyone say anything bad about Charles Lane. From all accounts he was a warm, kind, and very funny man, the exact opposite of the many hard-hearted characters he played over the years. Both Frank Capra and Lucille Ball obviously thought a lot of him!
Even though he made hundreds of films and made hundreds of appearances on television, I doubt that "Charles Lane" is a name most people would recognise even today. That having been said, I suspect most viewers would remember him in a number of different roles, at least the rent collector in It's a Wonderful Life and Homer Bedloe on Petticoat Junction. Charles Lane may have primarily played only one sort of role, but he did it very well and he did it very often.