Charles Lane was happy playing classic TV's biggest ''stinker'' of all time

One of the most prolific character actors always played a cantankerous grump, serving as muse for legends like Frank Capra and Lucille Ball.

Read to Me

In a rather Frank Capra-esque episode of The Andy Griffith Show titled "Aunt Bee the Crusader," Aunt Bee gets the whole town to rally on the side of the town egg man Mr. Frisby. He's being evicted so his farm can be demolished to build a new highway, and an unlikely Aunt Bee comes to his rescue.

This episode shows prolific character actor Charles Lane in a rare sympathetic role. Over one of the most expansive acting careers of all time, Lane mostly was known for playing the kind of jerk who ruined everyone's day.

In the 1930s, he was a muse to Frank Capra, who cast him in most of his movies.

According to The Los Angeles Times in 2007, Capra once wrote Lane a letter that touched him so much, he framed it.

"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," Capra wrote. "Well, Charlie, you've been my No. 1 crutch."

Lane called Capra his favorite director, with his favorite role of all-time coming in the classic film You Can't Take It With You.

"Capra made wonderful pictures," Lane told Newsday in 1974. "I think they still stand up."

In the same article, a Paramount producer swore that Lane became the go-to grump for movies and TV shows, explaining that "People would say, 'Try to get Charles Lane, and if you can't get him, get someone like him.'"

Lane saw all these characters as exactly the same, and he wished he'd been given more diverse roles. But over time, he saw no point in complaining. On his 100th birthday, he reflected:

"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."

In his earliest acting days, Lane was an MGM contract player, and he said they'd pay him $35 a day and try to get as many movies out of the day as they could. Sometimes that meant he played four movie roles in one day. He was a perfectionist and never felt he nailed the performance until after the cameras stopped rolling.

"There never was any glamor in it," Lane said. "It was a job. You tried to do the scene as well as you could. You never felt you did it as well as you'd like. After leaving the studio and while stopped for a signal light, I would figure out how I should have done the scene, and I would do it in the car while waiting for the light. I was a great traffic-light actor."

Over his career, Lane portrayed hundreds of authority figures, mostly paper-pushing bullies, but classic TV fans likely came to know him best through I Love Lucy. From 1953 to 1956, he appeared four times, always serving as a grouchy foil perturbed by Lucy's bumbling ways.

Lane and Lucy were old friends who had met when she was a chorus girl. She featured him on all her shows, and he said his favorite episode with her was the first one he did. In "Lucy Goes to the Hospital," the most-watched I Love Lucy episode ever, Lane played another father in the waiting room with Desi Arnaz, whose stern, calm demeanor contrasts Ricky's nerves.

"This old guy was expecting his 10th child or something, and this nervous young man was expecting his first," Lane told The Associated Press in 2007. "It was a marvelous scene, and Desi was a fine actor."

Lane was a fine actor, too, and everybody knew it, even if nobody ever really said it.

Over 60 years, he remained one of the most solid actors in Hollywood, dependable any time you needed someone to really irk the audience. He memorably played recurring roles on Dennis the Menace, Petticoat Junction, The Lucy Show, and The Beverly Hillbillies.

"They were all good parts, but they were all jerks," he said. "If you have a type established, though, and you're any good, it can mean considerable work for you."

For all the movies and TV shows Lane appeared in, he told The Los Angeles Times in 1980 that he hated watching himself onscreen more than any of the heroes in those pictures hated dealing with his cold-hearted meanie characters.

"It's a very unpleasant sensation for me," he said of watching his own acting. "I try to avoid it."

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Mike 11 days ago
Fun Fact (maybe ...):
When Charles Lane died in 2007, the papers gave his age as 102 (from references that gave his DOB as 1905).
However ...
I have some film reference books that maintained that Charles Lane (Levison) was born in 1899 - which would have made him 108 at his death.

Hey, if that's true, Lane wouldn't be the first actor to revise his (or her) age downward in order to prolong career shelf life ...

As it was, when Charles Lane appeared on the TV Land Awards to get a trophy, post-100, he said this to the crowd:
"If anybody's interested, I'm still available!"
I always wished that somebody had taken him up on that ...
Wufferduck 13 days ago
The most beloved stinker of them all!!! They don’t make characters like him anymore.
CoreyC 13 days ago
One of Charles Lane's last role was in Little House on the Prairie as an old man who foiled Harriet Oleson collecting on a deed.
BorisK 14 days ago
P.S. He has a very good role in The Ghost & Mr. Chicken too -- a lawyer who tries to tear Don Knotts apart in court. Really funny scene.
BorisK 14 days ago
Charles Lane played on Get Smart too -- he was hilarious. I think he was Uncle Arthur who, with Aunt Bertha, come to visit Max while Max is being silently held hostage by a KAOS agent played by Conrad Janis -- a great episode.
WGH 15 days ago
Charles Lane appeared in a movie with Edward G Robinson and James Cagney named SMART MONEY.

Just watched it on TCM on 9/04/21. he played the head of a hotel Robinson's character Nick stayed at. he played the same exact character he always plays. And he did it phenomenology. ( He held his own with Edward G Robinson… And that is saying something]
Mirramanee 17 days ago
Just to remind everyone, even Mr. Frisby wasn't a totally good guy, either. He was simply playing up the sympathy card with the town's ladies (who primarily made up his egg customer base). He was being evicted from his farm by the government because of a highway being built over it and lamenting the loss of his farm. As it turned out, he wasn't upset because he was losing his farm. He was upset because he was losing a more lucrative side business he was running, which was making illegal moonshine underground under the henhouse. The underground still was accidentally discovered when his rooster got into some of the liquor and got publicly drunk. So basically he still wasn't playing a likeable guy in the end!
F5Twitster 17 days ago
I remember attending a screening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, probably in the late 1990s, whem just before the film was run Lane, who was in the film were were about to see and was sitting amongst us, was introduced to the audience.

I also recall turning to the person I was with and asking incredulously, "I didn't know he was STILL alive!" While Lane would've been in his mid 90s then, and have another seven years or so to live, he always seemed so old, even when he was young. Maybe it was just that, trademarked dour air of his...
Mirramanee F5Twitster 17 days ago
I agree that he did always look "old", especially when he played the part of the dour expectant father in the Little Ricky birth episode of I Love Lucy. It felt like he shouldn't be expecting any more children at that stage (unless his wife, who was never shown, was maybe a lot younger than him).
WGH F5Twitster 15 days ago
He looked old in the 1931 movie SMARTMONEY with Edward G Robinson and James Cagney. Just watched it on TCM. He played the owner of the hotel in the beginning of the movie and did a great job.
CoreyC Mirramanee 12 days ago
I felt sorry for him. He had six daughters and wanted so much for a son but got three more girls.
Fred Mertz: Look at the bright side you have an all girl baseball team.
ncadams27 18 days ago
Lane played the banker on the first season of the Lucy Show. She wanted Gale Gordon, but he was busy with Dennis the Menace.
CoreyC ncadams27 12 days ago
She also wanted Gale as Fred Mertz.
Runeshaper 18 days ago
Charles Lane was GREAT! Super memorable guy and super memorable grump LOL (-:
RobertM 18 days ago
He was in an episode of the original "Odd Couple" TV show, when Felix wanted to redecorate the apartment, and he came in right after two women were about to leave--he bought Oscar's writing desk, and then paid the women to carry it out for him.
stephaniestavr5 18 days ago
Can any Monkees maniac answer this question:
On the one and only TAGS Christmas episode, (I believe this was the episode,) Charles Lane played a character named Mr. Frisby. The lyrics to the Monkees song Mr. Webster, mentions: "Mr. Frisby made his check out, for 68 dollars clear." Can anyone find, (I tried for a bit, but couldn't,) out if whomever wrote the lyrics got the idea for their "Mr. Frisby" character, (decided to use the name,) from TAGS? They were doing a little homage to the show. If not, then where did they get their inspiration for that name? Thanks!
Rick stephaniestavr5 18 days ago
It would be awesome, and I can't prove it's not true, but it doesn't sound likely. As the article notes, "Mr. Frisby" was one of the only sympathetic parts he got. Here's the closest I found, where Boyce/Hart talk about writing the song - Mr. Webster was inspired by a real bank guard, but they never mention Frisby: https://monkees.coolcherrycream.com/articles/1967/10/flip/we-were-in-studio-a-and-the-monkees-were-in-studio-b
Rick stephaniestavr5 18 days ago
Oh, and the Christmas episode had *Ben Weaver* (grouchy owner of Weaver's Department Store), played by Will Wright. I can see why you might remember him played by Charles Lane.
daDoctah Rick 18 days ago
I've been thinking about Wright since this article popped up (the day after I watched a "Maverick" rerun that he was in, and wondering if he and Lane ever appeared together in anything. Luckily, IMDb allows for just this kind of search and I find the two men had five credits in common:

The 50 Foot Bride of Candy Rock
Miss Grant Takes Richmond
Blondie Plays Cupid
the debut episode of 1954-55 TV series "Willy" starring June Havoc
and a mid-second-season ep of "Pete and Gladys" called "Garden Wedding".

The full cast lists for all of these are worth checking out for other familiar faces. Mary Treen (Aunt Bee's predecessor on TAGS) and a very young Aaron Spelling in the "Willy" episode, Lucille Ball as the lead in "Miss Grant", and Lou Costello (without Bud Abbott), Gale Gordon, and Doodles Weaver in "Candy Rock".
Woodstork1 18 days ago
I loved him. He missed a lot of good shows and movies if he avoided them for his acting. Very prolific with 376 acting credits on IMDb.
KevinMeerschaert 18 days ago
He perfectly delivered the famous line in "Lucy Goes to the Hospital,"

Ricky - "Is this your first child?"

Charles Lane - "Last"
LH 18 days ago
My all-time favorite episode that he was in ever! Was the Beverly Hillbillies when he was having that exchange with Jed Clampett regarding the skeet shooting competition! I just love that episode!!
Andybandit 18 days ago
Nice story, I only saw him in TAGS.
Pacificsun 18 days ago
THAT, was a great article. CL explained so much about acting and the business at that time.
I would say, it's better to be remembered for a solid "bit" that you were known for doing well, than experimenting with a range of characters, with any number of them who might not come off as well.

But he had the actor's instinct, no doubt about it! What a professional!!
MrsPhilHarris 19 days ago
Loved him as Homer Bedloe on Petticoat Junction.
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