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.
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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."