July 10, 2007

Character actor Charles Lane dies at 102

SANTA MONICA, Calif. - Charles Lane, the prolific character actor whose name was little known, but whose bespectacled face and crotchety persona made him instantly recognizable to generations of movie-goers, has died, his son said Tuesday. He was 102.

The actor's son, Tom Lane, said he was talking with his father Monday evening. "He was lying in bed with his eyes real wide open," the younger Lane said. "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 Beadle, on the 1960s TV sitcom "Petticoat Junction" and appeared often on television's "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."

In 1934, Frank Capra, then on his rise to eminence, 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 was a letter from the fabled director declaring, "Well, Charlie, you've been my No. 1 crutch."

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.

In the 1931 film "Manhattan Parade," shown last month on Turner Classic Movies, Lane could be glimpsed in one of the opening scenes, playing a desk clerk waiting on a customer. The brief, uncredited bit was one of his first film appearances.

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."

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