Posted by Richard Harland Smith on July 13, 2007
"I keep this job by doing it well." from Bury Me Dead
Who knows where I first saw Charles Lane… he was just always there, I always knew him. He was a part of my childhood, like the angry old man next door, the one who was always yelling at you to get off his lawn, the one whose lawn you went on because you wanted him to yell at you, because for a scrappy little guy Lane had a voice on him that boomed across the land like a summer camp public address system. I've lived most of my life wanting Charles Lane to yell at me.
As a working actor, Charles Lane made his living playing civil servants of every stripe – district attorneys, office managers, physicians, process servers, desk clerks, stage managers, news reporters, salesmen, pharmacists, train conductors, judges, sea captains, press agents, publishers, detectives, and then – once he’d been in the business long enough – a series of minutely nuanced, slightly different cranky old men. If you knew Lane was in a movie, you kept an eye out for him, as if waiting for a friend. We live ever more these days in an age that prizes celebrity at any price yet one of the simple pleasures with which we've lost touch is that of finding a familiar face in the crowd.
Charles Gerstle Levison was born in San Francisco on January 6, 1905 and was, until the time of his death last week, one of the few remaining survivors of the 1906 earthquake. His father’s association with the San Francisco Symphony sparked the young Charlie Levison’s interest in the arts. Though his professional career began in the insurance business, he spent his off-hours dabbling in local theatrical productions. Relocated to Los Angeles, Lane studied at the Pasadena Playhouse where he appeared in plays by William Shakespeare and Anton Chekhov. He made his uncredited film debut, still calling himself Levison, as a hotel desk clerk in the Vitaphone Corporation’s Smart Money, starring Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney in their only on-screen pairing. Officially Charles Lane from 1936 on, the whippet-thin, balding, beak-nosed and bespectacled actor plowed ahead through hundreds of films and TV appearances through an almost 70-year career. No, that’s not a typo – a 70-year career. Charles Lane was a rare Hollywood character actor who could make John Carradine look like a dilettante.
Take a gander at Lane’s IMDb page and marvel at the titles: 42nd Street, Twentieth Century, Broadway Bill, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, In Old Chicago, Coconut Grove, Blondie, Miracles for Sale, You Can’t Take It With You, Golden Boy, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Cat and the Canary, Johnny Apollo, Edison the Man, I Wake Up Screaming, Ball of Fire, Tarzan’s New York Adventure, Pardon My Sarong, Arsenic and Old Lace, It’s a Wonderful Life, Bury Me Dead, Call Northside 777, State of the Union, Mighty Joe Young, The Sniper, I Can Get It For You Wholesale, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, The Music Man The Carpetbaggers, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, The Ugly Dachshund, The Wild, Wild West, Green Acres, The Gnome Mobile, The Aristocats, Sybil… the list does on and on. From the 1950s on, Lane devoted himself largely to television (I Love Lucy, Perry Mason, The Real McCoys, The Twilight Zone, Mr. Ed, Dennis the Menace, The Lucy Show, Get Smart, Petticoat Junction, Mork & Mindy, Lou Grant, Soap, St. Elsewhere) yet still popped up in the odd feature. How weird was it to see him among the cast of the out-of-left field horror movie Strange Behavior (aka Dead Kids, 1981), written by Bill Chicago Condon? For me… very weird. But I was happy to have him. Growing up, I had gotten used to having Charles Lane around and I missed him when he wasn't there.
Not only did Charles Lane work steadily for over six decades but he was lucky in love, too. He married Ruth Covell in 1931, the year of his Hollywood debut, and that union lasted until her death in 2002. Honored at a TVLand awards ceremony marking his 100th birthday, Lane brought the house down announcing in as booming a voice as he could muster “I’m still available!” He lived out the remaining years of his life among people who loved him and appreciated his work. Charles Lane died in Brentwood, in the home he had shared with his wife of 71 years, on July 9th, 2007. He was 102 years old. You Know the Face (2007), a documentary dedicated to his life-well-lived, is in postproduction.
The oldest have borne most; we that are young
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