Charles Lane: What a Character!

My blog theme for this month is “What a Character!” I am looking at the careers of four successful and hard-working actors. With 372 acting credits, perhaps there was no more prolific character actor than the beloved Charles Lane. He perfected the grumpy sourpuss always ready and gleeful to make life more complicated for others. His bio on imdb.com captures his type perfectly as the “scrawny, scowling, beady-eyed, beak-nosed killjoy who usually could be found peering disdainfully over a pair of specs, brought out many a comic moment simply by dampening the spirit of his nemesis.”

Photo: pinterest.com

However, despite that, we always knew there was more to him, and that his real persona was being covered up by his crotchety outward characteristics. His character Herman Bedloe on Petticoat Junction portrayed this dual-personality perfectly. Bedloe was always trying to shut down the train, but we knew he actually liked the Bradley family, and occasionally you would get a glimpse of the lonely and soft-hearted side of him.

He was born Charles Gerstle Levison in San Francisco in 1905. His family survived the 1906 earthquake. His father was an insurance executive, and Charles would follow in his footsteps for his first career.

Photo: newsfromme.com
The Music Man

A friend, actor Irving Pichel, convinced Lane to try his hand at acting, and Lane joined the Pasadena Playhouse in the late 1920s. His first movie was City Girl in 1930, and his last was Acting on Impulse in 1993. During those six decades he had a successful career in both television and Hollywood. In 1933, Lane became one of the founding members of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). In that year alone he made 23 films. There was an anecdote told about Lane that it was not uncommon for him to go to a movie, see himself on screen, and be surprised because he completely forgot he had been in the film. Starting out at $35 a day, by 1947 he was earning $750 a week.

His longest-running role was husband. In 1931 he married Ruth Covell; the couple had two children and were married until her death in 2002.

Photo: pinterest.com
It’s a Wonderful Life

Perhaps most people recognize Lane from his role of rent collector for Henry Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra signed Lane to roles in ten of his movies. Lane was a corrupt attorney in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), an IRS agent in You Can’t Take It with You (1938), a newsman in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), a reporter in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), and Blink Moran in State of the Union (1948). Among his most-cherished possessions was a letter from Capra where he wrote “Well, Charlie, you’ve been my No. 1 crutch.” Other popular films he was in include The Ghost and Mr. Chicken; It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; and The Music Man.

Photo: blogspot.com
You Can’t Take It with You

During World War II, Lane joined the Coast Guard. When he returned to civilian life, his television career took off. His first role was on Burns and Allen in 1951. During the 1950s, he appeared in more than 30 shows including Topper, The Thin Man, Perry Mason, and The Ann Sothern Show. He was often seen on Lucille Ball shows. He and Lucy had become friends when they both worked for RKO, and he had a great respect for Desi Arnaz’s acting ability.

Photo: imdb2freeforums.net
I Love Lucy

During this decade he was cast on the show Dear Phoebe in 1954. Peter Lawford starred in the show as a former college professor who writes an advice column under the name Miss Phoebe Goodheart. Meanwhile, his romantic interest is Mickey Riley portrayed by Marcia Henderson, the paper’s sports writer. Lane took on the role of Mr. Fosdick, their boss.

Photo: blogspot.com
The Andy Griffith Show

The 1960s found him on almost every popular show of that decade. Tuning in to your favorite series, you would spy Lane on Bachelor Father, Pete and Gladys, Mister Ed, The Andy Griffith Show, The Joey Bishop Show, Get Smart, The Bing Crosby Show, The Man from UNCLE, The Donna Reed Show, Green Acres, Bewitched, and The Wild, Wild West, among many others.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com
Gomer Pyle USMC

Lane had recurring roles on five shows during the 1960s. On Dennis the Menace, he was the pharmacist Mr. Finch. He also could be seen on his friend’s series, The Lucy Show as Mr. Barnsdahl, a local banker. The Phyllis Diller Show had a cast that should have made it a hit and from 1966-67, Lane played Maxwell. Although many characters appeared on both The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction, Lane had two different roles on the two series. He appeared in 24 episodes of Petticoat Junction between 1963-1968 as Homer Bedloe, a railroad executive who is always trying to find a reason to shut down the Cannonball. On the Beverly Hillbillies, he portrayed Foster Phinney.

Photo: filmstarfacts.com
Petticoat Junction

Lane continued with both his movie and television appearances throughout the 1970s, taking roles on The Doris Day Show, The Odd Couple, Family, Rhoda, Chico and the Man, and he continued his television appearances into the 1980s and 1990s with shows that included Mork and Mindy, St. Elsewhere, LA Law, and Dark Shadows.

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Bewitched

The decade of the seventies would find him cast in two additional series, Karen and Soap. Karen debuted in 1975, starring Karen Valentine as Karen Angelo. Karen works for an advocate group for the common American citizen, Open America, founded by Dale Busch, who was played by Lane. On Soap, Charles took on the role of Judge Petrillo who presided over Jessica Tate’s murder trial; however, because of Jessica’s husband, the judge lost $40,000 in a bad investment.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com
Soap

Charles Lane was honored in 2005 when he turned 100. SAG proclaimed January 30 “Charles Lane Day,” and TV Land honored him in March for his long career. After receiving his award, he let it be known “in case anyone’s interested, I’m still available!”

Photo: allmovie.com
TV Lands Award March 2005

Despite his being typecast in cranky roles, friends and family described him as funny, kind, and warm-hearted. Lane’s one vice was smoking. In 1990 he was rushed to the hospital when he was having problems breathing. When the doctor asked if he smoked, Lane informed him he had kicked the habit . . . 45 minutes earlier. He never smoked again and he lived another 12 years, dying peacefully in 2007.

Photo: blogspot.com
Homer Bedloe

Although it’s tough on actors to be typecast so early in their career, it’s a double-edged sword, because it also provides a lot of opportunities for roles. Lane was an enigma; while he always convinced us that he was just as mean as could be, we also knew if someone would give him a chance, he could be reformed like Scrooge; he just needed the opportunity. It always makes me smile to come across Charles Lane in a move or television episode. It’s like seeing an old friend, or perhaps the neighbor who yelled at you to get off his yard. However, if you looked closely, you would see him watching and wanting to be part of the action. As you watch your favorite older classic shows, keep an eye open for him.

Remembering William Christopher

I wanted to pay a tribute to William Christopher, who passed away December 31, 2016, exactly one year after Wayne Rogers, one of his co-workers on the show M*A*S*H.

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Christopher was born in Evanston, Illinois October 20, 1932. Growing up in that area, he attended New Trier High School in Winnetka, the same high school as Rock Hudson.  His family’s genealogy apparently included Paul Revere. Ironically, his grandmother hoped he would go into the ministry like his grandfather who was the founder of the First Methodist Church in Chicago, and in some ways, he did. Christopher went to college at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, graduating with a BA in Drama, focusing on Greek Literature. (In the last episode of M*A*S*H, Father Mulcahy wears a Wesleyan sweatshirt.) He participated in fencing, soccer, and the glee club in college.  Connecticut was also where he met his wife Barbara on a blind date.  They married in 1957 and later adopted twin boys, John and Ned.

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Building on his theater experience which began with him playing a groundhog in the third grade, he moved to New York.  Eventually he made his Broadway debut in Beyond the Fringe where he worked with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Not long after, he moved to California to continue acting.

He began his work in television in 1965 appearing in 12 O’Clock High. For the next seven years, he worked regularly appearing in Hank in 1965, The Patty Duke Show in 1966, 2 appearances in The Andy Griffith Show in 1965 and 1966, Death Valley Days in 1966, four separate episodes of Hogan’s Heroes from 1965-68, Gomer Pyle where he was in 16 episodes from 1965-8, That Girl in two episodes as Chippy Dolan, The Virginian in 1971, Alias Smith and Jones in 1971, Insight in 1972, and 4 shows of Nichols from 1971-2.

Along with his television roles, he appeared on the big screen during this period. His first movie was Fortune Cookie in 1966 where he played an intern, The Perils of Pauline in 1967 as a doctor, The Private Navy of Sargent O’ Farrell in 1968 as Private Jake Schultz, The Shakiest Gun in the West in 1968 as a hotel manager, and With Six You Get Egg Roll in 1968. With Six You Get Egg Roll was Doris Day’s last movie before she moved into television and then retired. After playing so many military and religious roles, this one was out of character as he played a hippie Zip Cloud along with future M*A*S*H member Jamie Farr.wc6

In 1972 he got his big break, being cast as Father Mulcahy in the television version of M*A*S*H. George Morgan, who was cast in the pilot, was replaced and Christopher received the role. Morgan appeared in four series and three movies before the pilot, but only two other series after. M*A*S*H was on the air from 1972-1983, and Christopher was in 213 of the 251 episodes. Fans loved the goodness Father Mulcahy displayed, along with his humanness when the inhumanity of war tried his patience and frustrated him. Some of his best lines from the show included:

“This isn’t one of my sermons; I expect you to listen.”

“Klinger, how’d you like the last rites…and a few lefts!”

“I think the world of Colonel Potter. He’s a good Christian – yet hardly dull at all.”

“Remember what the good book says: Love thy neighbor, or I’ll punch your lights out!”

While he was part of the M*A*S*H cast, he appeared on other series including Columbo and Movin’ On in 1974, Lucas Tanner, Karen, and Good Times in 1975. Like so many of the stars we meet in this blog, he was on The Love Boat in four episodes from 1981-4. He appeared again on the big screen in the movie Hearts of the West in 1975 as a bank teller. He also made a TV movie, For the Love of It in 1980.

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In 1983, the series After MASH debuted, and Christopher reprised his role of Father Mulcahy along with Harry Morgan as Dr. Sherman Potter, Jamie Farr as Klinger and Gary Burghoff as Radar. The show was not a great success and ended after 30 episodes.

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Christopher never had another recurring role in a television show, but he continued to work in the business appearing in Murder She Wrote in 1985, CBS Summer Playhouse in 1987, The Smurfs 6 times from 1984-88, The New WKRP in Cincinnati in 1993, Lois and Clark: Adventures of Superman in 1997, Diagnosis Murder, Team Knight Rider, and Mad About You in 1998. His last television role was in 11 episodes of Days of Our Lives where he played a priest. In 1987 he made his second TV movie, The Little Troll Prince.

During the years of 1975-2011 he also appeared on several game shows, talk shows, and M*A*S*H-related specials and reunions. In 1994 he made his last movie, Heaven Sent.

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He continued his love of theater touring the country with Jamie Farr in The Odd Couple in the mid-1990s. He also toured with the Church Basement Ladies in 2008-9.

Christopher was generous with his time, helping to raise money for the National Autistic Society (NAS).  The organization was near and dear to his heart because his son Ned suffers from autism. He and his wife wrote a book in 1985, Mixed Blessings, about their experience with their son.

 

William Christopher is revealed to be a very nice man liked by everyone who worked with him.  He was married to Barbara for the rest of his life, was a good family man, generous in working with the NAS, and had a full career.

After Christopher died, Alan Alda tweeted “His pals from #MASH miss Bill powerfully. His kind strength, his grace and gentle humor weren’t acted. They were Bill.”

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Jamie Farr summed it up best in his tribute to his friend and co-worker:

We are all devastated by our beloved Bill’s passing. I have known him for over 50 years. During the 1960s we lived in the same neighborhood in Studio City. My Joy and I would see him and his wife Barbara going for walks as we were going for walks. Bill and I did the very last Doris Day movie together, “With Six You Get Egg Roll.” We were both cast in the tv series “M*A*SH” at almost the same time. He was a gentle soul and in my opinion probably the most underrated actor of all of us on the show. He was wonderful. During between set ups for camera angles Bill would read his Homeric book in Homeric Greek. He was a real egg head. He and his Barbara traveled the world and he would try to learn the language of the countries they were going to visit. He went to Egypt one year and tried his Arabic on me. He was better than I was. We used to imitate Bill on the set using his high pitched voice. One time he came down with hepatitis and when he returned to the series we had his actor’s chair painted yellow. Bill and I did a National Tour of the play “The Odd Couple” with Bill portraying Felix and me doing Oscar, Bill was at one time on the Board of the Devereaux Foundation for Autistic Children. It was a real honor to have had him and Barbara as friends and a great honor to have shared the tv screen with this gracious, talented and charming soul. May his memory be eternal. Rest in Peace Father Mulcahy.