Happy Birthday, Charles Lane

Today is the birthday of Charles Lane, one of last century’s greatest and most prolific character actors. He died recently at the age of 102.

Charles Lane had straightforward no-bullshit spot-on goodness. He is ALWAYS good, no matter what the part, what the demands … he was a jack of all trades. There was nothing he could not do, no genre he could not fit in, no part too small to be huge. Do you know how few people have careers of such longevity in acting? It’s hard to keep the joy alive. He did. At the ripe young age of 100, he announced at an Awards ceremony, “I’m still available for work!”

Please go look at this marvelous tribute to Charles Lane’s appearance on St. Elsewhere. She writes:

That performance has stayed with me for 20 years, and goes into my “unforgettable” file. Great fictional TV doesn’t change the world, but it gave me a glimpse of what’s good about humanity. I need that sometimes.

Here is Dennis’ post on the occasion of the man’s 101st birthday.

Here is a post I wrote about Charles Lane’s small part in the TV movie Sybil.

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Sybil was a groundbreaking moment for television. The performances from Sally Field and Joanne Woodward certainly represent highwater marks, in terms of television acting (and acting, in general). It was a career coup for Sally Field as well. It is highly possible that the rest of her career would not have unfolded as it did without Sybil. She smashed Gidget and the Flying Nun to bits.

But my favorite scene in the film belongs to character actor Charles Lane.

THIS is the kind of acting I love. I mean, I love my stars, too, you know I love my big ol’ movie stars but the acting that really turns me on are these character actors, who show up, do their job so well, make the stars look great, and never get the glory.

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Joanne Woodward plays the psychiatrist Dr. Wilbur. Dr. Wilbur ends up taking a trip to Sybil’s old hometown to see if she can piece together Sybil’s childhood for her since Sybil can’t remember any of it. She goes and looks up the old doctor who used to treat Sybil for the “normal childhood aches and pains”. Charles Lane plays that doctor, Dr. Quinoness.

He doesn’t have any huge emotional outbursts, he doesn’t have any showy explosion of rage. His part is simple. It is exposition, albeit the most important exposition in the film. Dr. Quinoness is a country doctor. He works out of his house. He has been a doctor for seventy years. He has wonderful manners, he is welcoming and kind. The kind of man you would love to have as your doctor. You just get that from the second he appears on screen. There’s an unspoken level to the scene: Dr. Quinoness came up in a time when there were very few female doctors, and “psychiatrists” who wear bell bottomy pants suits were unheard of. Yet he is respectful to Dr. Wilbur as a colleague in his profession, showing his flexibility as a man, his intelligence. He ushers Dr. Wilbur into his office, and he’s carrying a tea tray with a teapot, and a couple of mugs on it, a little creamer.

The way he offers her the tea tells you everything you need to know about his character.

He’s old-fashioned, he’s kind, and he is welcoming to this outsider. His work is really subtle but without that colleague-to-colleague honesty and respect, the scene wouldn’t work.

Even though Dr. Wilbur is angry at what has happened to Sybil, even though she is in a rage at what happened to this little girl, she doesn’t bring that anger to the scene. She is on a fact-finding mission and this man was not one of the evil-doers. She’s appropriate with him. He is a fellow doctor. She starts asking questions about Sybil’s health when she was a child. He is kindly, and tells about when Sybil had her tonsils out, and how frightened she was. Dr. Wilbur says, “Did you ever treat her for anything else?” This is when he says, “Oh, the normal childhood aches and pains.” Woodward then asks if he still has the file: “I would consider it a great professional courtesy if I could have a look at it.” There’s no animosity.

Charles Lane gets up from his desk, “Let me see if I still have her file …” He goes to a file cabinet and shuffles through the folders. He is forthcoming, direct. He is not consciously hiding anything. But at the end of the scene, we realize that … he knew. He knew what was happening to Sybil. He was hiding something only he had blocked it out for years and years. That is the journey Dr. Quinoness goes on during the scene.

He finds the file. He sits back down and starts reading out loud: “Fractured elbow. Hand burned from the stove. Fractured larynx. Broken ankle.” The list goes on. As he reads, you can feel his energy change.

Charles Lane trails his voice away and there’s a long silence between the two of them. Nobody speaks.

Woodward says, “Normal childhood aches and pains, huh?” She doesn’t say it with hostility, or as an attack. She’s just pointing out the obvious. I love how she says that line. Then she says, curiously, “Did you ever speculate?”

Here is where Lane’s beautiful acting really comes to the fore. And I have to say this: he does the rest of the scene, except for the final moment, looking out of the window. We do not see his face. He stands with his back to her, talking. An actor needs his face. The actor’s face is one of the most important ways he can tell his story. BUT oh how powerful it is to have an actor turn his back to us. If it’s the right actor, I mean. The kind of actor who is so good he doesn’t even need his damn face.

Dr. Quinoness gets up. Goes to the window. His BACK is eloquent. Do you get that? His very BACK is eloquent. You feel his shame, his guilt, in the hunch of his back, its stillness.

After a while, he starts speaking. He leads off with: “I’ve never told anyone this before …”

It’s a moment that makes me catch my breath every time I see it. He doesn’t do it in an overdramatic way, he’s not being an ACTOR in that moment. He’s being a PERSON. A man, an old man, who has kept a secret for thirty years. He knew. He knew.

But he doesn’t show his hand too early, as an actor, and this is why the moment is so powerful. He doesn’t greet Dr. Wilbur with a guilty conscience. He doesn’t SHOW us the things that the character himself doesn’t even know yet. He’s not being protective of himself. But once he reads all of Sybil’s injuries out loud, he knows that his moment of reckoning has come. It’s a painful moment for him.

He does not turn from the window. All we get of him is his back. He speaks. “I treated her for a bladder infection when she was five years old … very unusual for a child of her age … I would imagine if you did a gynecological exam on her now, you would see what I did. Scarring of the inner walls, hardened destroyed tissue. Now. We know that the Lord sometimes creates mistakes in nature – but the Almighty had nothing to do with what I saw inside that little girl.”

And on the words “inside that little girl”, his voice drops. Not to a whisper, but to a low and resonating intonation, a bass timber. It’s almost Shakespearean, what Lane does with his voice in that moment. It does not come across as a vocal trick, but as an honest response to horror. One of the best moments in the film.

Woodward just sits there, listening. She doesn’t speak. She doesn’t need to.

Then Charles Lane – the beautiful character actor Charles Lane – turns around and looks at Woodward.

He says, “I imagine in your line of work, you hear a lot of confessions.”

It is a devastating moment. He is a kindly old man, a good doctor, wearing glasses, and a black suit. It is a terrible moment for him.

Dr. Wilbur says to him, kindly, “Dr. Quinoness, it was a long long time ago.”

Cut back to Charles Lane, looking at her. His face is simple, open, and pained. He says, and he is truly asking, “How do I find absolution?”

Woodward has no answer and the scene ends there.

In less than 5 minutes, Charles Lane creates a completely three-dimensional character.

Charles Lane’s part is simple: he is there to provide exposition. That’s it. That’s the point of the scene. Dr. Wilbur gets confirmation of Sybil’s abuse. Now she knows. It’s confirmed. But Charles Lane takes it to another level in those last two moments, looking out the window, not being able to face her as he confesses that he knew, and then turning back to look at her – asking for absolution.

Not every actor who has a small part in a big film shows up and makes such an impression. Not every actor knocks a 5 minute scene out of the park. It’s very difficult. It’s almost easier to star in something because you can develop your character over time, you have many scenes to do it in, you can show one side of the person you’re playing in one scene, you can show another side of the person you’re playing in another scene. You have TIME. You have a lot of screen time to do your job. Not so with our 5-minute character actor crowd. They have ONE scene, sometimes … and they must nail it. The entire film depends upon it.

Charles Lane had jobs constantly since the early 30s. He was in Twentieth Century, he was in It’s a Wonderful Life – he was in Arsenic and Old Lace – he was in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, he was in I Love Lucy.

Charles Lane said, “Having had so many small parts, there was a character I played that showed up all the time and people did get to know him, like an old friend.”

Old friend indeed.

His work in Sybil is what I, personally, love about acting. It’s the kind of thing where I look at it and think: “That. That is what I admire. That is the only reason to do it, for the chance to do something like THAT.” There’s no vanity in it. There’s an understanding of script analysis, there’s an understanding of how your part fits in to the whole, there’s also a fearlessness in doing what the part demands.

Watch how he turns back to her from looking out the window. Watch how he says, “How do I find absolution?”

It don’t get any better than that.

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7 Responses to Happy Birthday, Charles Lane

  1. george says:

    One of the best things about your blog are the tributes to character actors; I’m a sucker for both. Better than that though are the ‘moments’, the nuggets you have mined from their performances. What a treat to have a trace turn into a mother lode.

  2. sheila says:

    Thanks, George! I am 99% positive that I probably saw George Lane first in, oh, Chico and the Man, some 70s TV show.

    It’s amazing to scroll his credits and see all those titles.

    Any favorite performances or moments?

  3. Lisa says:

    Wasn’t he Alfred in the old Batman tv series?

  4. sheila says:

    Lisa – I actually don’t remember him in that – however, I am shocked that the walking IMDB does not know! I did a quick search and came up with nothing, but dude was in 590 things. I could be missing something!

  5. Doc Horton says:

    One thing he did was survive the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

  6. captcrisis says:

    Exactly right.

    I remember seeing this when it came out (1976). A powerful scene. I was surprised seeing this actor, who I’d seen so often in sitcoms in silly parts, deliver such a serious line.

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