Charles Lane – one of last century’s greatest and most prolific character actors – has just died at the age of 102.
Take a look at the guy’s resume. Take a look at some of those titles. It’s astonishing, the longevity. And also: the goodness of him, the straightforward no-bullshit spot-on goodness. He is ALWAYS good, no matter what the part, what the demands … This guy was a jack of all trades. I believe there was nothing he could not do. Do you know how few people have careers of such longevity in acting? It’s hard to keep fresh. It’s hard to not have an ego. 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!” God bless him.
I noticed this URL in my referral log, and it is a marvelous tribute to Charles Lane’s appearance on St. Elsewhere – thank you so much for your eloquence! 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.
God, God, yes.
I wrote a long post over a year ago about Charles Lane in the TV movie Sybil. It goes all over the place, at times – but I re-post it below, as a meager tribute to a man who has enriched my life immeasurably, just from all of his parts he’s played, the example he’s set, and the kind of actor he is. It is the kind of actor I most admire.
102 years old. Holy smokes.
Rest in peace, dear dear Charles Lane. I treasure your performances in my heart.
IN PRAISE OF CHARLES LANE
I watched Sybil last night. I’ve seen it a gazillion times. So what the hell. I sat down to watch that wrenching thing AGAIN. I’ve got a lot to say about it – about the acting, in particular – but I just wanted to write a small post of praise for Charles Lane, who plays the small-town doctor from Sybil’s home town. He has one scene, and I’ve gotta say: he knocks that shit OUT OF THE PARK.
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 random people, these character actors, who show up – do their job SO WELL – and never get the glory. Mitchell and Alex and I talk a lot about people who we think win “10 minute Oscars”. By that we mean – the people who do not star in the films, but without whom the entire film would not work. People who just kick some serious ASS in their parts. My favorite “10 minute Oscar” is Brooke Smith’s acting in Silence of the Lambs. She’s the girl in the bottom of the well. Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins star – and they both give unforgettable performances. (Interesting that Hopkins is only on screen in that film for 15 minutes himself. Isn’t that wild??? It seems like he is in it for MUCH longer – but he is not. Phenomenal. So I guess he DID win an Oscar for a performance not much longer than 10 minutes!) But back to these more unknown actors who show up and do their jobs like nobody’s business: without the scenes of Brooke Smith in the well – the film would not have the same impact. And she just GOES THERE. What I love about her performance is that, obviously, she is a victim of circumstance. I mean, good Lord. She’s AT THE BOTTOM OF A WELL. That sucks. But she is not a docile creature – she doesn’t JUST weep and wail – We also see her strategizing. We see her kidnap the dog. Smart!!! I love when she’s coaxing the dog down – she’s using the normal voice you use when you’re talking to a dog – but she’s so pissed, so DETERMINED that she will survive this ordeal – that she also says stuff like, “Come on, you little fucker … get in the fucking basket …” I love that. It’s so real. And yet so unexpected. A lesser actor would just play the victim. She would play to the hilt the “oh my God, I am so TRAPPED” – Brooke Smith plays that as well, but she also expresses the rage one would feel when one is so trapped. It’s a fantastic choice. She seems like a real girl. I also love when Jodie Foster bursts into the room – and then says down into the well, “Okay … I’ll be right back.” And we hear Brooke Smith start shouting, “Don’t leave me – you fucking bitch!!!” hahahahaha I just love that. She’s not just falling over herself in gratitude … she has HAD it … she wants OUT. Do not leave me down here!! Anyway – for me, that’s a perfect example of a 10-minute Oscar. She knocks it out of the park. The movie wouldn’t be the same without her performance. Even though the two big stars show up and do THEIR jobs really really well too. I’ve met Brooke Smith a couple of times – at stage readings, and stuff like that, and I have no idea how to say, “Uhm … you won a 10 minute Oscar in my mind!!!”
So back to Charles Lane. Here he is – this is about the age he was when he played this part in Sybil.
Joanne Woodward plays the psychiatrist Dr. Wilbur. I have so much more to say about Joanne Woodward … I need to do a big Woodward post – she’s one of my favorite actresses – but I will keep my focus. I will try, anyway. So anyway, Dr. Wilbur ends up taking a trip to Sybil’s old hometown to see if she can kind of 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” – to see if he could maybe illuminate anything for her. 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. He 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. 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. Just 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 – she may be an outsider, and she may be a woman wearing a white pant suit with a big Peter Pan collar (I love Woodward’s clothes in this movie – they’re SO mid-1970s!!) – but she is also a doctor, and he treats her with respect. As a colleague. I don’t know – it’s really subtle – but without that colleague-to-colleague honesty and respect, the scene wouldn’t work.
Joanne Woodward’s acting in this entire film is literally masterful. But I’ll write about her later. Argh. Getting sidetracked!! 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 this 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 here. 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’s not CONSCIOUSLY hiding anything. But at the end of the scene, we realize that … he knew. He knew what was happening to Sybil. I just got goosebumps all over again remembering the last moment of the scene … But I’m getting ahead of myself.
He finds the file. He sits back down and starts reading out loud: “Fractured elbow. Hand burned from the stove. Fractured larynx. Broken ankle.” Etc. The list goes on. As he reads, you can feel his energy change. It’s like – seeing it all in one place, hearing the litany of horrible injuries … makes him realize the reality – makes him SEE, yet again, after so many years, what was so obvious at the time.
Charles Lane trails his voice away … there’s a long silence between the two of them. Nobody speaks.
Woodward says, “Normal childhood aches and pains, huh?” But she doesn’t say it with hostility, or as an attack on him. She’s just pointing out what she sees. I love how she says that line. Then she says, curiously, “Did you ever speculate?”
This 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 … How much it can tell you about the emotions he is experiencing, it can be extremely powerful – if used effectively. This is what Charles Lane does here.
He gets up. Goes to the window. His BACK is eloquent. Do you get that? His very BACK is eloquent. You just FEEL for this man, this WITNESS. This kindly gentle man … who had had evidence of horrible child abuse in his town … and had done nothing.
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. Again, he doesn’t do it in an overdramatic way, he’s not being an ACTOR in this 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 her injuries out loud … he knows that his moment of reckoning has come. He remembers. And it’s a painful moment for him. This is why he stands and looks out the window. He is filled with grief at his inaction back then. Again, though: none of this is overplayed. You don’t think: “Oooh, look at this actor having a great moment.” You think: “This man is tormented. This poor man.”
Now this next will be a paraphrase – I wish I had the script in front of me, but this is the general idea:
He says, staring out the window … all we get of him is his back – his slightly stooped over back, “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.”
It is an absolutely devastating moment.
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.”
Again: it is a devastating moment. Beautifully and simply played. He doesn’t say “will you hear my confession?” It is implied. He wants forgiveness. It is out in the open now. Not just what happened to Sybil – but his complicity in it. He does not START the scene with this self-knowledge. Dr. Quinoness has not been walking around with a load of guilt for 30 years. He has suppressed what he saw way back then. But now he remembers. And it is a terrible terrible moment for him. This kindly old man, wearing glasses, and a black suit. 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?”
Cut back to Woodward, looking up at him. She has no answer for him.
The scene ends there.
There are many other amazing scenes in the film with some of the best acting I honestly have ever seen … but that small scene between Charles Lane and Joanne Woodward is my favorite in the entire film.
It’s because of what he brings to it.
In less than 5 minutes, he creates a completely three-dimensional character. It’s a very important scene – because of the information it imparts. Charles Lane’s part is simple: he is there to provide some 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 – and this is partly because of the writing – which is quite good – in this scene in particular: 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.
It’s just a perfectly played scene, on every level it needs to be. 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 THIS side of the person you’re playing in THIS scene, you can show THAT side of the person you’re playing in ANOTHER scene – You have TIME. I mean, you have more pressure on you, of course … but at least you have a lot of screen time to do your job. Not so with our 10-minute Oscar crowd. They have ONE scene, sometimes … and they MUST nail it – in less than 10 minutes. It’s tough, man.
So I just want to take a moment to sing the praise of Charles Lane’s unsung work in Sybil. It’s perfection.
Here is his long resume. He was already an old man when he filmed Sybil – and he is still alive. He just celebrated his 100th birthday. He was actually honored at last year’s Emmys – he was one of the founders of the television academy – and he is now its oldest surviving member. I loved this bit of trivia:
Was honored on March 16, 2005 at the TVLand Awards for his long career and his 100th birthday. When he received his award, he said in his still-booming voice, “In case anyone’s interested, I’m still available!”
God bless him!!
But his career … I mean, LOOK at this career.
THAT is the career of a character actor. Stars’ resumes are always much shorter. Character actors, successful ones, do 10 movies to a star’s one. They show up, do their job for 3 days, and move on to the next one. Charles Lane worked constantly in television – appearing multiple times on I Love Lucy and many other classics.
He has been working 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 – Also, as I scrolled down his resume, I noticed how many times he was “uncredited”. He was a workman. Showed up, said his 5 lines, moved on to his next job. Bless those people.
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. He brings his history with him to every part. You may think of him as “that guy”. Oh, wait – that’s that guy!!
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 what I want to do.” 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 just 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.