Burgess Meredith, The raspy-voiced character actor with unruly hair and a grimacing yet humorous nature displayed his versatile acting skills in a series of always refreshing but generally eccentric roles that kept him before cameras or onstage for more than 70 years.
He managed to overcome a major hitch in in the 1950s, when Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist witch-hunt targeted the actor’s liberal views, resulting in his being blacklisted.
He found an entire new career late in life as the wily and fiendish Penguin on the television series Batman and as Rocky’s crusty manager Micky, the aging boxing manager who fulfills the dream of his youth through the over-the-hill fighter.
In Batman (1966), he developed his grunting Penguin laugh out of necessity. Meredith had given up smoking some twenty-odd years earlier, but his character was required to smoke with a cigarette holder. The smoke would get caught in his throat and he would start coughing. Rather than constantly ruin takes in this matter, he developed the laugh to cover it up. “Actually, it was a pretty funny noise for a penguin to make,” said Meredith. “I sounded more like a duck.” Needless to say, Meredith gave up smoking again immediately after the series ended.
Meredith was nominated twice for an Academy Award (for The Day of the Locust in 1975 and for Rocky in 1976) but didn’t win. He won an Emmy in 1977 for his portrayal of attorney Joseph Welch in Tail Gunner Joe, a TV special about Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and was nominated for a second Emmy for The Last Hurrah. He won a special Tony Award for his 1960 staging of A Thurber Carnival. He also was nominated for another Tony for directing Ulysses in Night town.
He went on to appear in a variety of Cult films such as Clash of the Titans (1981) Santa Claus: The Movie (1985), G.I. Joe: The Movie (1987) and Grumpy Old Men (1993). Also worth examining is an episode of The Twilight Zone in the early 1960s.
In “Time enough at Last,” Meredith played a bank teller who preferred reading to the company of people. One day he had retreated to the bank’s vault to eat his lunch and read in peace when a nuclear attack killed everyone else in the world. After emerging from the vault and determining that he was the last of his species, Meredith’s character briefly relished his opportunity to finally have the time for his beloved books. Then he tripped in the rubble that symbolized the end of civilization and broke his glasses.
No one else could cut us so deep with the profound truths Burgess Meredith brought to his roles. Who could forget the bitter and hurtful honesty he lashed out in Rocky 3?
“He’ll kill ya to death inside of three rounds!” And sadly- it was so.
Burgess Meredith was a colourful, candid, and witty man with a remarkable career – including dozens of films, scores of plays, and distinguished directorial work both on Broadway and on the screen. He was part of a glittering world that ranged from Tallulah Bankhead’s salacious midnight parties in her Gotham Hotel suite (she played hostess in the nude), to the behind-the-set antics with former wife Paulette Goddard (together they misplaced $300,000 worth of jewels).
His Autobiography ‘So Far, So Good’ is filled with marvellous anecdotes and revealing reminiscences about John Huston, Orson Welles, Jimmy Stewart, Ingrid Bergman, John Steinbeck, Marlene Dietrich, Ian Fleming, Fred Astaire, Charles Chaplin, Aldous Huxley, Alexander Calder, Kurt Weill, Ginger Rogers, Jean Renoir, Lauren Bacall, Artie Shaw, David Selznick, Charles Laughton, and Andy Warhol. The man was a delight to watch from his first film to his last.