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A versatile actor blessed with a voice that was gruff and warm in turns, Burgess Meredith first gained notice on Broadway in such productions as "The Barretts of Wimpole Street" (1935) and "Winterset" (1935-36) and would go on to become equally respected and visible in movies and television. While he would sometimes describe himself as unambitious in interviews, Meredith wore many hats with apparent ease, writing and directing both plays and features in addition to his hundreds of credits as a performer in three different mediums. He established himself as a motion picture star via such films as "Of Mice and Men" (1939), "The Story of G.I. Joe" (1945), and "Mine Own Executioner" (1947), and although his career was temporarily stalled by the McCarthy witch hunt of the 1950s, Meredith always managed to stay employed. Most of the success Meredith enjoyed came from character roles, and he enjoyed latter-day recognition through his turns as the Penguin on the iconic "Batman" (ABC, 1966-68) TV series and Sylvester Stallone's cantankerous old mentor Micky Goldmill in four entries of the "Rocky" franchise. Memorable in everything from Shakespeare to horror potboilers, Meredith was a consummate professional and that dependability allowed him to work virtually non-stop during a career that lasted more than six decades.
Oliver Burgess "Buzz" Meredith was born in Cleveland, OH on Nov. 16, 1907 and began performing during grammar school, though he would later describe himself as having been an introverted child. After deciding that Amherst College was not for him, Meredith dropped out and held a series of jobs, including newspaper reporter, Wall Street floor runner, necktie salesman and member of a tramp steamer crew. Thrown in the brig after trying to desert from the latter post, Meredith assuaged his boredom by reciting lines from anything that came to mind, and the experience reportedly helped him decide to become an actor. He moved to New York City and made his Broadway debut in a 1930 staging of "Romeo and Juliet," with many encore trips to the stage during that decade for productions like "Siegfried" (1930), "Alice in Wonderland" (1932-33), "Threepenny Opera" (1933) and "The Barretts of Wimpole Street" (1935). He honed his skills with Eva Le Gallienne's theatre company and its staging of "Winterset" (1935-36), which told of a son's quest to prove his late father innocent of murder, put him on the map. Playwright Maxwell Anderson insisted that Meredith play the lead and his instincts were proven correct when the show won the New York Drama Critics Award.
As with the stage, it would be the subsequent motion picture version of "Winterset" (1936) that put Meredith's film career in motion. He also earned significant critical attention for his work in "Of Mice and Men" (1939), as the friend and guardian of simple-minded man/mountain Lennie (Lon Chaney, Jr.). In 1942, Meredith was inducted into the Army Air Corps, eventually becoming a captain. While serving in Europe, he wrote, produced and acted in a pair of training films and was given time away from his duties to star in "The Story of G.I. Joe" (1945), an adaptation of war correspondent Ernie Pyle's bestseller, Here is Your War. Chosen by Pyle himself for the part, Meredith received high marks for his performance and it turned out to be one of his career highlights. The envy of many of men around the world, Meredith wed actress and popular WWII pin-up Paulette Goddard in 1944. The two appeared together in Jean Renoir's romantic melodrama "The Diary of a Chambermaid" (1946), which Meredith also wrote, before eventually divorcing after five years of marriage. He did fine work as a troubled psychoanalyst in the solid British thriller, "Mine Own Executioner" (1947) and stepped behind the camera for his first directorial effort, "The Man on the Eiffel Tower" (1949), which met with a mixed response. The actor also made return trips to Broadway that decade via appearances in the title role of "Liliom" (1940), "Candida" (1942-43), and "The Playboy of the Western World" (1946-47). Meredith was not adverse to working on the fledgling medium of television and appeared on such early network shows as "Studio One" (CBS, 1948-1958), "Lights Out" (NBC, 1949-1952), "Tales of Tomorrow" (ABC, 1951-53), and "Omnibus" (CBS/ABC/NBC, 1952-1961).
An outspoken liberal, Meredith soon ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Fortunately, the blacklist had no effect on Broadway employment, so Meredith expanded his stage repertoire by making his Broadway directorial bow with "Lo and Behold!" (1951-52). He also appeared in productions of such perennials as "The Teahouse of the August Moon" (1953-56) and "Major Barbara" (1957). Unfortunately, Meredith's seven-year absence from the big screen ended with an embarrassing, politically incorrect "yellowface" role as a Japanese interpreter in the limp military comedy "Joe Butterfly" (1957), evidently the result of his similar part in "Teahouse." The political drama "Advise & Consent" (1962) marked the first of five collaborations between Meredith and director Otto Preminger, followed shortly by "The Cardinal" (1963) and "In Harm's Way" (1965), and Meredith made guest star appearances in four famous episodes of "The Twilight Zone" (CBS, 1959-1963), "77 Sunset Strip" (ABC, 1958-1964), "Burke's Law" (ABC, 1963-66), and "The Wild Wild West" (CBS, 1965-69). He also had a recurring role as a principal on the final season of the high school drama, "Mr. Novak" (NBC, 1963-65).
While never a major star, Meredith was consistently employed and well respected. However, his profile rose considerably and most unexpectedly when he was cast as the villainous Penguin on the "Batman" (ABC, 1966-68) TV series and in a 1966 feature film. The show quickly became a pop culture phenomenon and Meredith's comical performance as the waddling, top-hatted criminal endeared him to many of the children in the audience. For the first time, people started recognizing Meredith on the street, many displaying an irresistible urge to offer their own version of The Penguin's trademark quacking. While the campy "Batman" was dismissed by many critics as insipid, its humor was very much by design; Meredith's remaining film roles that decade tended to be in projects that were either unintentionally amusing, like Preminger's "Hurry Sundown" (1967) or comedies that failed to produce laughs, like the insipid Elvis Presley vehicle, "Stay Away, Joe" (1968). Another embarrassment came via Preminger's notorious stinker "Skidoo" (1969), which stranded Meredith and other Golden Age greats like Jackie Gleason, Groucho Marx and Meredith's "Batman" co-star Cesar Romero in a witless send-up of the counter culture movement. If "Skidoo" was not bad enough, Meredith then wrote, directed and co-starred in his own bizarre, equally ill-conceived comedy "The Yin and the Yang of Mr. Go" (1970), which accomplished nothing positive aside from providing Jeff Bridges' big screen debut. Meredith's final collaboration with Preminger, "Such Good Friends" (1971), was an unsatisfying experience for the actor and he later said that it was the one movie he regretted doing. The adventure series "Search" (NBC, 1972-73) lasted only 14 episodes, but Meredith was gifted with a final trip to Broadway for a revival of "Ulysses in Nighttown" (1974), which the actor had first directed with great success off-Broadway 16 years earlier.
With the mid-1970s came two of Meredith's best roles. A strong performance that earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, "The Day of the Locust" (1975) featured Meredith as a fallen vaudeville performer reduced to being a door-to-door salesman. A second nomination in that same category was extended to Meredith the following year for his wonderfully crotchety and battle scarred, but still wise boxing manager Mickey Goldmill in the smash hit, "Rocky" (1976). The actor did not win either of these prizes, but victory finally came Meredith's way with a Best Supporting Actor Emmy for his performance in the television feature "Tail Gunner Joe" (NBC, 1977), which looked at the life of controversial senator Joseph McCarthy and cast Meredith as attorney Joseph Welch. The part had special meaning for Meredith, given how he himself had been vilified during that era, and Welch was one of the men instrumental in bringing about McCarthy's downfall.
Like many older character players in their senior years, Meredith's big screen work would be all over the map in terms of quality, though he rarely put a foot wrong when it came to his performances. He managed to rise above a quartet of rotten horror films that included "Burnt Offerings" (1976), "The Sentinel" (1977), "Magic" (1978) and "The Manitou" (1978), and made the most of a prime role in the Goldie Hawn/Chevy Chase mystery-comedy hit "Foul Play" (1978). A boilerplate sequel, "Rocky II" (1979) had little of the pathos or humanity found in the original, but was embraced by audiences anyway, while the Canadian tax shelter films "The Final Assignment" (1980) and "The Last Chase" (1981) were little seen. Better roles came in the stop-motion fantasy epic "Clash of the Titans" (1981) and "True Confessions" (1981), and the actor took his third bow as Mickey in "Rocky III" (1982), with the series still proving as popular as ever. Jean-Luc Godard's obscure "King Lear" (1987) featured Meredith in one of his more unusual assignments, sharing the screen with Brat Pack regular Molly Ringwald. That same year, the actor belatedly received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He also co-hosted the family program "Those Amazing Animals" (ABC, 1980-81) and tried his hand at situation comedy on the short-lived "All in the Family" spin-off, "Gloria" (CBS, 1982-83).
After being left out of the fourth chapter, Meredith returned as Mickey for a flashback sequence in the poorly received "Rocky V" (1990), but was much better served opposite Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in the comedy hit "Grumpy Old Men" (1993). Meredith also had intermittent TV roles during this period, including three appearances as a judge on "In the Heat of the Night" (NBC, 1988-1994) and an ill-advised remake of "Night of the Hunter" (ABC, 1991). He published his autobiography, So Far, So Good, in 1994 and rejoined Lemmon and Matthau for "Grumpier Old Men" (1995), which turned out to be his last theatrical film. Meredith's distinctive voice and delivery also made him a regular choice to narrate features and commercials, and he also provided voices for animation, including the title role of "Puff the Magic Dragon" in the original 1978 CBS special and two follow-ups. His final job was voicing a lead character in "Ripper" (1996), an interactive computer game that provided a 21st century spin on the Jack the Ripper case. A firm believer in animal rights, Meredith lived for a number of years on a Northern California farm and at one point, had several dozen different types of exotic waterfowl. Plagued by Alzheimer's disease in the latter years of his life, Meredith died of that malady and melanoma on Sept. 9, 1997.
By John Charles
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