Today is the birthday of the great character actor Burgess Meredith (1907-1997). Meredith holds a special place in our Hall of Hams by being one of the very last of the English-sounding American thespians. He was from Ohio, but that’s not what you hear when he speaks. The “stage accent” (Orson Welles and Vincent Price had it too) is an aesthetic I hold dear and am saddened to think of as a thing of the past. (Some have been offended by my “ham” designation, not realizing that I use it as a term of affection. This blog series is composed almost entirely of some of history’s greatest actors, with only a few “hacks”. And even those “hacks” are artists who work within a tradition I happen to admire, thus making them personalities I value far greater than many other supposedly “better” actors working with the tradition of realism. At any rate, Meredith is not one of these anyway — he was a flippin’ awesome actor.)
There are so many phases to his career I hardly know where to start. One is tempted to snipe at his best known roles. (You know the roles I am talking about) And yet another way to look at it is this: his experience and expertise as a professional were so great by the time he took those roles on, that he was able to create characters that remain indelible, even if the framework around them were relative fluff. Actually if you think about it, the phenomenon of Burgess Meredith’s Penguin is not too different from Heath Ledger’s Joker. There is a BOATLOAD of heart and craft and work in those two characterizations — far in advance perhaps of what the respective Batman vehicles were asking for. It’s like having Laurence Olivier play Ronald McDonald. (Claims that the recent rash of superhero films are America’s Greek tragedy and Wagnerian opera are laughably overblown. The potential has always been there for such heights, but the execution in the writing NEVER has been.)
At any rate, Meredith’s skills were manifest in his earliest years as a stage actor. He began as an apprentice with Eva La Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theatre in 1929; he broke through to stage stardom in Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset in 1935, and made his film debut in the screen adaptation the following year. He remained a stage star for many years, appearing in Anderson’s High Tor (1937), in the title role in a revival of Liliom (1940), several Katharine Cornell productions etc for the next several decades. He was a weird looking little dude, which is why, though he worked steadily in films through the rest of his life, it was mostly in character parts — rarely as a leading man. Some early high profile film roles for him included George in Hal Roach’s production of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1939) and real-life war correspondent Ernie Pyle in The Story of G.I. Joe (1945). He also co-starred in three films with the third of his four wives Paulette Goddard (essentially getting her on the re-bound from Charlie Chaplin.
Meredith was also a frequent presence on radio in the 30s and 40s. Naturally the 50s and 60s saw lots of television work, including four classic performances on The Twilight Zone and his best known work on Batman from 1966 to 1968. By the mid 70s (as he himself was nearing the seven-decade mark) he managed to reinvent himself yet again, in some ways reaching the pinnacle of his career in terms of public profile. Old age suited his little stoopy frame, somewhat twisted visage, and husky wheezy voice. His trainer character “Mick” in the Rocky movies was gruff and earthy to the point of (intentional) absurdity, a far cry from, say, his monocle, top hat and kid glove wearing dude the Penguin. He often specialized in eccentric elderly neighbors and suchlike in horror and suspense films like Burnt Offerings (1976), The Sentinel (1977) and Foul Play (1978 — well, a comedy-suspense film). He also did commercial and voice-over work (see my piece here about Korg: 70,000 B.C., which he narrated). He also acted in a film he directed and co-wrote, the exceedingly strange The Yin and The Yang of Mr. Go. (1970). Burgess Meredith was acting right up until the end…among his last performances was in the Grumpy Old Man films.