Burgess Meredith in a publicity still from 1939.
On this date in 1907, Burgess Meredith was born — “Buzz” to all who knew him.* An actor with a ubiquitous presence throughout my childhood, anyone who grew up in the mid-1960s can easily imitate the “quack, quack, quack” he came up with for the villainous Penguin on Batman. Especially Jon Stewart, who brought it back for The Daily Show to use for his Dick Cheney impression. Meredith could use that sandpapery voice of his to play things to the hilt, such as Sylvester Stallone’s boxing trainer, the crusty (but benign) Mickey in the first three Rocky films, or just as easily dial it down to a gentle smoothness, as he did when hawking products like Skippy Peanut Butter, Honda, Bullova Watches and United Airlines in his voluminous commercial voice over work. Then there was his immortal place as the star of not one, but four Twilight Zone episodes; my favorite of which was “Time Enough at Last.” This was where he played bespectacled book lover Henry Bemis, a role made eternally memorable by its smashing twist of a finish — right up there with the best of O Henry.
As Henry Bemis in “Time Enough at Last,” the 8th of 156 episodes of The Twilight Zone (1959).
False nose, a monocle and a cigarette holder perpetually clamped between his teeth, Burgess Meredith as The Penguin.
As Mickey in the Academy Award winning Best Picture of 1976 Rocky.
But it was Meredith’s work in the theatre, as not only an actor, but as a producer and director, that trumped nearly all else he achieved in his long career. He came up the hard way, through perseverance and good luck, but also by coming under the tutelage of two of the most gifted managing directors of the theatre: Eva Le Gallienne and Guthrie McClintic. Before turning thirty, he would become a major force on Broadway; highly praised in a 1937 New Yorker profile by Wolcott Gibbs, a veteran theatre critic. Gibbs quoted his fellow brethren in the article, who described Meredith’s performances as “‘brilliant,’ ‘impressive,’ ‘heartbreaking,’ ‘vibrant,’ ‘elegant,’ ‘sinewy,’ and, most often and most inevitably, ‘sensitive’” At the time of the New Yorker piece, Meredith was starring in Maxwell Anderson’s High Tor, which prompted the New York Post critic Richard Watts Jr. to write, “That Mr. Meredith is the best young actor on the American stage is generally conceded.” He then added, “There isn’t a better American actor of any age.”
It was two years prior when Meredith broke through as a star of the first rank in another Anderson play, 1935’s Winterset, which the playwright wrote specifically for him. It’s hard to understand today what an impact this play had on audiences, especially since it is rarely revived. For a twenty-year stretch in the 1930s-50s, Anderson was both prolific and popular, possessing a penchant for writing in blank verse, which he did with Winterset, a drama he based on the Sacco-Vanzetti case of the 1920s. The story of two immigrants executed for a robbery and murder they didn’t commit, reflected the playwright, as well as his leading actor’s, strong liberal bias. Meredith, a life-long left-winger, would later prove a big problem for the actor during the Red Scare and blacklist of the 1950s.
Born in the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood, Oliver Burgess Meredith was the son of a doctor, William George Meredith, and the daughter of a Methodist revivalist, the former Ida Burgess. In his autobiography, Meredith wrote, “If I close my eyes and think back, I see little except violence and fear. My mother was in constant despair and my father, a doctor manqué, drank heavily.” The young Buzz attended Amherst College, though he dropped out and for the next few years tried everything from being a reporter to a merchant seaman.
At age twenty-two, he thought acting might be worth a try and had the good fortune to be chosen to join Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theater in Manhattan, which would be ultimately responsible for not only his training, but for his Broadway debut in Romeo and Juliet in the small role of Peter (Le Gallienne herself was Juliet).
Movie stardom came relatively easily when Meredith repeated his stage triumph in the motion picture version of Winterset (1936), his first of over a hundred films. Three years later, he portrayed George in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and for the next decade came a slew of characters, abruptly halted in 1949 when he was effectively blacklisted due to his vocal political stances. Barred from working in Hollywood, he returned to New York and found jobs in live television and radio (that voice!). But the blacklist caught up with him there too, and he was forced to forgo those lucrative salaries and return to less high-paying theatre work. It helped that he was in demand, as between 1950 and 1960, he acted in six plays and directed another six.
As Mio in the Broadway production of Winterset (1935).
The first Broadway show he staged (and starred in) was a musical called Happy as Larry. It played all of three performances. A reliable replacement actor, he starred in such long-running plays as Teahouse of the August Moon and The Fourposter, until he landed a big success creating the title role in the light comedy, The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker. Then came an even greater personal triumph in a 1956 all-star revival of Shaw’s Major Barbara. In it, he played opposite Glynis Johns and Eli Wallach, and was directed by (and co-starred with) the great Charles Laughton. Meredith then conquered the burgeoning and previously unchartered waters of Off-Broadway, with his conception and staging of Ulysses in Nighttown, an adaptation of a portion of James Joyce’s world-famous novel. A critical smash, he helped bring a fellow blacklisted actor to a new level of craftsmanship and prominence, in Zero Mostel’s highly praised interpretation of Leopold Bloom. Later, he would play opposite Mostel in a television version of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in 1961.
In 1960, he co-created with his friend, the author and cartoonist James Thurber, A Thurber Carnival, a revue of the writer’s works that he also directed. Cleverly utilizing a small cast, Meredith added a jazz score by Don Elliott, performed live on stage and not in the orchestra pit. For his efforts, received a special Tony Award.
It was Otto Preminger, one of the brave individuals who helped end the blacklist, who was responsible for summoning Meredith back to Hollywood. It was for the producer-director’s big screen adaptation of Allen Drury’s popular Washington potboiler, Advise and Consent and for his role as a weaselly Commie hater (poetic justice), Meredith received a Best Supporting Actor award from the National Board of Review. From then on, he returned to the lucrative lifestyle of an L.A. actor, right along with the requisite home in Malibu (where he lived until his death). He did return briefly to the theatre, staging Blues for Mister Charlie in 1964, novelist James Baldwin’s playwriting debut. His last appearance as an actor on Broadway was that same year in a flop called, I Was Dancing. Whether it soured Meredith on returning to the stage for the rest of his life is hard to say, but from the looks of some of the photos, he appeared to be having a grand old time.
As Daniel Considine in I Was Dancing (1964).
Meredith would continue to work in film and television with a profound renaissance in the mid-70s, garnering back-to-back Academy Award nominations for Rocky and The Day of the Locust. He would remain almost steadily employed until a year before his death in 1997, when he passed away just prior to his ninetieth birthday. Hell, at eighty-five he published his autobiography, So Far, So Good. Can anyone who saw him forget his crusty character in 1993’s Grumpy Old Men (and its 1995 sequel) as Jack Lemmon’s father, employing every curse word in the book?
Though I always enjoyed him in nearly everything he did, I always wondered how his magnetism translated itself to the theatre. When in 1939 he and Orson Welles embarked on a stage production that weaved parts of Shakespeare’s history plays into one, emphasizing the relationship between Falstaff and Prince Hal, the ambitious result wound up closing out of town. “We thought we’d combine our immortal talents,” Meredith recalled, “but we shared colossal disaster instead.’’
For that, it’s vintage photos like the one below that force me to imagine what he was like as a strapping young man (all 5 feet, 5 and a half inches of him), boldly creating character after character.
He must have been glorious.
As Prince Hal in Five Kings, Orson Welles’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s history plays. It never made it to Broadway, closing in Philadelphia in 1939.
* Not only had Buzz always been his nickname, it was also a character he played in a 1933 Broadway play She Loves Me Not. “It sort of stuck,” he once told an interviewer.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, follow me here and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.