Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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BUZZ

On November 16, 1908, Burgess Meredith was born—"Buzz" to all who knew him well. An actor with a ubiquitous presence throughout my childhood, I suppose anyone who grew up in the mid-1960s can imitate the "quack, quack, quack" he came up with for the villainous Penguin on Batman. Especially Jon Stewart, who brought it to The Daily Show for his Dick Cheney impression. Meredith could use that sandpapery voice of his to play things to the hilt, such as 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 episodes of The Twilight Zone; 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" (1959).

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 men and women of the theatre: Eva Le Gallienne and Guthrie McClintock. Before turning thirty, he would become a major force on Broadway; highly praised in a 1937 New Yorker profile by Wolcott Gibbs. A theatre critic himself, Gibbs quoted his fellow brethren in the article, describing 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 another Anderson play, 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.''

Burgess Meredith in a publicity still from 1939.

It was two years prior when Meredith broke through as a star of the first rank in Maxwell Anderson's 1935 Winterset. 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, though essentially unknown today. This is due mainly to a proclivity 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 was a life-long left-winger, which would later prove a big problem during the Red Scare of the 1950s.

Having first achieved movie stardom in 1939 when he portrayed George in the film version of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, he went on to many more important parts, even receiving an Academy Award nomination for The Story of G.I. Joe. He brought to real-life wartime journalist Ernie Pyle the personal experience of having risen to the rank of Captain in the Army Air Corps during World War II. But his film career came to a sudden halt in 1949, when he was effectively blacklisted due to his vocal political stances. Barred from working in Hollywood, unlike many others in the same boat, he managed to find small jobs in New York via live television and radio (that voice!). Though able to make a living, he was largely unchallenged by much of the work, forcing him to dig deep and return to his roots in the theatre, where he acted less, and produced and directed more.

As Mio in Winterset (1935).

The first Broadway show he staged (and starred in) was a musical called Happy as Larry. It played all of three performances. He replaced actors in hits like Teahouse of the August Moon and The Fourposter, until finally landing a big success on stage in the title role of a light comedy, The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker. Then came an ever greater personal triumph in a 1956 all-star cast 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 world 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 infamous 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.

It was Otto Preminger, one of the small band who helped end the blacklist, who was responsible for summoning Meredith back to Hollywood for the producer-director's big screen adaptation of a popular Washington potboiler of the day, Advise and Consent. For his role as a weaselly red-baiter (poetic justice), Meredith received a Best Supporting Actor award from the National Board of Review. From then on, he traded in New York for the more lucrative lifestyle of an L.A. actor, right along with a home in Malibu. He did return briefly to the theatre as director of novelist James Baldwin's playwriting debut, staging Blues for Mister Charlie in 1964. 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 until just a year before his death in 1997 at the age of eighty-nine. Though I always enjoyed him in nearly everything he did, I always wondered how his magnetism translated itself to the theatre. For that, it's still photos like the one below that force me to imagine what he was like as a strapping young man, taking the world (and the stage) by storm. He must have been glorious.

As Prince Hal in Five Kings, Orson Welles's adaptation of Shakespeare's history plays into an evening. It never made it to Broadway, closing in Philadelphia in 1939.

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now available at Amazon.com. Please email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.

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