Friday, November 16, 2007


Centennial Tributes: Burgess Meredith

By Edward Copeland
Not enough credit goes to our best character actors, actors who, more times than not, never fail, even if they seldom get near top billing. That's certainly the case with the late, great Burgess Meredith, who would have turned 100 today. He truly was a utility player: You could get the serious Burgess, the campy Burgess, the eccentrically fun Burgess or even the flat-out hammy Burgess, and he seldom failed at any of those. I wonder what he's most remembered for now, 10 years after his death. Is it his fantastic interpretation of The Penguin on the 1960s Batman TV series? Could it be Jack Lemmon's father in Grumpy Old Men? Is it Rocky Balboa's crotchety trainer in the first three Rocky movies? Meredith was all of these roles and so much more.

He made his film debut in 1936, six years after he made his debut on the Broadway stage in a production of Romeo and Juliet starring and directed by Eva Le Gallienne. He would return frequently to Broadway, often as a director (including a Tony nomination as director of a play for Ulysses in Nighttown in 1974.

Still, film and TV were where Meredith would leave his strongest impressions and he did that just three years into his career in the role of George in Lewis Milestone's film adaptation of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Two years later, Meredith gave what is, for me, my favorite performance, depicted in the photo at the top of this post. In Ernst Lubitsch's That Uncertain Feeling Meredith gave a delightfully odd performance as concert pianist Alexander Sebastian, who manages to break up the marriage of the Bakers (Melvyn Douglas, Merle Oberon). The scene that introduces him, set in the lobby of a psychiatrist's office, is priceless even when standing alone. Sebastian describes himself as an "individualist" and insists that "I hate humankind and humankind hates me." The film itself is by far a lesser Lubitsch, but Meredith's performance makes the whole enterprise worthwhile.

He took on the role of real-life WWII journalist Ernie Pyle in 1945's The Story of G.I. Joe, which earned Robert Mitchum his only Oscar nomination. He continued to work frequently in film, including three films with Otto Preminger: 1962's Advise and Consent, 1963's The Cardinal and 1965's In Harm's Way. In the latter two, he mostly lent solid support, but Advise and Consent gave Meredith one of his very best screen roles as an extremely nervous witness in a congressional hearing.

Of course, 1966 brought him the role that first made me aware of him (and endeared me to the actor as well): The Penguin on TV's Batman. His, as just about everyone on that show, was a comic tour de force and I still prefer him to a Danny DeVito version of the role. After the TV show ended, he still made forays into film, including achieving the rare goal of winning two supporting actor nominations in a row. The first came for 1975's The Day of the Locust, an adaptation of Nathanael West's novella, which I saw a young child, dragging my parents to it because I knew The Penguin was in it. I haven't seen the film in more than 30 years, but I can still remember his character cackling from a coffin. The following year, he got his second Oscar nomination for another of his best-known turns: Rocky Balboa's trainer Mickey in the original Rocky, a role he repeated in the first two sequels. Meredith managed to make the crusty old dude fresh without being corny.

I also enjoyed him as Goldie Hawn's karate-fighting landlord in 1978's Foul Play. His melee with Rachel Roberts still makes me laugh. He also appeared as one of the many stars in 1981's Clash of the Titans. Late in his career, he enjoyed another resurgence as Lemmon's foul-mouthed dad in Grumpy Old Men and its sequel.

Still, aside from all these other memorable roles, I have a feeling he might get a big dose of fond remembrance for his appearances on Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone, on which he guest-starred four times, including in what, for me at least, was that series' finest episode: 1959's "Time Enough at Last." Playing a geeky bookworm who repeatedly sneaks away from his duties at a bank to read in the vault, his choice of hiding place ends up making him the sole survivor of a nuclear attack. The man is giddy with excitement: No one is left to mock him and he has all the time and all the books in the world at his disposal, until the script gives him one of the series' most cruel twists.

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Burgess Meredith was absolutely, positively, one of the greatest....My father actually saw him on stage in the original production of "Of Mice and Men," which I really would have liked to have seen.

But I was fortunate one time as a teenager to see him accept an award from, of all organizations, The Count Dracula Society for, of all movies, "The Sentinel." (Basically, under the late Don Reed, that organization had a policy of giving awards to whichever celebrity they could get to show up.)

Anyhow, it was a very silly night, punctuated by moments of weird greatness when someone like, say, Rouben Mamoulian would get an award. By time it was Meredith's turn, it was pretty evident he'd been boozing it up just a little at Ray Bradbury's table.

He got up on the stage and took the award. It was exactly the award you'd expect the Count Dracula Society to give -- an Oscar-sized Bela Lugosi-esque count, complete with cape and a tiny dab of red paint near Drac's mouth.

The first thing Meredith said were words to the effect that maybe it would have been more fitting if he'd won the award for some of his "Twilight Zone" work, and a few of us applauded.

Then, he took another look at the award. He said, "You know, I've won a lot of awards. I can't really say I'll treasure this one more than the others, but I sure will stare at it a lot."

My kind of guy.
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