Oliver Burgess Meredith (November 16, 1907 – September 9, 1997), known professionally as Burgess Meredith, was an American actor, director, producer, and writer in theater, film, and television. Active for more than six decades, Meredith has been called “a virtuosic actor” and “one of the most accomplished actors of the century”.
A life member of The Actors Studio by invitation,he won several Emmys, was the first male actor to win the Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actor twice, and was nominated for two Academy Awards.
Meredith was known later in his career for his appearances on The Twilight Zone and for portraying arch-villain the Penguin on the 1960s TV series Batman and boxing trainer Mickey Goldmill in the Rocky film series.
“Although those performances renewed his popularity,” observed Mel Gussow in The New York Times, “they represented only a small part of a richly varied career in which he played many of the more demanding roles in classical and contemporary theater—in plays by Shakespeare, O’Neill, Beckett and others.”
Meredith was born in 1907 in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of Ida Beth (née Burgess) and Canadian-born physician of English descent, Dr. William George Meredith.
Meredith graduated from Hoosac School in 1926 and then attended Amherst College (class of 1931). He later served in the United States Army Air Forces in World War II, reaching the rank of Captain. He was discharged in 1944 to work on the movie The Story of G.I. Joe, in which he starred as the popular war correspondent Ernie Pyle.
In 1929, he became a member of Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theatre company in New York City. Although best known to the larger world audience for his film and television work, Meredith was an influential actor and director for the stage.
He made his Broadway debut as Peter in Le Gallienne’s production of Romeo and Juliet (1930) and became a star in Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset (1935), which became his film debut the following year.
His early life and theatre work were the subject of a New Yorker profile.
He garnered critical acclaim in the 1935 Broadway revival of The Barretts of Wimpole Street starring Katharine Cornell.
She subsequently cast him in several of her later productions. Other Broadway roles included Van van Dorn in High Tor (1937), Liliom in Liliom (1940), Christy Mahon in The Playboy of the Western World (1946), and Adolphus Cusins Major Barbara (1957).
He created the role of Erie Smith in the English-language premiere of Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie at the Theater Royal in Bath, England in 1963.
He played Hamlet in avant garde theatrical and radio productions of the play.
A distinguished theatre director, he won a Tony Award nomination for his 1974 Broadway staging of Ulysses in Nighttown, a theatrical adaptation of the “Nighttown” section of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Meredith also shared a Special Tony Award with James Thurber for their collaboration on A Thurber Carnival (1960).
Early in his career, Meredith attracted favorable attention, especially for playing George in a 1939 adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and as war correspondent Ernie Pyle in The Story of G.I. Joe (1945).
He was featured in many 1940s films, including three — Second Chorus (1940), Diary of a Chambermaid (1946), and On Our Merry Way (1948) — co-starring then-wife Paulette Goddard. He also played alongside Lana Turner in Madame X. However, as a result of the House Committee on Un-American Activities investigation, Meredith was placed on the Hollywood blacklist, resulting in a seven-year absence from the screen.
Meredith was a favorite of director Otto Preminger, who cast him in Advise and Consent (1962), In Harm’s Way (1965), Hurry Sundown (1967), Skidoo (1968), and Such Good Friends (1971).
He was the Penguin in the Batman movie of 1966 based on the TV series, and in Stay Away Joe (1968) appeared as the father of Elvis Presley’s character.
In 1975, he received critical acclaim for his performance as Harry Greene in The Day of the Locust and received nominations for the BAFTA, Golden Globe, and Academy Award for best supporting actor. Meredith then played Rocky Balboa’s trainer, Mickey Goldmill, in the first three Rocky films (1976, 1979, and 1982).
Though his character died in the third Rocky film, he returned briefly in a flashback in the fifth film, Rocky V (1990). His portrayal in the first film earned him his second consecutive nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Meredith played an old Korean War veteran Captain J.G. Williams in The Last Chase with Lee Majors. He appeared in Ray Harryhausen’s last stop-motion feature Clash of the Titans (1981), in a supporting role. Meredith appeared in Santa Claus: The Movie (1985). In his last years, he played Jack Lemmon’s character’s sex-crazed 95-year-old father in Grumpy Old Men (1993) and its sequel, Grumpier Old Men (1995).
Meredith directed the movie The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1949) starring Charles Laughton, which was produced by Irving Allen. Meredith also was billed in a supporting role in this film. In 1970, he directed (as well as cowrote and played a supporting role in) The Yin and the Yang of Mr. Go, an espionage caper starring James Mason and Jeff Bridges.
Meredith appeared in four different starring roles in the acclaimed anthology TV series The Twilight Zone, tying him with Jack Klugman for the most appearances on the show in a starring role. In the famous “Time Enough at Last”, a 1959 episode of The Twilight Zone, he played a milquetoast bank teller who only wants to be left alone with his books.
In the 1961 episode “Mr. Dingle, the Strong”, Meredith plays the title character, a timid weakling who, as the subject of a space alien’s experiment on human nature, suddenly acquires superhuman strength. In “Printer’s Devil”, Meredith portrayed the Devil himself, and in “The Obsolete Man” he portrayed a librarian, sentenced to death in a future, dystopic totalitarian society.
He would later play two more roles in Rod Serling’s other anthology series, Night Gallery. Meredith was the narrator for Twilight Zone: The Movie in 1983.
The actor appeared in various other television programs, including the role of Chris, III, in the 1962 episode “Hooray, Hooray, the Circus Is Coming to Town” of the NBC medical drama about psychiatry, The Eleventh Hour starring Wendell Corey and Jack Ging. He also guest starred in the ABC drama about psychiatry, Breaking Point in the 1963 episode titled “Heart of Marble, Body of Stone”.
Meredith appeared in various western series, such as Rawhide (four times), The Virginian (twice), Wagon Train, Branded, The Wild Wild West, The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, Laredo, Bonanza, and Daniel Boone. In 1963, he appeared as Vincent Marion in a five-part episode of the last season of the Warner Brothers ABC detective series 77 Sunset Strip. He starred three times in Burke’s Law (1963–1964), starring Gene Barry.
Meredith also played the Penguin in the television series Batman from 1966 to 1968. His role as the Penguin was so well-received, the show’s writers always had a script featuring the Penguin ready whenever Meredith was available. Cesar Romero (the Joker) and he are tied for number of appearances on the show.
From 1972-73, Meredith played V.C.R. Cameron, director of Probe Control, in the television movie/pilot Probe and then in Search, the subsequent TV series (the name was changed to avoid conflict with a program on PBS).
He won an Emmy Award as Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy or Drama Special for the 1977 television film Tail Gunner Joe, a fictitious study of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, the anticommunist leader of the 1950s. He was cast as crusading lawyer Joseph Welch.
In 1992, Meredith narrated a television documentary entitled The Chaplin Puzzle which provided a rare insight into Charles Chaplin’s early work circa 1914 at Keystone Studios and Essanay, which is where Chaplin developed his Tramp character. The documentary producers re-edited Chaplin’s Police after extensive research, into a two-reeler in the way Chaplin intended it to be. Essannay had cut it down to half the intended length.
Meredith performed voiceover work. He provided the narration for A Walk in the Sun. As a nod to his longtime association with The Twilight Zone, he served as narrator for the 1983 film based on the series. He was the TV commercial voice for Bulova watches, Honda, Stokely-Van Camp, United Airlines, and Freakies breakfast cereal.
He supplied the narration for the 1974–75 ABC Saturday morning series Korg: 70,000 B.C. and was the voice of Puff in the series of animated adaptations of the Peter, Paul, and Mary song Puff, the Magic Dragon. In the mid-1950s, he was one of four narrators of the NBC and syndicated public affairs program, The Big Story (1949–58), which focused on courageous journalists. In 1991, he narrated a track on The Chieftains’ album of traditional Christmas music and carols, The Bells of Dublin.
He acted in the Kenny G music video of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, which was released in 1997. He played the main character, a film operator at a movie theater.
His last role before his death was the portrayal of both Hamilton Wofford and Covington Wofford characters in the 1996 video game Ripper by Take-Two Interactive. Meredith was considered to play the Penguin’s father in the 1992 Tim Burton film Batman Returns, but illness prevented him from it and that role was taken by Paul Reubens.
In 1994, Meredith published his autobiography, So Far, So Good. In the book he confessed that he suffered from violent mood swings caused by cyclothymia, a form of bipolar disorder.
Meredith was married four times. His first wife, Helen Derby Merrien Burgess, was the daughter of the president of American Cyanamid. She took her life after their divorce. His next two wives were actresses, Margaret Perry and Paulette Goddard; Goddard suffered a miscarriage in 1944. His last marriage (to Kaja Sundsten) lasted 46 years, and produced two children, Jonathon (a musician) and Tala (a painter).
Meredith died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease and melanoma on September 9, 1997, aged 89, at his Malibu home. Friend Adam West spoke briefly at his memorial service. His remains were cremated.
Meredith was twice nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, in 1976 for Rocky, and in 1977 for The Day of the Locust, for which he also received a Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture. That performance brought him a BAFTA Award nomination.
Meredith won a Primetime Emmy Award for Supporting Actor in 1977 for Tail Gunner Joe, and was nominated for the same award the next year for The Last Hurrah. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films three times, in 1978, 1979, and 1982, and won the last two times, for Magic and Clash of the Titans.
In 1962, Meredith won a Best Supporting Actor award from the National Board of Review, for Advise & Consent, and in 1985 he was nominated for a CableAce Award for his performance in Answers.
For his contributions to the motion picture industry, Meredith has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. For his onstage contributions, he was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.
Meredith has a 21-acre park named for him in Pomona, New York. He provided the funding to incorporate the village.