Burgess Meredith

Oliver Burgess Meredith (November 16, 1907[2][3] – September 9, 1997)[4] was an American actor, director, producer, and writer. Active for more than six decades,[5] Meredith has been called "a virtuosic actor"[2] and "one of the most accomplished actors of the century".[6] A lifetime member of the Actors Studio[7] by invitation,[8] he won several Emmys,[9] was the first male actor to win the Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actor twice, and was nominated for two Academy Awards.[9]

Burgess Meredith
Meredith in a publicity photo (1954)
Oliver Burgess Meredith

(1907-11-16)November 16, 1907
DiedSeptember 9, 1997(1997-09-09) (aged 89)
Alma materAmherst College
OccupationActor, producer, director, writer
Years active1929–1996
Height5 ft 5 14 in (166 cm)
Helen Derby
(m. 1933; div. 1935)

Margaret Perry
(m. 1936; div. 1938)

Paulette Goddard
(m. 1944; div. 1949)

Kaja Sundsten (m. 1950)
Military career
Allegiance United States
Service/branch U.S. Army Air Forces
Years of service1942–45
Rank Captain[1]
Acting President of the Actors' Equity Association
In office
Preceded byFrank Gillmore
Succeeded byArthur Byron

He established himself as a leading man in Hollywood with critically acclaimed performances as George Milton in Of Mice and Men (1939), Ernie Pyle in The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), and the narrator of A Walk in the Sun (1945).

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. For his performances in The Day of the Locust (1975) and Rocky (1976), he received nominations for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He later starred in the comedy Foul Play (1978) and the fantasy film Clash of the Titans (1981). He narrated numerous films and documentaries during his long career, including Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983).[10]

"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."[2]

Early life

Meredith was born in 1907 in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of Ida Beth (née Burgess) and Dr. William George Meredith, a Canadian-born physician, of English descent.[2][3][11] [12] His mother came from a long line of Methodist revivalists, a religion to which he adhered throughout his lifetime. He was a descendant of the house of Howard through Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of Henry VIII.

Meredith graduated from Hoosac School in 1926 and then attended Amherst College (class of 1931). He left Amherst, and became a reporter for the Stamford Advocate.[13] In 1942, he enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces during World War II, reaching the rank of captain.[1] After transferring to the Office of War Information, he made training and education films for America's armed forces. In 1943 he performed in the USAAF's recruiting short The Rear Gunner and the U.S. Army training film A Welcome to Britain for troops heading to the UK in preparation for the liberation of Europe.[14] He was released from duty in 1944 to work on the movie The Story of G.I. Joe, in which he played the war correspondent Ernie Pyle.[15] He was discharged from the USAAF in 1945.[1]

Acting career


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.[16]

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 in Major Barbara (1956). 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.[17]

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).[18] In the late seventies, he directed Fionnula Flanagan's one-woman multi-role play James Joyce's Women, which toured for several years.


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 his then-wife Paulette Goddard. As a result of the House Committee on Un-American Activities investigation, Meredith was placed on the Hollywood blacklist, and was largely absent from film for the next decade, though he remained involved in stage plays and radio during this time.[19]

Meredith was a favorite of director Otto Preminger, who cast him in Advise and Consent (1962), The Cardinal (1963), In Harm's Way (1965), Hurry Sundown (1967), Skidoo (1968), and Such Good Friends (1971). He was in Madame X (with Lana Turner, 1966) and Stay Away Joe (1968), appearing as the father of Elvis Presley's character. He was acclaimed by critics for his performance as Harry Greene in The Day of the Locust (1975) 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 (1981) with Lee Majors. He appeared in Ray Harryhausen's last stop-motion feature Clash of the Titans (also 1981) in a supporting role. Meredith appeared in Santa Claus: The Movie (1985) and was a voice actor in G.I. Joe: The Movie (1989). 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 co-wrote 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 anthology TV series The Twilight Zone, tying him with Jack Klugman for the most appearances on the show in a starring role.

In his first appearance in 1959, "Time Enough at Last", he portrayed a henpecked bookworm who finds himself the sole survivor of an unspecified apocalypse which leads him to contemplate suicide until he discovers the ruins of the library. In 1961's "Mr. Dingle, the Strong", Meredith played the title character, a timid weakling who receives superhuman strength from an extraterrestrial experiment in human nature. Also that year in "The Obsolete Man", Meredith portrayed a librarian sentenced to death in a dystopic totalitarian society. Lastly, in 1963's "Printer's Devil", Meredith portrayed the Devil himself. 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 Christopher Norbert 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 Bros. ABC detective series 77 Sunset Strip. He appeared 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 and in the 1966 film based on the TV series. His role as the Penguin was so well-received that the show's writers always had a script featuring the Penguin ready whenever Meredith was available. He and Cesar Romero (the Joker) are tied for number of appearances on the show. He also made a brief cameo appearance as the Penguin in the 1968 episode of The Monkees titled "Monkees Blow Their Minds".

From 1972 to 1973, 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).

Meredith 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 politician active in the 1950s. He was cast as crusading lawyer Joseph Welch.[20]

In 1992, Meredith narrated The Chaplin Puzzle, a television documentary that provides a rare insight into Charles Chaplin's work, circa 1914, at Keystone Studios and Essanay, where Chaplin developed his Tramp character.[21] Coincidentally, Meredith married actress Paulette Goddard in 1943 following her divorce from Chaplin.

Other work

Meredith also performed voice-over work. He provided the narration for the war film A Walk in the Sun (1945). As a nod to his longtime association with original Twilight Zone series, he served as narrator for the 1983 film based on the series. He was a TV commercial voice for such clients as Bulova, Honda, Pioneer, Stokely-Van Camp, United Airlines, and Freakies breakfast cereal. He also provided the narration for the short film Works Of Calder, a 1949-50 film by Herbert Matter which featured a musical soundtrack by the composer John Cage.

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 1994. He played the main character, a projectionist at a movie theater.[22]

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 appearing and the role was taken by Paul Reubens.[23]

Personal life and death

Meredith was married four times. His first wife, Helen Derby Merrien Burgess, was the daughter of Harry L. Derby, president of the American Cyanamid and Chemical Corporation; she took her life after their divorce.[24] His next two wives were actresses, Margaret Perry and Paulette Goddard. Goddard had 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 was a lifelong Democrat who often donated $200 and more to the party during his lifetime.[25] His autobiography, So Far, So Good, was published in 1994. In the book he wrote that he suffered from violent mood swings caused by cyclothymia, a form of bipolar disorder.[3]

Meredith died from complications of Alzheimer's disease and melanoma on September 9, 1997, aged 89, at his Malibu home.[26] Friend Adam West spoke briefly at his memorial service. His remains were cremated.

Awards and honors

Meredith was twice nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, in 1976 for Rocky, and in 1975 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, a remake of the film starring Spencer Tracy. 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.[27]

Meredith has a 21-acre park named for him in Pomona, New York. He provided the funding to incorporate the village.[28]

On May 14, 1977 - Meredith received his honorary doctorate degree from Upper Iowa University in Fayette, Iowa. [29][30][31]




Radio appearances

Philip Morris PlayhouseNight Must FallOctober 24, 1941Maureen O'Sullivan co-starred.[32]
Philip Morris PlayhouseMy Favorite WifeOctober 31, 1941Madeleine Carroll co-starred[33]
Philip Morris PlayhouseYou Only Live OnceNovember 28, 1941[34]
Cavalcade of AmericaRain FakersDecember 30, 1946[35]
Theatre Guild on the AirThe Sea WolfApril 27, 1952[36]
Theatre Guild on the AirBlack ChiffonMay 10, 1953[37]

See also



  1. "Meredith, Oliver Burgess, Capt". www.airforce.togetherweserved.com. Retrieved February 27, 2018.
  2. Gussow, Mel (September 11, 1997). "Burgess Meredith, 89, Who Was at Ease Playing Good Guys and Villains, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-09-17.
  3. "Burgess Meredith obituary". CNN. September 10, 1997.
  4. "Burgess Meredith dies at 89". CNN. 1997-09-10. Retrieved 2011-09-17.
  5. "24 X 7". Infoplease.com. Retrieved 2011-09-17.
  6. "Lakewood Lore – Burgess Meredith". Lkwdpl.org. 1997-09-10. Archived from the original on 2006-09-30. Retrieved 2011-09-17.
  7. Garfield, David (1980). "Appendix: Life Members of The Actors Studio as of January 1980". A Player's Place: The Story of The Actors Studio. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. p. 279. ISBN 0-02-542650-8.
  8. Garfield, David (1980). "Strasberg Takes Over: 1951–1955". A Player's Place: The Story of The Actors Studio. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. p. 278. ISBN 0-02-542650-8. Aside from the original Robert Lewis group and those who came in with Mann and Meisner and were asked to remain, such individuals as Roscoe Lee Browne, Dane Clark, Tamra Daykarhanova, Rita Gam, Burgess Meredith, Sidney Poitier, Paula Strasberg, Anna Mizrahi Strasberg, and Franchot Tone have been voted directly into membership by the Studio's directorate or by Strasberg himself. In the early sixties, several actors who performed with The Actors Studio Theatre were similarly admitted
  9. "Overview for Burgess Meredith". TCM. Retrieved 2011-09-17.
  10. "Overview for Burgess Meredith". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 19 March 2016.
  11. Burgess Meredith genealogy Archived 2012-10-24 at the Wayback Machine by Robert Battle, hosted at freepages.rootsweb
  12. {{cite web|url=https://gw.geneanet.org/tdowling?lang=en&p=jonathan&n=meredith]
  13. Meredith's Lakewood memories are mostly unhappy Lakewood Sun Post December 7, 1995, by Dan Chabek
  14. "WW2 Training Film for US Soldiers | How to Behave in Britain | 1943". Ministry of Information (United Kingdom) and US Office of War Information. Retrieved June 10, 2017.
  15. "The Story of G.I. Joe". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved September 16, 2011.
  16. Gibbs, Wolcott (April 3, 1937). "Profiles". The New Yorker. pp. 26–37. Retrieved February 18, 2014.
  17. Prideaux, Tom (1964). "Everything's Up to Date in Elsinore". Life. 56 (17). TimeLife, Inc. p. 96. Retrieved September 16, 2011.
  18. Burgess Meredith at the Internet Broadway Database
  19. Vosburgh, Dick. "Obituary: Burgess Meredith". The Independent. Retrieved 19 January 2016.
  20. Sanford, Bruce (2004). Libel and Privacy. Aspen Publishers. pp. 4–58. ISBN 0-7355-5297-5.
  21. A full copy of the 1992 documentary The Chaplin Puzzle narrated by Burgess Meredith is available for viewing on YouTube. Retrieved April 5, 2017.
  22. "Working Miracles". Billboard. December 10, 1994. Retrieved 2013-02-22.
  23. "Batman Returns". TCM. Retrieved 2013-02-22.
  24. "MRS. H.D. MEREDITH ENDS LIFE WITH GAS - Divorced Wife of Actor and Daughter of H.L. Derby Had Sent Child to New Jersey LAID TO BROKEN ROMANCE Letters Found in Washington Sq. Apartment Said to Tell of Row Over Ideologies" (PDF). The new York Times. 14 April 1940. Retrieved 19 March 2016.
  25. Broydo, Leoya (November–December 1996). "Hollywood's Political Odd Couples". Mother Jones.
  26. "Burgess Meredith dies at 89". CNN. 10 September 1997. Retrieved 30 August 2015.
  27. "Theater Hall of Fame members".
  28. "Burgess Meredith Park". Village Of Pomona – Burgess Meredith Park. Retrieved 19 April 2015.
  29. "Fayette County Leader from Fayette, Iowa on May 19, 1977 · Page 1".
  30. westunion.advantage-preservation.com
  31. "Chicago Tribune - Historical Newspapers".
  32. ""Playhouse" Star". Harrisburg Telegraph. October 18, 1941. p. 27. Retrieved July 21, 2015 via Newspapers.com.
  33. "Robinson-Zivic Fight". Harrisburg Telegraph. October 31, 1941. p. 19. Retrieved July 22, 2015 via Newspapers.com.
  34. "Johnny Presents". Harrisburg Telegraph. November 28, 1941. p. 19. Retrieved July 26, 2015 via Newspapers.com.
  35. "Radio's Golden Age". Nostalgia Digest. 40 (1): 40–41. Winter 2014.
  36. Kirby, Walter (April 27, 1952). "Better Radio Programs for the Week". The Decatur Daily Review. p. 48. Retrieved May 8, 2015 via Newspapers.com.
  37. Kirby, Walter (May 10, 1953). "Better Radio Programs for the Week". The Decatur Daily Review. p. 50. Retrieved June 27, 2015 via Newspapers.com.
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