Cleveland, Ohio, 16 November 1908.
Attended Cathedral Choir School, Cleveland; Hoosac Falls Preparatory
School, New York; Amherst College, Massachusetts.
Air Force, 1942–45; then transferred to the Office of War
Information and involved in making films for G.I.s.
Married 1) Helen Berrian Derby, 1932 (divorced 1935); 2) Margaret Perry,
1936 (divorced 1938); 3) the actress Paulette Goddard, 1944 (divorced
1948); 4) Kaja Sundsten, 1952 (separated 1976), two children.
1930–33—member of Eva Le Gallienne's Civic Repertory
Theatre, debut in
Romeo and Juliet
; 1933—in Broadway production of
The Threepenny Opera
; 1934—radio debut in the program
; 1935—successful role in
, written by Maxwell Anderson with Meredith in mind; made film debut in
the film version the following year; 1939—in stage production of
, based on Shakespeare's history plays; host for radio program
Pursuit of Happiness
; 1949—directed the film
The Man on the Eiffel Tower
; 1950—directed and acted in
Happy as Larry
on television; 1963—on London stage in title role of
; 1964–65—in TV series
, as The Penguin in
, 1972–73, host of
Those Amazing Animals
series, 1980–81, and
Tail Gunner Joe
Of alzheimer's disease on 9 September 1997 in Malibu, California.
Winterset (Santell) (as Mio)
There Goes the Groom (Santley) (as Dick Mathews)
Spring Madness (Simon) (as the Lippencott)
Idiot's Delight (Brown) (as Quillery); Of Mice and Men (Milestone) (as George Milton)
Castle on the Hudson ( Years without Days ) (Litvak) (as Steven Rockford); Second Chorus (Potter) (as Hank Taylor)
San Francisco Docks (Lubin) (as Johnny Barnes); The Forgotten Village (Kline) (as narrator); That Uncertain Feeling (Lubitsch) (as Sebastian); Tom, Dick, and Harry (Kanin) (as Harry)
Street of Chance (Hively) (as Frank Thompson)
Tunisian Victory (doc) (as narrator)
The Story of G.I. Joe ( G.I. Joe ; War Correspondent ) (Wellman) (as Ernie Pyle)
Diary of a Chambermaid ( Le Journal d'une femme de chambre ) (Renoir) (as Capt. Mauger, + co-pr, sc); Magnificent Doll (Borzage) (as James Madison); Hymn of Nations (doc) (as narrator)
On Our Merry Way ( A Miracle Can Happen ) (King Vidor and Fenton) (as Oliver Pease, + co-pr); Mine Own Executioner (Kimmins) (as Felix Milne)
Jigsaw (Markle) (as bartender)
Golden Arrow ( The Gay Adventure ; Three Men and a Girl ) (Parry) (as Dick)
Albert Schweitzer (Hill) (as narrator); Joe Butterfly (Hibbs) (title role)
Sorcerer's Village (doc) (as narrator)
Universe (doc) (as narrator)
Advise and Consent (Preminger) (as Herbert Gelman)
The Cardinal (Preminger) (as Father Ned Halley)
The Kidnappers ( Man on the Run ) (Romero) (as Louis Halliburton)
In Harm's Way (Preminger) (as Cmdr. Egan Powell)
Crazy Quilt (Korty) (as narrator); A Big Hand for the Little Lady (Cook) (as Doc Scully); Madame X (Rich) (as Dan Sullivan); Batman (Martinson) (as the Penguin)
Discover America (doc) (as narrator); Hurry Sundown (Preminger) (as Judge Purcell); Torture Garden (Francis) (as Dr. Diablo)
Stay Away, Joe (Peter Tewksbury) (as Charlie Lightcloud); Skidoo (Preminger) (as the warden)
MacKenna's Gold (J. Lee Thompson) (as storekeeper); The Reivers (Rydell) (as narrator); Hard Contract (Pogostin) (as Ramsey Williams)
There Was a Crooked Man (Joseph L. Mankiewicz) (as the Missouri Kid)
Such Good Friends (Preminger) (as Bernard Kalman); Clay Pigeon (Tom Stern and Slate) (as the sculptor); Lock, Stock, and Barrel (Thorpe—for TV); The Strange Monster of Strawberry Cove (Shea—for TV)
The Man (Sargent—for TV but released theatrically) (as Sen. Watson); Probe ( Search ) (Mayberry—for TV); A Fan's Notes (Till) (as Mr. Blue); Getting Away from It All (Philips—for TV)
Hay que matar a B. ( B. Must Die ) (Borau)
Golden Needles (Clouse) (as Winters)
The Day of the Locust (Schlesinger) (as Harry); Ninety-Two in the Shade (McGuane) (as Goldsboro); The Hindenburg (Wise) (as Emilio Pajetta)
Rocky (Avildsen) (as Mickey); Burnt Offerings (Dan Curtis) (as Brother)
The Last Hurrah (Sherman—for TV); Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye (Cates—for TV); Golden Rendezvous (Lazarus) (as Van Heurden); The Great Georgia Bank Hoax ( The Great Bank Hoax ; Shenanigans ) (Jacoby) (as Jack Stutz); SST—Death Flight ( SST—Disaster in the Sky ; Death Flight ) (Rich—for TV); The Manitou (Girdler) (as Dr. Ernest Snow); Tail Gunner Joe (Jud Taylor—for TV) (as Joseph N. Walsh); The Sentinel (Winner) (as Charles Chazen)
Foul Play (Higgins) (as Hennessey); Magic (Attenborough) (as Ben Greene); Kate Bliss and the Ticker Tape Kid (Kennedy—for TV); The Amazing Captain Nemo (March) (as Prof. Waldo Cunningham)
Rocky II (Stallone) (as Mickey)
When Time Ran Out ( Earth's Final Fury ) (Goldstone) (as Rene Valdez); Final Assignment (Almond) (as Zak)
True Confessions (Grosbard) (as Seamus Fargo); The Last Chase (Burke) (as Capt. J. G. Williams); Clash of the Titans (Desmond Davis) (as Ammon)
Rocky III (Stallone) (as Mickey)
Twilight Zone—The Movie (Landis, Spielberg, and Dante) (as narrator)
Wet Gold (Lowry—for TV) (as Sampson)
Santa Claus: The Movie (Szwarc) (as Ancient Elf)
Outrage! (Grauman—for TV) (as Judge Aaron Klein); Elephant Games (Blumberg—for TV)
King Lear (Godard) (as Don Learo); Mr. Corbett's Ghost (Danny Huston)
Full Moon in Blue Water (Masterson) (as the General); Hot to Trot (Dinner) (as voice of Don's dad, uncredited)
Rocky V (Avildsen) (as Mickey); State of Grace (Joanou) (as Finn)
Oddball Hall (Hunsicker) (as Ingersol); Night of the Hunter (David Greene—for TV) (as Birdy); Preminger: Anatomy of a Filmmaker (Robins—doc) (as narrator)
Mastergate (for TV) (as Wylie Slaughter); Lincoln (Kunhardt—doc for TV) (as Winfield Scott)
Grumpy Old Men (Petrie) (as Grandpa Gustafson); Jean Renoir (David Thompson—doc)
Camp Nowhere (Prince) (as Fein); Across the Moon (Gottlieb) (as Barney)
Grumpier Old Men (Deutch) (as Grandpa Gustafson); Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick (Robinson) (as himself)
Ripper (Parmet) (as Hamilton Wofford/Covington Wofford)
Salute to France (co-d); Welcome to Britain (co-d); Rear Gunner
A Yank Came Back (co-d, + ro as narrator)
The Man on the Eiffel Tower (+ ro as Huertin)
The Third Eye ( The Ying and the Yang ) (+ ro)
So Far, So Good: A Memoir , Boston, 1994.
"Talking with . . . Burgess Meredith: The Old Men and the Sea," in People Weekly (New York), 13 June 1994.
Interview with Henry Cabot Beck, in Interview (New York), January 1996.
Parish, James Robert, and William T. Leonard, Hollywood Players: The Thirties , New Rochelle, New York, 1976.
Current Biography 1940 , New York, 1940.
Ciné Revue (Paris), 2 July 1981 and 12 January 1984.
Henderson, J. A., "Burgess Meredith," in Film Dope (Nottingham, England), October 1989.
Garcia, B., "The Penguin," in Cinefantastique (Forest Park), vol. 24/25, no. 6, 1994.
Obituary in Variety , 15 September 1997.
Obituary in EPD Film (Frankfurt/Main), October 1997.
* * *
Burgess Meredith has, for the most part, always played the eccentric on screen; his roles have included everything from Tweedledee in Alice in Wonderland to "The Penguin" in Batman to a ninetysomething whippersnapper in the Grumpy Old Men films. Nevertheless, his screen career has been an off-and-on affair. He once remarked, ever-so-aptly, "I disappear from the public eye and get rediscovered quite often."
Meredith made his film debut as the idealistic, revenge-seeking Mio in the highly stylized screen version of Maxwell Anderson's verse-play Winterset , a role he created on Broadway. Some of his best roles came early in his career: George, the migrant worker and protector of the simple-minded, oversized Lennie, in Of Mice and Men ; the nonconformist suitor in Tom, Dick, and Harry ; the malcontent pianist in That Uncertain Feeling ; and the loony neighbor in Renoir's Diary of a Chambermaid . For Hollywood's purposes, Meredith's small frame made him more appropriately cast as the war correspondent, rather than the warrior; he was the personal choice of Ernie Pyle to star as the fabled war reporter in The Story of G.I. Joe .
Still, Meredith never did make a full commitment to film. Between the 1930s and mid-1960s, he often could be found on the stage, appearing in the likes of High Tor , The Threepenny Opera , Liliom , and Candida , and writing and directing Ulysses in Nighttown and A Thurber Carnival .
His most famous screen role—the pugnacious fight manager in Rocky —came exactly four decades after his screen debut. Meredith then became a major Hollywood personality, and was very much in demand. He gave a masterful performance as attorney Joseph N. Walsh on television in Tail Gunner Joe , although his other screen and television appearances, ranging from hosting Those Amazing Animals to playing a vet on Gloria , a short-lived spin-off of All in the Family , have been less than impressive.
Back in 1937, critic Wolcott Gibbs hailed Meredith, in The New Yorker , as "brilliant, impressive, heartbreaking, vibrant and eloquent." Gibbs was, of course, talking of Meredith the stage performer. Sadly, there are only a handful of film roles that live up to that estimation.
—Anthony Slide, updated by Audrey E. Kupferberg