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.
Films as Actor:
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)
Films as Director:
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)
By MEREDITH: book—
So Far, So Good: A Memoir , Boston, 1994.
By MEREDITH: articles—
"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.
On MEREDITH: book—
Parish, James Robert, and William T. Leonard, Hollywood Players: The Thirties , New Rochelle, New York, 1976.
On MEREDITH: articles—
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