Obituary: Burgess Meredith

Click to follow
The Independent Online
"I was born a character actor," maintained Burgess Meredith. "I was never really a leading man type." Despite or probably because of this, Meredith's acting talent kept him, for seven decades, in demand in nearly every branch of the entertainment industry.

He had been a boy soprano, college student, merchant seaman, tie salesman, reporter and Wall Street runner before making his first stage appearances with Eva Le Gallienne's Civic Repertory Theatre in New York (1929-33). On Broadway in Little Ol' Boy (1933) he played a prizefighter, and, although the play only achieved 12 performances, he tied with the legendary George M. Cohan for Best Performance of the Year. He was next offered the role of a college student called Buzz Jones in the farce She Loves Me Not (1933). As Meredith's nickname had always been "Buzz", this seemed (and was) fortuitous; it was his first box-office hit.

Clearly echoing the Sacco-Vanzetti case, Maxwell Anderson's acclaimed verse play Winterset (1935) concerned the efforts of Mio Romagna (Meredith) to clear the name of his father, a radical electrocuted for a murder he hadn't committed, Anderson wrote three more plays for Meredith: High Tor (1936), The Star-Wagon (1937), and Knickerbocker Holiday (1938). Their working relationship ended when Meredith rejected the latter play, accepting instead the role of Prince Hal opposite Orson Welles's Falstaff in Five Kings (1939), a cumbersome disaster that never reached Broadway.

Meredith again played Mio in the screen version of Winterset (1936), the first of over a hundred films, including Idiot's Delight (1939) and Second Chorus (1941), in which he lost Paulette Goddard to Fred Astaire, but won her off screen; she became his third wife. That same year he was the "Harry" in Tom, Dick and Harry, one of his few "A" features in which he got the girl - in this case Ginger Rogers. I once asked the director Lewis Milestone how he managed to draw such a splendid performance from Lon Chaney Jnr as the simple-minded giant, Lennie, in his Of Mice And Men (1939). Milestone said, "It was Meredith who did it. Nearly all their scenes were together, and Buzz's acting was so true, Lon's just couldn't not be."

In 1942 Meredith entered the US Army, writing, directing, co-producing and appearing in several government orientation films, most notably Welcome to Britain (1943), which he co- directed with Anthony Asquith, which prepared England-bound GIs for the unfamiliar accents and warm beer ahead of them. The army placed him on inactive status to play the war correspondent Ernie Pyle in The Story of GI Joe (1945), one of the few distinguished Hollywood films about the American fighting man. He played an ancient, flower-eating eccentric as well as writing and producing Jean Renoir's Diary of a Chambermaid (1946), which starred Paulette Goddard.

In 1947, when the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) subpoenaed a group of film writers because of alleged Communist affiliations, Meredith was one of the film personalities protesting that the action was unconstitutional. After the all-star comedy A Miracle Can Happen (1948), which he also co- produced, Meredith suddenly went mysteriously cold at the major studios. To escape HUAC's long shadow, he came to England to play a neurotic psychiatrist in the screen version of Nigel Balchin's novel Mine Own Executioner (1947). Richard Winnington wrote in the News Chronicle: "Burgess Meredith plays this part with a nervous power he has not equalled since the first appearance in Winterset." In Paris, Meredith appeared in and directed The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1943), an efficient thriller in which Charles Laughton played Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret.

Back in America, Meredith acted in five plays and directed another five between 1950 and 1956. He was also busy in radio and television until the publication of an infamous paperback called Red Channels - Communist influence in radio and TV. The book listed his name alongside various left-wing organisations, and he had to take legal action to get back on the air.

As a theatre director, he was particularly proud of three productions: Joyce's Ulysses in Nighttown (1958), starring his fellow blacklistee Zero Mostel as Leopold Bloom, the compilation A Thurber Carnival (1960) and James Baldwin's Blues For Mr Charlie (1964).

Meredith's film career was reactivated by Otto Preminger, who cast him in the Washington melodrama Advise and Consent (1962). In his memoirs, Preminger wrote, "Burgess gave one of the greatest performances I have ever seen, in the short but important role of Herbert Gelman, a witness who lies. I didn't direct him, he did it all himself." Preminger also cast him in The Cardinal (1963), In Harm's Way (1965), Hurry Sundown (1967), Skidoo (1968) and Such Good Friends (1971).

Meredith's shade may not forgive me, but mention must be made of his splendidly villainous Penguin in television's Batman (1966). "It may have done me more harm than good," he wrote in his auto- biography, "but it made an impact. I thought it had a Dickensian quality. . . Recently a newspaper qualified me as `best known as the Penguin'. It's an idiot's game to get yourself into." Meredith much preferred his Emmy-winning role in Tail Gunner Joe (1977), a semi- documentary about Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, in which Meredith played Joseph N. Welch, the Boston lawyer who represented the army in the televised hearings that sealed McCarthy's political doom. It was Welch who, after a young legal assistant had been groundlessly accused of Communist sympathies, rounded on the ignoble Senator with "Have you no sense of decency, sir?" As Meredith later wrote, "When I played Welch I was getting a splendid revenge. I had been placed on the `Red Channels' list by the McCarthy gang and this was a fair response."

His performance as Harry, the alcoholic ex-vaudeville hoofer in John Schlesinger's The Day of the Locust (1975) earned him a nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but he lost to George Burns in The Sunshine Boys. The following year his performance as Mickey the trainer in Rocky won him another Best Support nomination, but he lost to Jason Robards in All the President's Men. He repeated his trainer role in Rocky II (1979) and Rocky III (1982), in which Mickey died of a heart attack. None the less, he turned up again in Rocky V (1990), returning from the beyond to remind Rocky of the sacred principles of the fight game. He played Jack Lemmon's 94-year old, sex-obsessed father in Grumpy Old Men (1993), a role he repeated in Grumpier Old Men (1995).

In his 1994 autobiography, Meredith made it clear that retirement was not for him. "I always have an ear cocked for the clarion call, an eye for the next role," he wrote. "I'm a worker and I like to keep working. As best and as long as I am physically able."

Dick Vosburgh

George Burgess Meredith, actor, director, writer, producer: born Cleveland, Ohio 16 November 1908; married 1932 Helen Derby (marriage dissolved 1935), 1936 Margaret Perry (marriage dissolved 1938), 1944 Paulette Goddard (marriage dissolved 1949), 1952 Kaja Sundsten (one son, one daughter); died Malibu, California 9 September 1997.

Comments