Burgess Meredith displayed his versatile acting skills in a series of always refreshing but generally eccentric roles that kept him before cameras or on stage for more than 70 years.
Meredith, whose early credits included "Hamlet" and "Macbeth," found an entire new career late in life as a scheming villain on television and as Rocky Balboa's crusty manager in films.
If the phrase "actor's actor" has any validity, Meredith was its prototype.
He was known among his peers and to critics as one of the most adaptive thespians on stage or film set. His roles were as varied as the idealistic and protective migrant worker forced to kill his retarded cousin in "Of Mice and Men" and Shakespeare's stoic Hamlet, whom he played on national radio in 1937 in the infancy of his career.
Later would come the Burgess Meredith who played Mickey, the aging boxing manager who fulfills the dream of his youth through the underdog fighter Rocky. Or the wily and fiendish Penguin, one of Batman's prime adversaries on the campy and highly popular 1960s TV series.
Perhaps the television role that will linger longest with viewers was in an episode of "The Twilight Zone" in the early 1960s. In "Time Enough at Last," Meredith played a bank teller who preferred reading to the company of people. One day he had retreated to the bank's vault to eat his lunch and read in peace when a nuclear attack killed everyone else in the world.
After emerging from the vault and determining that he was the last of his species, Meredith's character briefly relished his opportunity to finally have the time for his beloved books. Then he tripped in the rubble that symbolized the end of civilization and broke his glasses.
Meredith's credits sprawl across multiple pages in drama anthologies — as director, actor, writer and producer of plays as obscure as "The Green Cockatoo" and motion pictures as famous as "Rocky."
In a single television season (1963) he portrayed a mad pacifist, a botanist whose specialty was man-eating plants, a father with incestuous tendencies and a diabolical brother who hated his sibling.
He was nominated twice for an Academy Award (for "The Day of the Locust" in 1975 and for "Rocky" in 1976) but didn't win. He won an Emmy in 1977 for his portrayal of attorney Joseph Welch in "Tail Gunner Joe," a TV special about Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and was nominated for a second Emmy for "The Last Hurrah." He won a special Tony Award for his 1960 staging of a "A Thurber Carnival." He also was nominated for another Tony for directing "Ulysses in Nighttown."
The relatively sparse recognition became a personal joke, and he sent The Times a satirical fantasy in 1980 in which he presided over a company of what he called "non-awarded actors."
Included were Greta Garbo, Rudolph Valentino, John Barrymore and Rin Tin Tin, all cast as worthy dramatic prophets without honor in their own Hollywood.
In the years before his death at 89 in 1997, Meredith would say: "I disappear from the public eye and get rediscovered quite often."
|1975||Best Supporting Actor||The Day of the Locust||Nomination|
|1976||Best Supporting Actor||Rocky||Nomination|