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Burgess Meredith, Actor's Actor for 70 Years, Dies

Entertainment: Film and stage veteran ranged from 'Hamlet' to 'Of Mice and Men' to pivotal part in 'Rocky.'

September 11, 1997|BURT A. FOLKART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Burgess Meredith, who displayed his versatile acting skills in a series of always refreshing but generally eccentric roles that kept him before cameras or onstage for more than 70 years, has died.

The raspy-voiced character actor with unruly hair and a grimacing yet humorous nature was 89.

He died Tuesday at his home in Malibu, said his son, Jonathan. Survivors also include his wife, Kaja, and daughter, Tala. A memorial service is pending.

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.

On Wednesday, Sylvester Stallone, star of "Rocky," said in a statement that "without [Meredith's] participation in the film it would never have had its emotional core."

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 ranged from the idealistic and protective migrant worker forced to kill his retarded cousin in "Of Mice and Men" to 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 over-the-hill 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 an early and inveterate cross-country airline passenger, juggling films between stage appearances and managing, generally, to keep his sense of humor.

Even through four marriages.

He told a Times interviewer in 1976: "I'm not the nostalgic type. I hardly visit my ex-wives." (Among them was actress Paulette Goddard.)

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.

"I disappear from the public eye and get rediscovered quite often," Meredith would say over the years. His most recent dramatic resuscitation didn't appear to impress him any more than had his earlier revivals.

But if he never became the choice of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, there were others who honored him.

One was Ernie Pyle, who selected Meredith to portray him in the film based on the war correspondent's book, "The Story of G.I. Joe."

Both were diminutive men known to take an occasional drink, and both hated pretense.

Meredith was nicknamed "Buzz," and it could have been for his volatility. Privately, he was an avid environmentalist who complained about a neighbor cutting down a favorite tree to build a tennis court next to his home. Publicly, he once was forced to restrain his eccentric old friend Zero Mostel from leaving the stage during a performance of a play Meredith was directing.

Meredith began life as George Burgess, son of a Cleveland doctor. The family dissolved early on and Meredith said he took solace in acting in school plays.

He was accepted at Amherst College on a scholarship in 1926. But finances forced him to leave school, and he worked as a merchant seaman, a tie salesman and a peddler of vacuum cleaners before drifting to New York and Eva Le Gallienne's Student Repertory Group.

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