Who was Burgess Meredith?

Burgess Meredith was an American actor, director and producer, perhaps still best known for his role as Rocky Balboa’s trainer, Mickey, in the “Rocky” film series. He also played The Penguin in the 1960s “Batman” TV series, and appeared in many other movies and TV shows throughout his career spanning almost 70 years.

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Burgess Meredith Wiki: Birth, Childhood, and Education

Oliver Burgess Meredith was born on 16 November 1907, in Cleveland, Ohio, USA, the son of Dr. William George Meredith and Ida Beth. He attended Hoosac School, from which he matriculated in 1926, then enrolled at Amherst College, but left to work as a reporter for the Stamford Advocate.

Theater Beginnings and Later Work on Stage

Burgess Meredith began his career as a stage actor in 1929, joining Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theatre company in New York City. He quickly attracted attention and critical acclaim for his performances, and made his Broadway debut in 1930 as Peter in Le Gallienne’s production of “Romeo and Juliet”.

Throughout the decade, Meredith continued to establish himself as a versatile and talented actor, appearing in a number of Broadway productions, including Maxwell Anderson’s “Winterset” in 1935, which earned him critical acclaim and a role in the subsequent film adaptation. Meredith also appeared in the Broadway revival of “The Barretts of Wimpole Street”, John Van Druten’s “Flowers of the Forest”, and in a number of other productions.

Meredith continued to work in theater throughout the 1940s, playing lead roles in productions such as “Liliom”, “The Playboy of the Western World”, and “Major Barbara”.

In 1956, Burgess Meredith played Adolphus Cusins in Major Barbara on Broadway, a role that earned him critical acclaim.

Four years later, in 1960, Meredith shared a Special Tony Award with James Thurber for their collaboration on A Thurber Carnival.

In 1963, Meredith created the role of Erie Smith in the English-language premiere of Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie at the Theater Royal in Bath, England.

Burgess Meredith and his wife Paulette Goddard, 1944

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In 1974, Meredith earned a Tony Award nomination for his Broadway staging of Ulysses in Nighttown, a theatrical adaptation of the “Nighttown” section of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

In the late 1970s, Meredith directed Fionnula Flanagan’s one-woman multi-role play James Joyce’s Women, which toured for several years. This was just one of the many productions that Meredith directed and produced throughout his long and successful career in the theater.

Film Career

Burgess Meredith’s early work in film was a natural extension of his rising theater career. He began his film career in 1936 with the role in the film “Winterset”, a screen adaptation of the play. He continued to take on minor film roles throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s.

One of his notable early roles was in 1939 when he played George in an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”, which brought Meredith favorable attention and critical acclaim, and even in military service, continued to be featured in several films during the 1940s.

Military Service

Burgess Meredith enlisted in the US Army Air Force in 1942 during World War II, and reached the rank of captain before being transferred to the Office of War Information. During his time in the Army, he made training and education films for America’s armed forces, including the USAAF’s recruiting short The Rear Gunner in 1943 and the training film A Welcome to Britain for troops heading to the UK in preparation for the liberation of Europe. In 1944, Meredith was released from duty to work on the movie “The Story of G.I. Joe” – he was officially discharged from the USAAF in 1945.

In 1945, Meredith starred as war correspondent Ernie Pyle in “The Story of G.I. Joe”, the role that earned him widespread recognition and praise. He continued to be featured in many films throughout the 1940s, including “Second Chorus” (1940), “Diary of a Chambermaid” (1946), and “On Our Merry Way” (1948), which co-starred his then-wife, Paulette Goddard.

Throughout the 1950s, Burgess Meredith focused mainly on his theater career. However, his involvement with leftist political organizations during the McCarthy era led to him being placed on the Hollywood blacklist in the early 1950s. Despite this setback, Meredith continued to be involved in stage plays and radio during this time.

Further Success

Meredith had a prolific career in film throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Director Otto Preminger became one of Meredith’s biggest supporters, casting him in several of his films. Meredith played a senator who opposed the confirmation of a nominee for Secretary of State in the film “Advise and Consent” (1962), also starring Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton and Don Murray. Then in “The Cardinal” (1963), Meredith played Monsignor Monaghan, a friend and advisor to Cardinal Glennon, played by Tom Tryon. His next role was in the film “In Harm’s Way” (1965), as Commander Egan, alongside an ensemble cast that included John Wayne, Kirk Douglas and Patricia Neal. He had a more prominent role in “Hurry Sundown” (1967), playing the wise lawyer Henry Warren in the film directed by Otto Preminger, also starring Jane Fonda, Michael Caine and Faye Dunaway.

Meredith appeared in “Madame X” (1966) opposite Lana Turner, playing the role of the attorney who defends her in court. He played Joe Lightcloud, the father of Elvis Presley’s character, in “Stay Away, Joe” (1968), the film directed by Peter Tewksbury, and co-starring Katy Jurado and Joan Blondell.

Then in 1971, Meredith appeared in “Such Good Friends”, directed again by Otto Preminger and starring Dyan Cannon, but it was his role as Harry Greener in “The Day of the Locust” (1975) that earned him critical acclaim. Directed by John Schlesinger and based on the novel by Nathanael West, tells the story of Hollywood’s darker side. Meredith’s portrayal of the aging, washed-up actor was a standout performance, earning him nominations for BAFTA, Golden Globe and Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor.

The Role in Rocky Balboa and Other Projects

Meredith’s career continued to thrive throughout the 1970s and ‘80s – his most iconic role would come in 1976 as Mickey Goldmill in the first “Rocky” film, a role he would reprise in the sequels “Rocky II” (1979) and “Rocky III” (1982), earning a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in the first film. Meredith’s portrayal of the grizzled, no-nonsense boxing trainer made him dear to audiences and critics alike, with his character’s memorable catchphrase, “You’re gonna eat lightning, and you’re gonna crap thunder!” becoming one of the film’s most quotable lines.

Outside of the Rocky franchise, Meredith appeared concurrently in several other films, including in 1981 “The Last Chase” and “Clash of the Titans” (1981), in which he played Captain J.G. Williams in a supporting role, and played a small role in “Santa Claus: The Movie” (1985). He also lent his voice to the animated film “G.I. Joe: The Movie” (1989), then Meredith briefly returned as Mickey in a flashback in the fifth Rocky film, “Rocky V” (1990). However, his final film roles would come in “Grumpy Old Men” (1993) and its sequel, “Grumpier Old Men” (1995), in which he played the sex-crazed 95-year-old father of Jack Lemmon’s character.

Television Career

With over 180 roles credited to his name, Burgess had a prolific career on the silver screen. One of his most memorable roles was in “The Twilight Zone”, appearing in four starring roles, tying with Jack Klugman for the most appearances in the show. In “Time Enough at Last”, he played a henpecked bookworm who becomes the sole survivor of an apocalypse, and in “The Obsolete Man”, he portrayed a librarian sentenced to death in a dystopian society. In “Mr. Dingle, the Strong”, Meredith played a timid weakling who gains superhuman strength from an extraterrestrial experiment, and in “Printer’s Devil”, he portrayed the Devil himself.

He also appeared in various Western series, including “Rawhide”, “The Virginian”, and “Bonanza”. However, it was his portrayal of the Penguin in the “Batman” TV series that made him a household name. He played the role so well that the show’s writers always had a script featuring the Penguin ready whenever he was available. Meredith also won an Emmy Award for his supporting role in the 1977 TV film “Tail Gunner Joe”, in which he played the crusading lawyer Joseph Welch. Finally, he narrated “The Chaplin Puzzle”, a TV documentary that provided a rare insight into Charles Chaplin’s work.

Net Worth

According to sources, Burgess Meredith’s net worth was estimated at just $3 million at the time of his death.

Personal Life, Marriages, Children, Death

Burgess Meredith lived a colorful life marked by both personal and professional successes and struggles. He was married four times, with his first wife Helen Derby tragically committing suicide years after their divorce. His next two wives, Margaret Perry, and Paulette Goddard, were both actresses, and he had two children with his final wife, Kaja Sundsten, with whom he remained married for 46 years.

Meredith was a lifelong Democrat and generous donor to the party.

He struggled with cyclothymia, a form of bipolar disorder, and wrote about it in his autobiography.

Meredith passed away at age 89 on 9 September 1997, due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease and melanoma.

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