September 11, 1997 in Nation/World

Character Actor Burgess Meredith Dies At Age 89 Ernie Pyle, Rocky’s Manager Were Roles In 60-Year Film Career

John Antczak Associated Press
 

Burgess Meredith, who played a crusty old pug in “Rocky” and waddled with aristocratic elan as the Penguin on TV’s “Batman,” is dead at 89.

The actor, who died on Tuesday at his home in Malibu, had melanoma and Alzheimer’s disease.

“Burgess Meredith always was to me an irreplaceable legend, a craftsman who rarely comes along, not in one generation but in several generations,” Sylvester Stallone said.

“Rocky,” in which Meredith played Stallone’s scowling, gravelly-voiced manager, was the actor’s first smash hit in a 60-year film career filled with memorable roles: guardian of the dimwitted giant in “Of Mice and Men,” Ginger Rogers’ suitor in “Tom, Dick and Harry,” war correspondent Ernie Pyle in “The Story of G.I. Joe,” James Madison in “Magnificent Doll.”

He was twice nominated for Oscars, for supporting actor in “Day of the Locust” in 1975 and “Rocky” in 1976. He didn’t win either.

During the 1960s, he was best known as Batman’s foe the Penguin, a role he played in tuxedo with top hat, cigarette holder and pince-nez.

“I waddled like a penguin, which seemed rather obvious to do,” he once said. “The touch I liked was that peculiar penguinlike quack I used in my lines.”

Meredith won a supporting-actor Emmy in 1977 for the drama special “Tail Gunner Joe,” as attorney Joseph Welch in the story of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

A compact person with unruly, sandy hair, Meredith had a quirky, warm voice that was often heard on commercials for United Air Lines, Skippy peanut butter and other products.

He sometimes wrote, directed or produced his films. In later years the stage-trained actor often took roles that seemed beneath his status as one of America’s distinguished performers.

“If I spent all my time in Shakespearean companies and only did art movies like Olivier, my position would be more dignified and more serious,” he said in 1967. “I might even be a better actor. But this is America, and I’m a man moved by the rhythms of his time, so I’ll just take amusement at being a paradox.”

Meredith was born in Cleveland. According to his son, he was 89 when he died, making the year of his birth 1907. Other references say he was born on Nov. 16, 1908, or 1909.

He was educated at Amherst College in Massachusetts before beginning his stage career in 1933 with Eva Le Gallienne’s company in New York.

Maxwell Anderson’s “Winterset” provided Meredith’s star-making stage role as the tragic hero Mio. He repeated the role in the 1936 film version and thereafter divided his time between Broadway and Hollywood.

In 1940, he starred in John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” Meredith portrayed George, and Lon Chaney Jr. was the lumbering Lenny Small.

Meredith served in the Air Force during World War II.

After the war, he directed the thriller “The Man on the Eiffel Tower,” starring himself, Charles Laughton and Franchot Tone.

Meredith was a strong character actor in such movies as “Advise and Consent” and “McKenna’s Gold.” He played Jack Lemmon’s father in the 1993 comedy “Grumpy Old Men” and its 1995 sequel, “Grumpier Old Men.”

On TV, he starred in a memorable “Twilight Zone” episode, playing a nearsighted book-lover who survives a nuclear blast. With everyone else dead, he revels in his undisturbed reading time until he breaks his glasses.

“Rocky” and its sequels brought new life to Meredith’s career. Stallone saw Meredith as key to the film’s success.

“I thank him for his performance in ‘Rocky’ because I truly feel without his participation in the film it would never have had its emotional core,” Stallone said.

Meredith was married four times: to Helen Derby, actresses Margaret Perry and Paulette Goddard, and dancer Kaja Sundsten.

He is survived by his wife, Sundsten, his son, Jonathan, and his daughter, Tala.


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