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Happy Birthday, Burgess Meredith!

Two iconic roles immediately come to mind when discussing the career of the actor born Oliver Burgess Meredith on this date in 1907. One is his deliciously over-the-top portrayal of The Penguin on TV’s Batman (1966-68), a memorable foe amongst the Caped Crusader’s gallery of villains. The other is cantankerous corner man Mickey Goldmill from the Rocky movie franchise; the man affectionately known to his friends as “Buzz” was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in the inaugural 1976 feature and reprised the role in three of the sequels. (His character dies in Rocky III [1982] but appears in a flashback in Rocky V [1990].) Meredith was considered one of the finest character actors in the business, whose six decades of performances were succinctly summed up by New York Times critic Mel Gussow as “a richly varied career in which he played many of the more demanding roles in classical and contemporary theater.”

Burgess Meredith’s work in radio, however, often gets overlooked. (His Wikipedia entry mentions contributions in narration and voice-overs…but skimps a little on radio.) Although he was already making a name for himself as a stage presence at the same time he stood before a microphone, Meredith had a true fondness for the aural medium. One of his finest acting showcases was on an April 11, 1937 broadcast of The Columbia Workshop in a production of Archibald MacLeish’s “The Fall of the City.” Burgess played a pacifist in this presentation that also featured Orson Welles and Edgar Stehli, and according to a 1938 Radio Stars interview “Buzz” offered his services to the Columbia Broadcasting System gratis “Because I believe in it!” (CBS turned down Meredith’s magnanimous gesture and insisted on paying him the union-mandated amount of $18.50.)

Burgess Meredith was a Cleveland, Ohio native, born to a Canadian-born physician and a mother who was the daughter of a Methodist revivalist. He lived in nearby Lakewood for a time, attending Madison Elementary School, where his performing ambition was stoked by his participation in school plays and as a boy soprano in the choir. Meredith would eventually participate in a nationwide audition held by the Paulist Choristers Boy Choir of New York. Burgess was selected as one of the winning finalists…but his uncle and sister intervened and after another successful audition he joined the choir at the Protestant Cathedral of St. John the Divine. In his sub-teens, Buzz sang with the St. John Choir in NYC in exchange for schooling, board, and lodging.

Burgess Meredith would graduate from the preparatory Hoosac School in 1926 and then attended Amherst College (he failed trigonometry and dropped out without graduating). With money always in short supply, Meredith embarked on several employment excursions that included newspaper reporting (for The Stamford Advocate), department store clerking, selling vacuum cleaners and later roofing materials, and seamanship (he made two trips to South America on a freighter). Burgess was tossed into the brig when he quit this last job and passed the time by reciting lines from anything that came to mind. This inspired him to join the prestigious Eva Le Gallienne Civic Repertory Theatre in NYC in 1929.

Burgess Meredith developed an affinity for the footlights and made a name for himself in the likes of Romeo and Juliet (1930), The Green Cockatoo (1930), Siegfried (1930), People On the Hill (1931), and Lillom (1932). Meredith scored considerable success in a production of Alice in Wonderland (1932), following that with Little Ol’ Boy (1933), She Loves Me Not (1933), The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1935), and Flowers of the Forest (1935). It was his performance as “Mio Romagna” in Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset (1935) that earned Buzz much critical acclaim (you thought I was going to say “critical buzz,” didn’t you?). When the play reached the silver screen the following year, Burgess reprised the role in what would be his first credited motion picture appearance. In years to follow, Meredith never completely abandoned the stage—he appeared in such productions as The Playboy of the Western World (1946), The Fourposter (1951), The Teahouse of the August Moon (1953), The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker (1953), and Major Barbara (1956). Burgess also directed several plays, notably 1960s A Thurber Carnival…which won him a special Tony Award (shared with author-collaborator James Thurber).

Like many working thespians during the Depression era, Burgess Meredith sought to supplement his income with radio work. The actor got a break by landing the titular lead in Red Adams, one of the first daytime dramas created by Elaine Carrington (later responsible for When a Girl Marries and Rosemary). Premiering over NBC Blue on October 2, 1932, Red Adams got a new sponsor in Beech-Nut Gum in September of 1933…and a new title in Red Davis (Beech-Nut insisted on the change because “Adams” was a gum competitor). The long-running soap opera would eventually be known as Pepper Young’s Family, lasting until January 16, 1959 (with a brief revival in 1964). Meredith left the program in 1934, replaced by Curtis Arnall.

Burgess Meredith later emceed The Pursuit of Happiness on CBS Radio from October 22, 1939 to May 5, 1940 – a program memorably described by Max Wylie as “a flag-waving show” that “had the good sense not only to admit this at the beginning but to insist upon it throughout the run of the series.” One of the first directorial assignments for “radio’s poet laureate,” Norman Corwin, Happiness allowed Meredith to preside over a half-hour collage of dramatic skits and musical performances. Meredith later hosted The Free Company on the same network – a documentary drama that was described by old-time radio historian John Dunning as “an attempt by 14 major American writers to counter what was seen as a tide of foreign propaganda infiltrating the American press and radio.” It had only a brief run in 1941 thanks to William Randolph Hearst, who used his formidable newspaper empire to publish constant criticism of the program and bring about its cancellation. (Hearst’s particular target was Free Company contributor/obedient servant Orson Welles, who was at that moment lacerating the publisher in his immortal film Citizen Kane [1941].)

In the 1950s, Burgess Meredith served as host of ABC Radio’s American Music Hall, a Sunday evening variety program produced by Paul Whiteman. Other programs on Burgess’ radio resume include Arch Oboler’s PlaysBest PlaysCampbell PlayhouseThe Cavalcade of America, Chesterfield TimeCommand PerformanceThe Fleischmann’s Yeast HourForecastThe Gulf Screen Guild TheatreHallmark PlayhouseThe Harold Lloyd Comedy TheatreInner Sanctum MysteriesThe Kate Smith HourLincoln HighwayThe Lux Radio TheatreMaxwell House Coffee TimeThe Radio Hall of FameThe Radio Reader’s DigestThe Raleigh RoomStagestruckStudio OneThe Texaco Star Theatre, The Theatre Guild on the AirThis is My Best, and We the People (Meredith occasionally guest hosted).

Many of the programs listed above allowed Burgess Meredith to promote his movie career. For example, the September 08, 1941 broadcast of The Lux Radio Theatre was a production of “Tom, Dick, and Harry” with Burgess, Ginger Rogers, George Murphy, and Alan Marshal reprising their roles from the 1941 RKO comedy. Meredith’s acting career went into limbo in 1942 when he enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces, where he achieved the rank of captain. His WW2 experience served him well when he played war correspondent Ernie Pyle in the 1945 film The Story of G.I. Joe, as well as narrating the war drama A Walk in the Sun (1945). One of Burgess’ best remembered feature films was Of Mice and Men (1939); the actor reprised his role as “George” on both The Theatre Guild on the Air (05/08/49) and Best Plays (05/08/53)…though his co-star from that film, Lon Chaney, Jr., did not join him.

In 1949, Burgess Meredith directed the first of two feature films he would helm during his career, The Man on the Eiffel Tower (he also acted in the movie). (His second was The Yin and the Yang of Mr. Go, in 1970.) His work in films started to slow when his liberal politics ran afoul of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (and he found himself on the blacklist), so Meredith compensated with radio and stage work. He’d work again in Joe Butterfly (1957), but if anyone should claim credit for Burgess’ return to motion pictures it’s director Otto Preminger, who used the actor in Advise and Consent (1962), The Cardinal (1963), In Harm’s Way (1965), Hurry Sundown (1967), Skidoo (1968), and Such Good Friends (1971).

Burgess Meredith soon became as busy on the small screen as he was on the silver. I’ve mentioned his work on Batman, of course (he also played The Penguin in the 1966 feature film…and a hilarious episode of The Monkees, “Monkees Blow Their Minds”), but fans of The Twilight Zone remember that Meredith made four appearances on that dramatic anthology (he’s tied with Jack Klugman) including the classic “Time Enough at Last” (a bookworm survives a nuclear holocaust). Burgess guest-starred on such classic shows as Ben CaseyBurke’s LawNaked CityRawhideThe Virginian, and The Wild Wild West. But he also had regular roles on the likes of Mr. NovakSearch, and Gloria while narrating the likes of The Big Story and Korg: 70,000 B.C.

While his role in Rocky (1976) earned him an Academy Award nod for Best Supporting Actor, it was actually Burgess Meredith’s second nomination—he was singled out a year earlier for the same trophy (though he did not win) for his turn in The Day of the Locust. Meredith had to take satisfaction knowing that the sting of the blacklist had received a soothing balm in the form of an Emmy Award for his portrayal of lawyer Joseph Welch in the 1977 TV movie Tail Gunner Joe, which dramatized the life of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Among the movies that Burgess appeared in during the latter part of his career: There Was a Crooked Man… (1970), Burnt Offerings (1976), Foul Play (1978), Clash of the Titans (1981), Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983; as narrator), and State of Grace (1990). Before his passing in 1997 at the age of 89, Meredith was stealing scenes from Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in Grumpy Old Men (1993) and Grumpier Old Men (1995), convulsing a new generation of audiences.

To celebrate Burgess Meredith’s birthday, we invite you to check out his radio work on two of our collections here at Radio Spirits. On Arch Oboler’s Plays, Burgess can be heard in the June 14, 1945 broadcast of “Mr. Pyle.” On The Bob Bailey Collection, you’ll hear today’s birthday boy on a broadcast of The Cavalcade of America from March 19, 1945 (“Sign Here, Please”). Happy Birthday, Burgess!

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