“I was born a character actor. I was never really a leading man type.” –Burgess Meredith
WHAT A CHARACTER! BLOGATHON 2014
It’s here again! The most fabulous blogathon honoring those unsung stars that add that certain singular glimmer to either the cinematic sphere or the small screen sky–The character actors we’ve grown to love and follow adoringly. Thanks so much to Aurora at Once Upon A Screen, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club for hosting such a marvelous tribute once again!
This post’s title comes from the opening narrative for Rod Serling’s favorite Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough At Last.” ‘Witness Mr. Henry Bemis, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers’ From Season 1 episode 8 which aired on November 20th 1959.
Directed by John Brahm, “Time Enough At Last” tells the story of a little bespectacled bibliophile bank teller named Henry Bemis ,a bookworm, a slave to the iron fisted hand of time and all it’s dreary inescapable obligatory scars and yearnings.
Browbeaten by his wife, boss and even the public at large who see him as an outcast because of his ravenous appetite to read books! Henry can’t even sneak away to read a newspaper during work hours. He’s forced to resort to studying the labels on condiment bottles. She won’t even let him read the ketchup. His harpy of a wife Helen ( Jacqueline deWit) even blackens in the lines of his books at home, calling it “doggerel“– One day as fate would have it, he steals away to the basement vault of the bank to catch up on his beloved preoccupation, when –as many Twilight Zone episodes had been infused with a dose of Rod Serling’s nihilism (as much as there is his hopeful message), the feared 50’s bomb annihilates our vision of the world that was swarming just a few moments before. Suddenly poor Henry seems to be the last man on earth. But wait… perhaps not poor Henry.
As he stumbles through the debris and carefully placed set pieces– the remnants of man’s destructive force, Henry comes upon the city’s public library filled with BOOKS!!! Glorious books…
While he must struggle against the approaching loneliness of the bleak future ahead, he begins to see the possibility of a new world where he could dream, and wander through so many scrawled worlds. Already an outsider he could finally live a life free to be as his boss rebuked him, a “reader.’
Henry starts to amass various piles of selected readings. There was time now. Time enough at last to read every word on the written page without interruption, interference or judgement.
Yet…fate once again waves her fickle finger via The Twilight Zone and leaves bewildered Henry without his much needed glasses, now they have fallen on the great stone steps, crushed by Henry’s own feet. As with every role Meredith brings to life the character of Henry Bemis with so much mirth and pathos.
He’s always just a bit peculiar, idiosyncratic, eccentric, lyrical, salty, sometimes irascible, but always captivating and distinctive, His voice, his persona, his look, his style… Burgess Meredith could always play the Henry Bemises of the world and grab our hearts because he has that rare quality of being so damn genuine.
Let’s face it even when the prolific Burgess Meredith is playing a cackling penguin– nemesis to the caped crusader Batman or the devil himself (alias the dapper and eccentric Charles Chazen with Mortimer the canary and his black and white cat Jezebel in tow) in The Sentinel 1977 based on the novel by Jeffrey Konvitz and directed by Michael Winner–he’s lovable!
He always manages to just light me up. Ebullient, mischievous and intellectually charming, a little impish, a dash of irresolute cynicism wavering between lyrical sentimentalism. He’s got this way of reaching in and grabbing the thinking person’s heart by the head and spinning it around in dazzling circles with his marvelously characteristic voice. A mellifluous tone which was used often to narrate throughout his career. (I smile even at the simplest nostalgic memory like his work on television commercials , as a kid growing up in the 60s and early 70s I fondly remember his voice for Skippy Peanut Butter. Meredith has a solicitous tone and whimsical, mirthful manner. Here’s a clip from a precious vintage commercial showcasing Meredith’s delightfully fleecy voice.
And his puckish demeanor hasn’t been missed considering he’s actually played Old Nick at least three times as I have counted. In The Sentinel 1977, The Twilight Zone and Torture Garden! While in Freddie Francis’ production he is the more carnivalesque Dr. Diabolo–a facsimile of the devil given the severely theatrical make-up, goatee and surrounding flames… he is far more menacing in Michael Winner’s 70s gem as the spiffy Charles Chazin.
And while I resist even the notion of redoing Ira Levin/William Castle and Roman Polanski’s masterpiece Rosemary’s Baby if, and I’m only saying if… I could envision anyone else playing along side Ruth Gordon as the quirky and roguish Roman Castevet it could only be Burgess Meredith who could pull that off!
Also being a HUGE fan of Peter Falk’s inimitable Columbo– I ask why why WHY?! was Burgess Meredith never cast as a sympathetic murderer for that relentless and lovable detective in the rumpled rain coat to pursue! Could you imagine the chemistry between these two marvelous actors!
Burgess Meredith all of 5′ 5″ tall was born in Cleveland Ohio in 1907. His father was a doctor, his mother a Methodist revivalist. We lost him in 1997 at the age of 89. That’s when he took his “dirt nap…” the line and that memorable scene from Grumpier Old Men 1993 that still makes me burst out laughing from the outlandish joy of it all!… because as Grandpa Gustafson (Meredith) tells John Gustafson (Jack Lemmon) about how he’s managed to live so long eating bacon, smoking and drinking his dinner–what’s the point…? “I just like that story!”
Burgess Meredith said himself, that he wasn’t born to be a leading man, yet somehow he always managed to create a magnetic draw toward any performance of his. As if where ever his presence in the story was, it had the same effect as looking in a side view mirror of the car “Objects are closer than they appear”–What I mean by that is how I relate his contribution becoming larger than the part might have been, had it been a different actor. Like the illusion of the mirrored reflection , he always grew larger in significance within the story–because his charisma can’t help but consume the space.
He took over the landscape and planted himself there like a little metaphysical essence, animating the narrative to a higher level of reality.
Meredith started out working with the wonderful Eva Le Gallienne joining her stage company in New York City in 1933. His first film role was that of Mio Romagna in playwright Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset 1936 where Meredith plays the son of an immigrant wrongfully executed for a crime he did not commit. He also joined the ranks of those in Hollywood who were named as “unfriendly witnesses’ by the House Un-American Activities Committee finding no work, being blacklisted in the 1950s.
During the 1960s Meredith found his way back in various television roles that gave us all a chance to see and hear his incredible spectrum of performances. One of my personal favorites, dramatically potent and vigorously absorbing was his portrayal of Duncan Kleist in Naked City television series episode directed by Walter Grauman (Lady in A Cage 1964) Hold For Gloria Christmas
The groundbreaking crime and human interest series NAKED CITY– cast Meredith as a 60s beat poet & derelict Dunan Kleist who is literally dying to leave the legacy of his words to a kindred spirit.
A powerful performance told through flashback sequences that recollect his murder as he storms through the gritty streets and alley ways of New York City a volatile alcoholic Greenwich Village poet trying to get back his precious manuscript of poems that were stolen as he bartered them away bit by bit for booze -he has bequeathed his work to the anonymous Gloria Christmas. The chemistry between Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart who plays his estranged wife is magnificent exuding years of anguish and disappointment. Heckart is another character actor who deserves a spotlight.
BURNT OFFERINGS 1976–Dan Curtis’ priceless treasure of creepy camp featuring Karen Black, Oliver Reed and once again uniting the incredible Eileen Heckart with our beloved Burgess Meredith as the ominous Roz and Arnold Allardyce.
Another memorable role for me, is his spirited performance as Charles Chazin alias The Devil in one of my all time favorite horror classics The Sentinel. “Friendships often blossom into bliss.” – Charles Chazin. Ooh that line still gives me chills…
Many people will probably love him for his iconic character study of a crusty cantankerous washed up boxing trainer named Mickey in the Rocky series of films. Or perhaps, for his colorful cackling or should I say quacking villain in the television series Batman -his iconic malefactor — The Penguin!
IMDb fact-His character, the Penguin, was so popular as a villain on the television series Batman (1966), the producers always had a Penguin script ready in case Meredith wanted to appear as a guest star.
Burgess Meredith will always remain one of the greatest, most versatile & prolific actors, character in fact… beloved and eternal…
“Like the seasons of the year, life changes frequently and drastically. You enjoy it or endure it as it comes and goes, as it ebbs and flows.”- Burgess Meredith
“I’ll just take amusement at being a paradox.”- Burgess Meredith
[on his childhood] “All my life, to this day, the memory of my childhood remains grim and incoherent. If I close my eyes and think back, I see little except violence and fear. In those early years, I somehow came to understand I would have to draw from within myself whatever emotional resources I needed to go wherever I was headed. As a result, for years, I became a boy who lived almost totally within himself.”- Burgess Meredith
Burgess Meredith directed as well as starred in the sensational thriller THE MAN ON THE EIFFEL TOWER 1949–co-starring Franchot Tone and Charles Laughton. Meredith is wonderful as the hapless Joseph Heurtin a working class knife grinder who is mistakenly blamed for the death of a woman, the wealthy aunt of Bill Kirby (Robert Hutton) who has paid the sinister medical student Johann Radek, marvelously played by Franchot Tone. Charles Laughton is Inspector Jules Maigret who hunts the real killer all over Paris, right up to… you guest it-the Eiffel Tower. Splendid cinematography and gorgeous color treatment by Stanley Cortez.
Burgess Meredith said of co-star Franchot Tone –“Franchot Tone is nuttier than a fruitcake, so don’t let the genteel frosting fool you.”
IRONSIDE-“THE MACABRE MR MICAWBER” Meredith plays Carney the faithful butler —predating his side kick prop of Mortimer the yellow canary in The Sentinel, this time he’s got a miner bird named Mr. Micawber who speaks volumes- The name Micawber being an interesting nod the name of a character in David Copperfield. The same name he invokes in The Twilight Zone’s episode “Time Enough At Last” when the day-dreaming Henry Bemis tries to converse at the bank tellers window with a very disinterested woman who is only concerned about him short changing her a dollar.
One of the most poignant and memorable cinematic duos Lon Chaney Jr. does a stunning job as John Steinbeck’s simple minded big lug Lennie Small and Burgess Meredith as companion George Milton during the Depression who hope to get a little ranch of their own one day so Lennie can raise those rabbits. They turn in a powerful performance that I dare anyone at the end not to need a full box of Kleenex. The film also co-stars the wonderful Betty Field.
That Uncertain Feeling (1941) Ernst Lubitsch directs this “romantic triangle” comedy about marital trouble that leads the devastatingly beautiful Merle Oberon as Mrs. Jill Baker who gets psychosomatic hiccups, becomes enamored with Burgess Meredith’s adorable Alexander Sebastian, a pianist she meets in the doctor’s waiting room. The question is will Larry Baker (Melvyn Douglas) get his wife back? Meredith is truly capable of being the romantic cog in the wheel, both humorous and appealing. You can see a bit of his quirky kind of charisma emerge that would later become his faithful trademark.
Burgess Meredith may be the ultimate ‘character’ actor but in this tautly wound thriller which has now become a obscure noir favorite of mine, shows he’s every bit the charismatic leading man. As psycho-analyst Felix Milne who’s suffering in his own personal life within his marriage to Pat (Dulcie Gray), he tries to help a very disturbed Adam Lucian (Kieron Moore) things spiral dangerously out of control. It’s a fabulous noir gem which co-stars the beguiling beauty Christine Norden as Barbara Edge–the object of Felix’s fixation. Wilkie Cooper (Stage Fright 1950, Jason and the Argonauts 1963) offered some stunning cinematography for this edgy piece.
NAKED CITY 1962 episode Hold for Gloria Christmas
GRUMPY OLD MEN — OUTTAKES
“TIME ENOUGH AT LAST” The Twilight Zone -END SCENE.
PRINTERS DEVIL- The Twilight Zone- aired Feb. 26th 1963
TWILIGHT ZONE’S “THE OBSOLETE MAN” SEASON 2 EPISODE 29 as Romney Wordsworth
Here again, Meredith manifests his more ‘wicked’ side as Dr. Diabolo in this Freddie Francis Amicus Anthology collection of horror vignettes that are told at a carnival side show. Co-starring Jack Palance.
Otto Preminger’s outstanding ensemble of actors come together in this masterwork adapted from Allen Drury’s bestselling novel that elucidates the behind the scenes workings of Washington D.C politics. The U.S. Senate is convened to confirm a very controversial nominee for Secretary of State (Henry Fonda). Fine performances all around-
Here Meredith inhabits the role of the meek Herbert Gelman, interrogated by a very self righteous Henry Fonda who exposes the truth behind Gelman’s supposed hospitalization for tuberculosis… that in fact he’s had a mental breakdown. Robert Leffingwell (Fonda) skewers the lamb-like Gelman in front of the entire Senate.The presence of Charles Laughton as a grizzled old senator from the south is marvelous and a standout performance. Laughton had co-starred with Meredith in The Man on the Eiffel Tower!
Captivating study of the inner-workings of Washington maneuvering that comes close to home considering Meredith had made that Red list in the frenzied 50s when everyone was under suspicion of being either a communist or a subversive. Otto Preminger was instrumental in reanimating Burgess Meredith’s career.
Also stars Franchot Tone as The President, Gene Tierney and watch for Betty White as Senator Bessie Adams!
THE DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID 1946-directed by Jean Renoir
Burgess Meredith and the adorable Paulette Goddard were married at the time they filmed Diary of a Chambermaid in 1946. Captain Mauger (Meredith) predates the rascally rock throwing Ernest T. Bass from The Andy Griffith Show.
Reginald Owen is Captain Lanlaire who calls Meredith’s character “a mosquito” because he flits around like a crazy gnat. It’s hilariously good fun. Goddard is gorgeous and Jean Renoir, yet another favorite director of mine, does a wonderful job of setting up the scenery for Goddard’s character-Celestine, an opportunistic chambermaid who takes a job in hopes of catching a wealthy man. She uses her beauty and feminine wiles to try to gain riches. Surrounded by various interesting characters much the same way Renoir’s The Southerner 1945 was inhabited by various quirky personalities.
Lucien N. Andriot did the cinematography painting the landscape with a similar lyrical quality as he used for The Southerner.
Meredith wrote the screenplay. Almira Sessions ( Lena Couvais Monsieur Verdoux 1947) who mostly either plays an old maid or a housekeeper is Marianne.
Francis Lederer who plays Joseph the Valet is wound very tightly and is as creepy as usual as he looms over Celestine like a dark shadow. Meredith is the wiley old Captain Mauger who struts around the Lanlaire’s property eating their roses and throwing rocks smashing the greenhouse windows. Will Celestine find wealth and love -well you’ll have to see the film… even if it’s just to watch Burgess Meredith play an eccentric nutter…
Otto Preminger directs Burgess Meredith as the Southern bigoted Judge Purcell.
Here Meredith introduces the film’s theatrical trailer….
I just love this film and this director. Joseph L Mankiewicz’s cynical fable-like western that takes place in a primitive Arizona prison populated by marvelous characters, the lead being Kirk Douglas who plays Paris Pitman Jr. a slick and shifty miscreant who bides his time in the jail that is over-seen by a self righteous warden named Woodward Lopeman (Henry Fonda.) Paris gets his cell mates to conspire in a break out with the promise that he’ll share his hidden loot… Never trust a charming criminal nor rattlesnakes.
Of particular comical aspect for me was the intimate relationship between Hume Cronyn’s whimpering Dudley Whinner and his complaining ‘pal’ Cyrus McNutt (John Randolph.) I’ll be adding them to my upcoming post about coded gay characters in cinema.
The film also co-stars Warren Oates, Lee Grant and Martin Gabel.
Burgess Meredith is a wily old coot— The Missouri Kid. Spouting clever dialogue with his usual ease. Meredith always manages to slant himself just a little differently with each performance, never seeming repetitive in any of the roles he inhabits, bringing a unique impression of each and every character he brings to life.
Paris Pittman Jr. (Plans his escape with his cellmates) “Anyway, start smelling around, and don’t forget, I’m trusting you to keep quiet, all of you keep quiet.”
The Missouri Kid: “Like askin’ a pack of coyotes to keep quiet about a dead horse.”
Setting aside Anthony Hopkins’ out of this world –unreal performance as ventriloquist Corky Withers/ Voice of Fats in the late great Richard Attenborough’s adaptation of William Goldman’s book. Burgess Meredith embodies the more laid back slick agent Ben Greene who stumbles onto Corky’s dilemma–either Fats is real or Corky’s got a split personality. It’s one of the more chilling 70s horror films with an edge, partly due to the performances by the cast. Ann Margaret plays the love interest Peggy Ann Snow who starts to drive a wedge between Corky and Fats or rather Corky’s sanity or unreality. Meredith plays off Hopkins uncomfortable frenetic energy with the pitch perfect low key air of New York Jew Borscht Belt poise.
WINTERSET 1936 Burgess Meredith as Mio Romagna
Directed by John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy 1969 ) adapted from Nathaniel West— a captivating look at the decadence, alienation & seedy often dim almost Grand Guignol world showcased with rather disturbing narratives of the struggling folk who haven’t made a go of it in 1930’s Hollywood. Starring Karen Black, Donald Sutherland Also stars Geraldine Page, Richard Dysart, William Atherton and Billy Barty. Cinematography by Conrad L. Hall. Though Schlesinger has a knack for filling his films with odd characters, I think Burgess Meredith’s performance is the one that captures the feeling of the lost and broken dreams.
And our guy Burgess Meredith was nominated for a BAFTA, Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor as Harry Greener a vaudeville leftover who is now a door to door salesman. He’s also father to Fay Greener (Karen Black) an aspiring starlet.
Particularly wonderful is how he still tries to use a kooky version of his old Vaudeville act as a sales pitch. Perhaps it’s a poignant yet grotesque “Baby Jane” moment for the character of Harry Greener. What’s special about Meredith’s performance is how his divine verve shines through, carrying with him the sentiment of the old stage laid out futilely for merely an audience of one.
With much love and adoration to you mirthful Mr. Meredith with love-Joey