18 October 2007

Burgess Meredith

By the time I knew Burgess Meredith, he’d been black- listed and Batman-handled, yet he still showed the resilient optimism of Johnny Johnson, a part Kurt Weill wrote with him in mind.

By the time that play was produced, Burgess was already booked, one of the most successful leading men of the day, the crown prince of the New York stage. Somebody else got the part of Johnny. But Burgess went back and recorded “Johnny’s Song” in the 1950s:

When man was first created
I’m sure his Maker meant
Him for some good intent…

The lines have powerful resonance, because they’re sung by a character who has lost everything — and has been lobotomized. In his time, Burgess, too, had been through the wringer, yet he retained his faith in his fellow man and the eventual justice of destiny. And while I knew him, it really seemed that he was right.

By then, everyone on earth knew him from the Rocky movies — which to this day I’ve never seen one of — and he got a tremendous kick, when we went to the deli together, from hearing the guys behind the counter who imitated him: “Rocky, you’re washed up!”

He marveled: “Out of all the things I’ve done, over all these years, that’s the one thing that everybody remembers.”

He was a frequent visitor to the Kurt Weill Foundation. We set a good table at lunchtime, if I say so, and he was a dear friend of Lys Symonette, as he’d been a friend of Weill himself: Weill suffered his fatal heart attack while playing tennis with Alan Jay Lerner on Burgess’ court. Whenever Burgess was in the city, he’d drop by to see us. Once, we drove through torrential rains to see a production of one of Weill’s works, a Foundation Family Road Trip. He posed for the Kurt Weill Newsletter in what is, to this day, the only important photograph I’ve published. And he told me stories.

I knew enough of his career that I could chip in with the words he was already forgetting: “I was doing a play with Kit Cornell….”


“No, the other one.” (That stumped me.)

(Set aside that he referred to Katharine Cornell, a figure known to me only from history books, as “Kit.”)

When I knew him, it seemed that he’d thrown caution to the wind, and he was determined to live life to the fullest, damn the torpedoes. Maybe he was always that way, but as a little old man, his zest was impressive and admirable. He exercised with vehemence, and when he wasn’t racing off to nowhere on his stationary bicycle, he was practicing yoga or being twisted into pretzels by some shapely masseuse. He moved more quickly than he really needed to. He was a prodigious beer-drinker, and I’m proud to number him among my favorite drinking buddies. He loved the ladies, and he enjoyed success with women a tiny fraction of his age.

Those were good years for him. He did so much voiceover work for television that my mother remarked, “I hear his voice around the house more often than I hear your father’s.” (Burgess loved that.) It seems as if he took damned near any acting job that was offered him. Most of it was crap, and surely he knew that better than anybody, but he’d endured so many lean years that he didn’t complain, and in almost everything he did (vehicles as unlikely as Magic and Clash of the Titans) he emerged not only with his dignity intact, but with at least a scene or two of really smart, crafty acting. That may be the actor’s saving grace: you take the part that’s given to you, and you make the most of it. How else to explain that some of Burgess’ purest, most perfect artistry appeared on The Twilight Zone?

Like most people my age, I’d first seen him in Batman, and he told me the story — a “Just So Story,” really — of How the Penguin Got His Quack.

“I used to smoke, a couple of packs a day. But one night, I had a terrible nightmare. I was trapped in a burning building — somehow my cigarettes had caught fire — and I was crawling around and choking on the smoke. I woke up, and I was shaking. I lit a cigarette, but I couldn’t smoke it. It took me right back to my dream, and I started coughing – WOOOH HOOH HAW. I didn’t smoke again for years.

“Then I got the Penguin job, and I really needed the work. I showed up for the first shoot, and it turned out that the Penguin was supposed to smoke. He’s always got that cigarette holder, and it’s always lit. I didn’t think that would be a problem, but every time I brought the cigarette holder to my lips, I started to cough — WOOOH HOOH HAW. I thought, ‘I’d better get this under control, or I’m going to lose the job.’

“So every time I had to use the cigarette holder, I’d make this quacking noise — WAH WAH WAH — to cover my cough. Penguins don’t really quack, but nobody seemed to mind. The writers for the show loved it, but in the end it turned out to be my downfall, really, because they stopped writing jokes for me. They’d just write: ‘He quacks.’”

He was always writing his memoirs in those days. When I visited his apartment, the manuscript squatted like Sydney Greenstreet on a tabletop. They finally appeared (So Far, So Good, 1994), and I was disappointed: the book was a series of disconnected anecdotes, which wasn’t in truth all that far from a conversation with Burgess, yet lacking his passion and charm. When you were with him, you never noticed whether his stories amounted to anything. Even when you were, as I sometimes was, filling in the blanks for him.

He’d been a star since he was a little boy — a soprano soloist in his church choir, so gifted that nonbelievers used to fill the pews on a Sunday. He’d worked with everybody, known everybody, and been ostracized by them all, too, and bounced back again when they weren’t looking. I sometimes regret that I didn’t have more opportunity to hear his tales, to ask about the things he did and the people he knew, and to wait for his answers.

But living in Paris, I have easy access to lots of old movies. I’ve seen The Great Dictator again and again, and wondered what kind of chutzpah Burgess must have possessed, to marry Paulette Goddard after she’d been Mrs. Charlie Chaplin. How the hell do you follow an act like that? (I did start to ask Burgess once, but I backed down.) For the first time, I’ve seen his desperate, heartbreaking performance in Advise and Consent, and his airy comedy in Lubitsch’s That Uncertain Feeling — which offers glimpses of what his performance in Candida must have been onstage. Old-timers (and there are still a few left) will tell you that Burgess Meredith onscreen was nothing compared with Burgess Meredith onstage, that he never did have a screen role that revealed him in all his glory. The microphone distorted the range and beauty of his speaking voice, they say, and the camera limited his physical grace and prowess.

I can only guess. But I can confirm that there was nobody to beat him for spinning yarns over a beer.