Appearing in: Rocky, Rocky II, Rocky III, Rocky V, Rocky Balboa (in flashback)
“After appearing in over 120 films, Rocky was my very first smash hit,” said veteran stage, screen and television actor Burgess Meredith, who enjoyed numerous artistic successes during his 60+ years in show business.
Recognized as one of the truly distinguished actors of the 20th century, Meredith delved into his character of Mickey Goldmill in a 1983 interview. He noted that “Mickey is one of my favorite characters. I’ve seen a lot of men like him in my time – beaten people who have been worn down by life. I like him because, despite his resentment at never having made it, he wants to save his young friend Rocky from a similar fate.”
Burgess Meredith was born on November 16, 1909, in Cleveland, Ohio. He was the youngest of three children of Dr. William George Meredith and the former Ida Burgess, and the grandson of Oliver Clinthus Burgess, founder of Cleveland’s First Methodist Church.
He made his motion picture acting debut in the 1937 screen version of Winterset. From there, he landed roles in Of Mice and Men (1939); Idiot’s Delight (1939), co-starring Clark Gable and Norma Shearer; Tom, Dick and Harry (1941), opposite Ginger Rogers; Madame X (1966) with Lana Turner; and Stay Away, Joe (1968) with Elvis Presley – just a sampling of Meredith’s impressive resume listing over one hundred films. An artist who viewed acting as a constant adventure, Burgess was among the first stars to become active during television’s formative years. On the small screen, he undertook a number of challenges and is remembered for such varied ventures as narrating National Geographic specials, playing ‘The Penguin’ on the top-rated “Batman” series, portraying Benjamin Franklin on a memorable special and, starring in Tail Gunner Joe.
His best known character was indeed ‘The Penguin’. On the “Batman” series, Meredith developed his grunting “Penguin” laugh out of pure necessity. He had given up smoking some twenty-odd years earlier, but his character was required to smoke with a cigarette holder. The smoke would get caught in his throat and he would start hacking. Rather than constantly ruin takes in this manner, he developed the laugh to cover it up. “Actually, it was a pretty funny noise for a penguin to make,” said Meredith. “I sounded more like a duck.”
He lived his private life with the spirit of adventure that had been a hallmark to his professional life. He was a Captain in the Army Force during World War II and, having experienced difficulty for his views during the McCarthy Era, was a champion of civil liberties. Burgess also raised jumping horses and was once President of The Dolphin Foundation, which researches the communicative powers of dolphins, whales and other sea mammals. At home, he maintained a noted wine cellar and covered the walls of his residence with his own paintings.
Reflecting on his long and varied career, Burgess said, “I was born a character actor and didn’t have to lose my youth to be taken seriously. I was never really the leading man type. I never got the girl. Off-stage, thank heavens, it was another story!” He had an active romantic career and was married to Helen Derby Berrien, Margaret Perry Frueauff, knockout beauty Paulette Goddard (on the rebound from ex-husband Charlie Chaplin) as well as Kaja Sundsten.
Among his many acting honors (the list is too great to list here) were back-to-back Academy Award nominations, in 1975 for The Day of the Locust and in 1976 for Rocky. Burgess once recalled the night when some of the cast went to a public screening for Rocky: “When we previewed a rough cut at the University of Southern California for a film class, the vibrations made Sylvester and me shudder. The response was unbelievable.”
“Without a doubt, being a part of the Rocky phenomenon has been something I have loved from the very beginning,” he explained, “very possibly, Rocky III is – to me – the most special of all.”
In discussing Mickey’s role in Rocky III, Sylvester Stallone added that “Mickey developed a paternal compassion and a genuine love for Rocky. Separately, they are failures – anachronisms. Their future is together.”
Not only because of the surprising drama his character plays in the overall storyline but “Moreover, because the film reveals some startling revelations about my character’s good and bad points. The audience, I feel sure, will have mixed emotions about some of the things that are unveiled, and it will be up to them to decide whether these new developments are in the best interests of Rocky Balboa or not.
“In addition to all the other elements surrounding the changes that Mickey brings about, the script has included a warm, very touching statement about the love between mentor and student, friend and friend – playing these scenes with Stallone was a real highlight of the making of the Rocky films.”
Meredith returned for four of the five Rocky sequels, actually appearing in flashback in Rocky V. It would prove to be one of his final films. After having suffered for some time with bouts of Melanoma skin cancer and the degenerative effects of Alzheimer’s disease, Burgess Meredith died at his home in Malibu, California in September of 1997. He was 88 years old.