Friday, February 19, 2016

Burgess Meredith: From the Bard to the Bird


Lee Meriwether as the Catwoman with Meredith as the Penguin in the 1966 Batman movie.
The TV Batman villains of the mid-1960s were terrific — zany, manic anarchists who were almost understandably ready to rain knockout gas and colorful chaos on the ridiculously strait-laced citizens of Gotham City.
The best of the lot, to my mind, was Burgess Meredith as the Penguin, played with a lusty twinkle in the eye, anserous verbal tics and a general air of evil glee.
“Ah, yes, the villainous Penguin. It pursues me,” the celebrated actor reported in his 1994 biography, So Far, So Good. “It was a deliberately overblown approach. It may have done me more harm than good, but it made an impact. I thought it had a Dickensian quality — or a spoof of one. It was fun to act. I was only one of many villains, as you know. I had an elaborate makeup — a huge nose and a great, extended stomach. It was as complete a disguise as you could get, but people recognized me in it. The interesting thing about the Penguin was that I made only a few episodes, maybe nine or 10. And one feature film.
“It’s amazing how many people equate me with that one brief role. I still receive hundreds of request for pictures. The recent feature picture Batman ignited reruns of the series. It never stops. Recently a newspaper qualified me as ‘best known as the Penguin.’ It really an idiot’s corner to get into”
Asked why he took the part in the first place, Meredith replied, “Well, everybody was taking parts in Batman — from Frank Sinatra to Otto Preminger, everyone. It was the trendy thing to do back then. The Penguin stuck to me because the character was vivid. There were probably 25 ‘lead villains,’ the Joker, the Catwoman and so on.
“When Eva Le Gallienne was presented with an award and I was one of the speakers, I told her the first part she had given me was that of the Duck in Alice in Wonderland, and I said I wanted to thank her because ‘it defined my career: I went from a Duck to a Penguin.’”
The young actor Jeff Bridges, thrilled to work with Meredith on a 1970 film, recalled seeing Meredith paste something up on the wall of his hotel room.
“I said, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ And you said, ‘Look at this!’” It was an article from a Hong Kong newspaper about a man who had been raping people while impersonating the Penguin.” 
Reality reportedly intruded when he leaped off a building, opened his umbrella and went splat.

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