Burgess Meredith [1907-1997] was a classic character actor, who is probably best known for two major roles. Those being as Rocky Balboa’s fiery boxing trainer, Mickey in the first three Rocky films, and for his portrayal as the sneaky Penguin, adversary of Batman, in the 1960’s live action TV series.
Meredith also happens to feature in four episodes of Rod Serling’s classic American science fiction show, ‘The Twilight Zone’, which is where we are heading.
Time Enough At Last
[Season 1 Episode 8, March 20th 1959]
Meredith’s first venture into the Twilight Zone comes by way of the character, Marilyn Venable. Venable is a bank clerk whose diminutive manner appears to cause irritation to all those around him, including his domineering wife and the manager of the bank in which he works. In particular, his interest in books is seen to interfere with his work duties as he both babbles inanities to customers, and is caught reading while negating work duties. A seemingly unscheduled trip to the bank’s vault sees him lock himself inside, hoping to find some peace and quiet, and this is where the weirdness kicks in. His time in the vault happens to coincide with a nuclear strike which promptly reduces the world outside of the vault into rubble. And so Venable is gifted the titular time he needs to indulge his hobby, which might not work out quite as he intends. Meredith is delightfully irritating as the hen-pecked Venables and the teleplay provides for an amusing story.
Mr. Dingle The Strong
[Season 2 Episode 55, March 3rd 1961]
While many of the Twilight Zone’s episodes are quite dark and bleak, ‘Mr. Dingle, The Strong’ does not work on that level. In fact, it’s quite a light-hearted, comedic affair. Interestingly, Meredith plays a character with much in common with Marilyn Venable. This time as Luther Dingle, a diminutive vacuum cleaner salesman, we are introduced to his low status as the various patrons of a bar bully him in their cantankerous games. Enter a two-headed martian (what else?) to introduce the curve ball. Said martian picks up on the gamma male characteristics of Dingle and as an experiment decides to transfer super-human strength to him. It’s very interesting and amusing how this one plays out. It’s another tight episode with a great comedy performance by Meredith.
Mr. Dingle The Strong also features the hilariously strange character actor, James Millhollin, as a TV reporter. Millhollin himself features in three Zone episodes, including one of my favourites, ‘The After Hours’.
The Obsolete Man
[Season 2 Episode 65, June 2nd 1961]
The next Meredith episode certainly is a lot darker. What Meredith’s character, Romney Wordsworth, has in common with his previous characters is a passion for books, but this time, he is not a down-trodden loser, but a proud, educated man of strong character. The setting is a totalitarian dystopia, in which Wordsworth, as a librarian, is deemed as being obsolete. His archaic ways and passion for learning are seen as threatening and irrelevant traits, and a case is made for his removal from society. The head to head confrontation he has with the Nazi-like chancellor is fantastic.
The Printer’s Devil
[Season 4 Episode 111, February 28th 1963]
‘The Printer’s Devil’ is an episode which gets the balance between comedy and menace absolutely spot on. The episode is unusually one hour long, and follows events in the office of a failing newspaper called ‘The Courier’. With employees quitting in droves, editor Douglas Winter is on the verge of despair. Enter Meredith’s mysterious and sinister, Mr Smith who takes up the position of the linotype operator. Smith’s reports on mysteriously dramatic events quickly start to turn around the paper, but where is he getting these killer scoops from? Meredith’s mischievous performance on the linotype machine is hilarious. Out of the Meredith Zones, this one has to be my favourite.
Meredith’s fine talents and evident charisma put the episodes in which he appears amongst the finest in ‘The Twilight Zone’ catalogue. A great introduction to this fantastic TV show for the uninitiated, and very rewatchable and enjoyable for the connoisseur.