He established himself as a leading man in Hollywood with critically acclaimed performances as George Milton in Of Mice and Men (1939), Ernie Pyle in The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), and the narrator of A Walk in the Sun (1945).
Meredith was born in 1907 in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of Ida Beth (née Burgess) and Dr. William George Meredith, a Canadian-born physician, of English descent. His mother came from a long line of Methodist revivalists, a religion to which he adhered throughout his lifetime.
Meredith graduated from Hoosac School in 1926 and then attended Amherst College (class of 1931). He left Amherst, and became a reporter for the Stamford Advocate. He later served in the United States Army Air Forces in World War II, reaching the rank of captain. During 1943 he appeared in a training film for the US Army on "A Welcome to Britain" which discussed how to behave in Britain He was discharged in 1944 to work on the movie The Story of G.I. Joe, in which he played the war correspondent Ernie Pyle.
In 1929, he became a member of Eva Le Gallienne's Civic Repertory Theatre company in New York City. Although best known to the larger world audience for his film and television work, Meredith was an influential actor and director for the stage. He made his Broadway debut as Peter in Le Gallienne's production of Romeo and Juliet (1930) and became a star in Maxwell Anderson's Winterset (1935), which became his film debut the following year. His early life and theatre work were the subject of a New Yorker profile.
He garnered critical acclaim in the 1935 Broadway revival of The Barretts of Wimpole Street starring Katharine Cornell. She subsequently cast him in several of her later productions. Other Broadway roles included Van van Dorn in High Tor (1937), Liliom in Liliom (1940), Christy Mahon in The Playboy of the Western World (1946), and Adolphus Cusins Major Barbara (1957). He created the role of Erie Smith in the English-language premiere of Eugene O'Neill's Hughie at the Theater Royal in Bath, England in 1963. He played Hamlet in avant garde theatrical and radio productions of the play.
A distinguished theatre director, he won a Tony Award nomination for his 1974 Broadway staging of Ulysses in Nighttown, a theatrical adaptation of the "Nighttown" section of James Joyce's Ulysses. Meredith also shared a Special Tony Award with James Thurber for their collaboration on A Thurber Carnival (1960). In the late seventies, he directed Fionnula Flanagan's one-woman multi-role play "James Joyce's Women," which toured for several years.
Early in his career, Meredith attracted favorable attention, especially for playing George in a 1939 adaptation of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and as war correspondent Ernie Pyle in The Story of G.I. Joe (1945). He was featured in many 1940s films, including three — Second Chorus (1940), Diary of a Chambermaid (1946), and On Our Merry Way (1948) — co-starring then-wife Paulette Goddard. He also played alongside Lana Turner in Madame X. As a result of the House Committee on Un-American Activities investigation, Meredith was placed on the Hollywood blacklist, and was largely absent from film for the next decade, though he remained involved in stage plays and radio during this time.
Meredith was a favorite of director Otto Preminger, who cast him in Advise and Consent (1962), The Cardinal (1963), In Harm's Way (1965), Hurry Sundown (1967), Skidoo (1968), and Such Good Friends (1971). He was in Stay Away Joe (1968), appearing as the father of Elvis Presley's character. In 1975, he received critical acclaim for his performance as Harry Greene in The Day of the Locust and received nominations for the BAFTA, Golden Globe, and Academy Award for best supporting actor. Meredith then played Rocky Balboa's trainer, Mickey Goldmill, in the first three Rocky films (1976, 1979, and 1982). Though his character died in the third Rocky film, he returned briefly in a flashback in the fifth film, Rocky V (1990). His portrayal in the first film earned him his second consecutive nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Meredith played an old Korean War veteran Captain J.G. Williams in The Last Chase with Lee Majors. He appeared in Ray Harryhausen's last stop-motion feature Clash of the Titans (1981), in a supporting role. Meredith appeared in Santa Claus: The Movie (1985). In his last years, he played Jack Lemmon's character's sex-crazed 95-year-old father in Grumpy Old Men (1993) and its sequel, Grumpier Old Men (1995).
Meredith directed the movie The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1949) starring Charles Laughton, which was produced by Irving Allen. Meredith also was billed in a supporting role in this film. In 1970, he directed (as well as co-wrote and played a supporting role in) The Yin and the Yang of Mr. Go, an espionage caper starring James Mason and Jeff Bridges.
Meredith appeared in four different starring roles in the anthology TV series The Twilight Zone, tying him with Jack Klugman for the most appearances on the show in a starring role.
In the 1961 episode "Mr. Dingle, the Strong", Meredith played the title character, a timid weakling who receives superhuman strength from an extraterrestrial experiment in human nature. In "Time Enough at Last" he portrayed a henpecked bookworm who finds himself the sole survivor of an unspecified apocalypse which leads him to contemplate suicide until he discovers the ruins of the library. "Printer's Devil", Meredith portrayed the Devil himself, and in "The Obsolete Man" he portrayed a librarian, sentenced to death in a dystopic totalitarian society. He would later play two more roles in Rod Serling's other anthology series, Night Gallery. Meredith was the narrator for Twilight Zone: The Movie in 1983.
The actor appeared in various other television programs, including the role of Christopher Norbert III, in the 1962 episode "Hooray, Hooray, the Circus Is Coming to Town" of the NBC medical drama about psychiatry, The Eleventh Hour starring Wendell Corey and Jack Ging. He also guest starred in the ABC drama about psychiatry, Breaking Point in the 1963 episode titled "Heart of Marble, Body of Stone".
Meredith appeared in various western series, such as Rawhide (four times), The Virginian (twice), Wagon Train, Branded, The Wild Wild West, The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, Laredo, Bonanza, and Daniel Boone. In 1963, he appeared as Vincent Marion in a five-part episode of the last season of the Warner Bros. ABC detective series 77 Sunset Strip. He starred three times in Burke's Law (1963–1964), starring Gene Barry.
Meredith also played the Penguin in the television series Batman from 1966 to 1968, and in the 1966 film based on the TV series. His role as the Penguin was so well-received, the show's writers always had a script featuring the Penguin ready whenever Meredith was available. He and Cesar Romero (the Joker) are tied for number of appearances on the show.
From 1972–73, Meredith played V.C.R. Cameron, director of Probe Control, in the television movie/pilot Probe and then in Search, the subsequent TV series (the name was changed to avoid conflict with a program on PBS).
Meredith won an Emmy Award as Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy or Drama Special for the 1977 television film Tail Gunner Joe, a fictitious study of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, the anticommunist politician active in the 1950s. He was cast as crusading lawyer Joseph Welch.
In 1992, Meredith narrated The Chaplin Puzzle, a television documentary that provides a rare insight into Charles Chaplin's work, circa 1914, at Keystone Studios and Essanay, where Chaplin developed his Tramp character.
Meredith also performed voice-over work. He provided the narration for A Walk in the Sun. As a nod to his longtime association with The Twilight Zone, he served as narrator for the 1983 film based on the series. He was the TV commercial voice for Bulova watches, Honda, Stokely-Van Camp, United Airlines, and Freakies breakfast cereal.
He supplied the narration for the 1974–75 ABC Saturday morning series Korg: 70,000 B.C. and was the voice of Puff in the series of animated adaptations of the Peter, Paul, and Mary song Puff, the Magic Dragon. In the mid-1950s, he was one of four narrators of the NBC and syndicated public affairs program, The Big Story (1949–58), which focused on courageous journalists. In 1991, he narrated a track on The Chieftains' album of traditional Christmas music and carols, The Bells of Dublin.
He acted in the Kenny G music video of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", which was released in 1997. He played the main character, a film operator at a movie theater.
His last role before his death was the portrayal of both Hamilton Wofford and Covington Wofford characters in the 1996 video game Ripper by Take-Two Interactive. Meredith was considered to play the Penguin's father in the 1992 Tim Burton film Batman Returns, but illness prevented him from it and that role was taken by Paul Reubens.
In 1994, Meredith published his autobiography, So Far, So Good. In the book he confessed that he suffered from violent mood swings caused by cyclothymia, a form of bipolar disorder.
Meredith was married four times. His first wife, Helen Derby Merrien Burgess, was the daughter of Harry L. Derby, president of the American Cyanamid and Chemical Corporation; she took her life after their divorce. His next two wives were actresses, Margaret Perry and Paulette Goddard. Goddard suffered a miscarriage in 1944. His last marriage, to Kaja Sundsten, lasted 46 years and produced two children—Jonathon (a musician) and Tala (a painter). Friend Adam West spoke briefly at his memorial service. His remains were cremated.
Burgess was a lifelong Democrat who often donated $200, and more, to his party throughout his lifetime.
Meredith was twice nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, in 1976 for Rocky, and in 1975 for The Day of the Locust, for which he also received a Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture. That performance brought him a BAFTA Award nomination.
Meredith won a Primetime Emmy Award for Supporting Actor in 1977 for Tail Gunner Joe, and was nominated for the same award the next year for The Last Hurrah. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films three times, in 1978, 1979, and 1982, and won the last two times, for Magic and Clash of the Titans.
In 1962, Meredith won a Best Supporting Actor award from the National Board of Review, for Advise & Consent, and in 1985 he was nominated for a CableAce Award for his performance in Answers.
For his contributions to the motion picture industry, Meredith has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. For his onstage contributions, he was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.
Meredith has a 21-acre park named for him in Pomona, New York. He provided the funding to incorporate the village.
On May 14, 1977 - Meredith received his honorary doctorate degree from Upper Iowa University in Fayette, Iowa.