Mr. Meredith, The Versatile
Time for a few introductions, Twilight Zone fans. Recognize these four men?
The meek one with the mustache and the Coke-bottle eyeglasses? That’s Henry Bemis. Next to him is a smiling, nervous, bow-tied vacuum-cleaner salesman named Luther Dingle. Over there, books in hand, is the unassuming but dignified Romney Wordsworth. And the man with the crooked cigar, the leering expression and the unsettling grin? Mr. Smith.
Four of the fifth dimension’s most distinct and memorable characters, each brought to life by one man: Burgess Meredith.
The legendary actor was grateful for the opportunity TZ gave him. “Rod used to have a part for me every season,” he said, “and every one of them was extraordinary.” He would go on to star in two episodes of Serling’s follow-up series, Night Gallery, livening up “The Little Black Bag” and “Finnegan’s Flight”.
But which of his TZ roles is the greatest? Let’s get a little spoiler-y and meet the candidates:
Henry Bemis: The star of “Time Enough at Last,” perhaps the most iconic TZ episode ever, is well known even to people who have never watched the series. A bank teller with a nagging wife and an unsympathetic boss, he just wanted a chance to read with no interruptions. Who can’t sympathize with his glee at having tons of books and no one to nag him? And who can forget the devastated look on his face when his eyeglasses break?
Luther Dingle: Only a two-headed Martian would pick the title character of “Mr. Dingle, the Strong” out of a crowd. They bestow the strength of 300 men on him, then watch in dismay as he astonishes onlookers with feats of superhuman muscle. Disappointed that he’s content to use his power only for “petty exhibitionism,” they withdraw the strength … just before two Venusians endow him with superhuman intelligence.
Romney Wordsworth: He’s a librarian … with the misfortune of living in a totalitarian state where books are banned. The star of “The Obsolete Man” isn’t on the run, though. He’s been caught, tried and convicted. For his crime, he faces “liquidation.” The State, represented by the imperious Chancellor, gives him a choice: he may choose his method of execution. But this simple purveyor of the printed word has an unexpected trick up his sleeve.
Mr. Smith: In “Printer’s Devil,” a small-town editor is driven to near-bankruptcy and near-suicide before an unlikely savior arrives: a reporter/linotype operator with an uncanny knack for uncovering scandalous stories well ahead of the competition. The editor is back in the black, and riding high … then Mr. Smith gives him a unique bill: He’ll enjoy continued success if he’s willing to sign away his soul. Can he evade this diabolical dilemma?
It’s a tribute to Burgess Meredith’s acting ability that he could make all four of these characters so different. Jack Klugman (whom I’m a great fan of) essentially played the same guy each time he starred on The Twilight Zone. Not Meredith. He could make you fear Mr. Smith as readily as he could make you cheer for Mr. Wordsworth.
“He was one of the greats,” recalled Don Rickles, who co-starred in “Mr. Dingle, The Strong”:
“He played his part so well that Rod Serling is probably shaking his hand to this day. You know what I remember about Meredith? In between takes, he was a warm fellow who had a great sense of humor. We shot jabs at each other, and he took ’em as fast as he pitched them. They don’t make men like him anymore.”
Photos courtesy of Wendy Brydge. For a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest. You can also sign up for email notifications of future blog posts by clicking “follow” in the upper left-hand corner of this page. Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!