Burgess Meredith, a virtuosic actor whose career spanned most of the 20th century and a multitude of performing arts, died on Tuesday at his home in Malibu, Calif. He was 89.
In the 1930's, he was hailed for his performances on Broadway in ''Winterset'' and two other Maxwell Anderson plays. Reviewing the production of Mr. Anderson's ''High Tor,'' Richard Watts Jr. wrote, ''That Mr. Meredith is the best young actor on the American stage is generally conceded.'' He added, ''There isn't a better American actor of any age.''
Through his lifetime, he was discovered and rediscovered in films as well as onstage. One of his most notable movie roles was George, the guardian of the dimwitted Lennie, played by Lon Chaney Jr., in Steinbeck's morality tale ''Of Mice and Men'' (1939).
After years on Broadway and in Hollywood, he achieved a new celebrity on television in the 1960's as the Penguin, the archcriminal in the ''Batman'' television series. That was followed by his role as the crusty trainer in the film ''Rocky'' (1976), for which he received an Oscar nomination. Although those performances renewed his popularity, they represented only a small part of a richly varied career in which he played many of the more demanding roles in classical and contemporary theater -- in plays by Shakespeare, O'Neill, Beckett and others.
He did ''Hamlet'' on the radio, was Marchbanks to Katharine Cornell's Candida and played Christy Mahon in ''The Playboy of the Western World.'' In 1939, Orson Welles and Mr. Meredith shared the stage as Falstaff and Prince Hal in a collage of Shakespeare, ''The Five Kings.'' John Houseman said Mr. Meredith's performance had ''a warmth and an energy that I have never seen equaled in the part, even by Laurence Olivier.'' The production, however, closed in Boston. Of his collaboration with Mr. Welles, Mr. Meredith said, ''We thought we'd combine our immortal talents, but we shared colossal disaster instead.''
When he played the title role in the 1940 Broadway revival of ''Liliom'' opposite Ingrid Bergman, Brooks Atkinson wrote in The New York Times: ''His swagger is genuine; it arises from real strength of mind and spirit, and since it is obviously doomed it is profoundly moving.''
In his earliest days his performances were marked by a youthful exuberance. Gradually -- or maybe suddenly -- Mr. Meredith mellowed into a character actor, one who could, with equal ease, be lovable or villainous. To admirers, it always seemed as if he enjoyed acting.
Mr. Meredith was also acclaimed as a director. He staged the dramatization of James Joyce's ''Ulysses in Nighttown'' with Zero Mostel (and later played opposite Mr. Mostel in a television version of ''Waiting for Godot''). Later, he directed James Baldwin's ''Blues for Mr. Charlie'' for the Actors Studio Theater. Together with Jean Renoir, he wrote and produced the film ''The Diary of a Chambermaid'' (starring Paulette Goddard, Mr. Meredith's third wife).
The actor's distinctive voice was heard for years on radio, in his 1937 ''Hamlet,'' for example. Frequently he acted as a narrator both on radio and television. Later in life he was also known for his work on television commercials, as the voice of United Airlines and Skippy Peanut Butter.
He became an overnight sensation on television as the Penguin in ''Batman.'' It was the easiest assignment of his career, but the character made him an idol of teen-agers. ''Of all the roles I've ever done, this is the first time my own kids have wanted to watch me,'' he said.
If he took roles that seemed beneath his status, he took it in stride. ''If I spent all my time in Shakespearean companies and only did art movies like Olivier, my position would be more dignified and more serious, I might even be a better actor,'' he said. ''But this is America, and I'm a man moved by the rhythms of his time, so I'll just take amusement at being a paradox.''
Oliver Burgess Meredith was born on Nov. 16, 1907, in the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood to a doctor, William George Meredith, and the former Ida Burgess, the daughter of a Methodist revivalist. As a student at Amherst College, he paid his way by tending furnaces and washing dishes. He flunked trigonometry and dropped out. For the next five years he eked out a living as a salesman, clerk, reporter, editor, Wall Street runner and merchant seaman.
In 1929, when he was 22, he decided to become an actor and joined Eva Le Gallienne's Civic Repertory Theater in Manhattan. He made his Broadway debut in 1932 in its production of ''Alice in Wonderland,'' playing the Duck, the Dormouse and Tweedledee. When he played his first leading role, as a juvenile delinquent in ''Little Ol' Boy''in 1933, Robert Benchley wrote in The New Yorker, ''I had to consult the back of the program to find out who Burgess Meredith was although I do not expect to forget him again.''
His breakthrough came in 1935 in ''Winterset,'' the verse drama inspired by the Sacco-Vanzetti case, in which he played Mio, a young man trying to vindicate his radical father after he has been executed. The role was written for Mr. Meredith. From then on, he shuttled between Broadway and Hollywood. He repeated his performance in the film version of ''Winterset.'' He appeared opposite Ginger Rogers in ''Tom, Dick and Harry'' and was in ''Idiot's Delight'' and in ''Second Chorus'' with Ms. Goddard and Fred Astaire.
During World War II, he served in the Army Air Corps, achieving the rank of captain. At the end of the war, he resumed his career, playing the war correspondent Ernie Pyle in ''The Story of G.I. Joe.''
Increasingly, he became known for his comic performances, in such plays as Charles Laughton's all-star production of ''Major Barbara'' and the comedy, ''The Remarkable Mr. Pennyp