Goodbye to the Penguin and to a gifted actor


September 12, 1997|By DAN RODRICKS

Burgess Meredith was an extravagantly gifted actor with a distinguished career in theater and film, so when I had the pleasure of conversation with him a few years ago, I didn't dare bring up the Penguin. He'd performed works of Shakespeare with Orson Welles. He'd acted opposite Ingrid Bergman. He'd worked with Jean Renoir, Charles Laughton, John Huston and Otto Preminger. Did I dare bring up his monocled comic villain from a campy TV show of the 1960s?

Had to.

I was a Batman kid. Ten years before Meredith's spunky trainer, Mickey, showed up ringside to Sylvester Stallone's Rocky, there was Penguin.

Meredith was delighted to be asked. He even did his Penguin for me.

"I'm always amazed at the age that that character grew and remained," he said in 1994. "To this day, there's about 10 requests for pictures a day, and about half of them are for the Penguin. It was a comedy, and we took it as such, and it was a very popular thing to be in at the time. Everybody wanted to be one of the villains in Batman. I just happened to get one of the best characters, and then I developed that quack, which helped me. If I forgot my lines, I'd just say, 'Quack, quack, quack, quack.' "

He also developed a new generation of fans from the Penguin. He must have been tempted to tell some aging, autograph-seeking Batman kid to go rent "Of Mice and Men" (with Lon Chaney Jr., 1939).

"I don't think you do that in any loud voice, because they'd think you were crazy," Meredith said. "You just live and learn and take what you can get from it."

I remember asking him to name his favorite work. He mentioned a 1949 film, "Man on the Eiffel Tower," which he directed and in which he starred with Laughton and Franchot Tone. It's a psychodrama, filmed in Paris, involving a cat-and-mouse game between police and a murder suspect. I had never seen it. Meredith hadn't in years. The film's biggest financial backer had the contractual right to withdraw it from distribution and destroy if he didn't like it. And he didn't like it.

"I would have thought it was one of the few films that could have been remembered," Meredith said sadly. "But the man who [financed the film] could withdraw it if he didn't like it, and the producer allowed that to happen. You can't find it. It's one of those things that live in memory rather than in actuality."

Like the fine actor named Burgess Meredith.

The lure of the onion

When it comes to onions fried on a sub shop griddle, I am Pavlov's dog. The other day I was drawn irresistibly - and against the advice of Dr. Dean Edell - by a strong, savory aroma to Captain Harvey's sub shop in Logan Village Shopping Center, Dundalk. I hadn't been there in a few years.

The first time I walked into the place 15 years ago, I was stunned at the size of the pile of onions ready to be fried to meet lunch-hour demand. To call it a pile was to indulge in banal (and unfair) understatement. Mound wouldn't do, either. Hill was a better description. "The oniony knoll," suggested Ken Brown, the guy who introduced me to Captain Harvey's. Because it was only 11 a.m., the onions hadn't been cooked yet; they hadn't wilted and achieved that brown, noodlelike mess effect. They were still white and hard, stacked on the grill nearly 2 feet high and wider at the base.

I always considered the size of the onion pile at Captain Harvey's a good measure of the economic health of southeastern Baltimore County, the Sparrows Point-Dundalk area.

Judging from what I saw the other day - a line forming shortly after 11 a.m. for onion-topped subs - things are good, if not booming. The hill of onions already had imploded into a gorgeous, thick, swirling mess. The cheese steak sub, cloaked generously in fried onions, was up to its usual standard. Pavlov's dog went home happy.

Good shopping, good cause

Just what Baltimore needs - another used-clothing store. But hold on now.

This one is called Esther's Clothes Tree, 2418 St. Paul St., with a rear entrance just off the parking lot of the new midtown Safeway. Maybe I had good pickings because the place just opened, but I've got to report excellent results from my first shopping sortie. Among the finds: a kid's-size L.L. Bean micro-fleece pullover, no holes or rips, for $4. Esther's appears to be supplied with used clothing from the well-heeled - my polyester detector didn't go off once while I was there - and it reminds me of a smaller version of Wise Penny or Delores Deluxe's old place. Esther's supports Manna House Inc., the church-supported nonprofit of long service to the city's poor and homeless. Good pickin's, good cause.

Another kind of monarch

Spotted, while daydreaming at a fifth-floor window overlooking the busy Jones Falls Expressway: a dispersed but steady stream of monarch butterflies, headed (more or less) southwest across the city toward their winter roosts in Mexico and beyond. Buen viaje. ... The Daily Grind, our favorite funky Fells Point coffee shop, has a cool new T-shirt for sale, playing off its proximity to "Homicide" production along Thames Street. It shows a cup of spilled coffee with the legend: "Javacide: Life without coffee." ... Raymond K.K. Ho, the former head of Maryland Public Television who complained bitterly about a "Jewish connection" behind his noisy 1995 ouster here, is now out of his job at Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network in Virginia Beach, Va. We'll try to let you know where he lands next.

Pub Date: 9/12/97

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