September 29, 1997 12:00 PM

IN THE 65 YEARS SINCE HE MADE HIS Broadway debut as a duck in a New York City production of Alice in Wonderland, Burgess Meredith won accolades as an actor whose Shakespearean performances rivaled Sir Laurence Olivier’s. Yet at his Sept. 9 death at 89 in Malibu of pneumonia and complications from Alzheimer’s disease, Meredith was best known as Sylvester Stallone’s raspy-voiced trainer in four Rocky pictures—and for a part he played strictly for laughs. “It’s amazing how many people equate me with that one brief role,” he wrote in his 1994 autobiography, So Far, So Good, of his turn as the villain Penguin in the campy, mid-’60s Batman TV series. Summing up a career, he added, “I went from a Duck to a Penguin.”

In the end, Meredith found humor in his fate as a serious actor famous for a slapstick part. “Burgess had a great sense of the absurd—and that’s what we were doing, theater of the absurd.” says Batman star Adam West. Recalls Meredith’s jazz musician son Jonathon, 46, “In the early days he’d get asked for Penguin signatures and he didn’t like it very much. But later on, he said, ‘I’ll take all the admiration I can get.’ ”

A hunger for approval motivated him for as long as he could remember, Meredith confessed in his book. “If I close my eyes and think back,” he wrote of his “grim and incoherent” childhood, “I see little except violence and fear.” Born Oliver Burgess Meredith in Cleveland, the actor wrote that his doctor father, William, was alcoholic and abusive towards his mother, Ida, who was in a state of such “constant despair” that she left his rearing largely to his older sister Virginia. A boy soprano, he moved to New York City at 10 to attend a cathedral choir school. When his voice changed four years later, he was packed off to an upstate boarding school.

He dropped out of Amherst College after a year and in 1929 returned to New York, determined to become an actor. His duck walk-on led to larger parts, and soon he was winning curtain calls in Winter set and Playboy of the Western World on Broadway. He hobnobbed with literary pals like Dorothy Parker, James Thurber and his Rockland County, N.Y., neighbor John Steinbeck. Twice married and divorced by the time he was drafted into the Army in 1942, Meredith managed affairs with Tallulah Bankhead (whom he first met, he recalled, when she answered the door at her Manhattan apartment naked), Ingrid Bergman, Marlene Dietrich and Hedy Lamarr, before marrying actress Paulette Goddard in 1944. Divorced again four years later, he was blacklisted briefly during the Red Scare of the early ’50s but worked steadily after Otto Preminger cast him in Advise and Consent in 1954.

Nominated for Oscars in 1975 (The Day of the Locust) and ’76 (Rocky), Meredith played Jack Lemmon’s father in 1993’s Grumpy Old Men and its 1995 sequel. Suffering from Alzheimer’s for the previous five years, Meredith relied on cue cards during Grumpy shoots, says director Donald Petrie. Still, Petrie recalls thinking, “I hope I’m doing that good at his age.” Meredith’s fourth wife, Kaja, 67, a former ballet dancer whom he wed in 1950 and who now lives in Northern California, was at his bedside at the end, as were son Jonathon and daughter Tala, 45, a painter. “They had their own lives,” Jonathon says of his parents’ separation. “He’d have girls and parties, and she finally said, ‘I want my own place.’ Since he’s been ailing, everything is forgiven. Deep down they really did love each other.”

In Hollywood, Meredith is remembered as “one of the last of the Mohicans,” says Rocky director John Avildsen. “The Penguin’s gone,” says Adam West. “He’s ridden his big umbrella up into the sky. And dammit, I’m sad. I love the guy.”