Actor Burgess Meredith's Struggle With Cyclothymia

Cyclothymia did not damage the actor's storied career

Burgess Meredith For 'Rocky'
Burgess Meredith suffered from mood swings related to cyclothymia, a form of bipolar disorder. United Artists / Handout

How can we remember Burgess Meredith, and offer hope for others who likewise have coped with bipolar disorder or cyclothymia? Does anything about his childhood suggest a common background for those who develop these disorders?

Burgess Meredith

Burgess Meredith was born on November 16, 1907 in Cleveland. His childhood was pretty bleak. His father was an alcoholic; his mother in a constant state of despair.

In his 1994 autobiography "So Far, So Good," Meredith writes: "All my life, to this day, the memory of my childhood remains grim and incoherent. If I close my eyes and think back, I see little except violence and fear."

A Way Out

Luckily Meredith's fine soprano singing voice was his ticket out. As a kid he got into music and won various competitions, even receiving a full scholarship with the St. John Choir in New York City as a teenager. He never returned to Ohio.

Meredith went on to attend Amherst College in Massachusetts sporadically, though he never graduated. When he wasn't attending school, he tried his hand at a variety of jobs, including working as a novice reporter for a Connecticut newspaper and launching a men's clothing business with his brother.

An Extraordinary Acting Career

It was during this time that Meredith became set on breaking into show business. In 1929 he began working as an apprentice with Eva Le Gallienne's Civic Repertory Company in New York City.

 He made his Broadway debut in 1933 in "Little Ol' Boy." Meredith's series of acclaimed stage appearances gave him his big break into stage and screen. He landed the starring role in the 1936 film "Winterset."

Meredith was a founder of the New Stage Society and also served as vice president of the Actors' Equity in 1938.

The next several decades proved to be fruitful, full of noteworthy performances on stage—“High Tor" (1937) and "Playboy of the Western World" (1946)—and in films—“Of Mice and Men" (1939).

Beginning in the late 1950s, Meredith's film and TV output was extraordinary, including well known roles as Penguin in the 1960s TV series "Batman," as Rocky Balboa's trainer in 1974's "Rocky" and in 1993's "Grumpy Old Men." He also dabbled in directing. He directed the film "The Man in the Eiffel Tower" (1950) and several stage productions, including the Broadway production of "Ulysses in Nighttown," for which he was nominated for a Tony award.

Personal Life

Between 1935 and 1948, Meredith was married and divorced three times, all while appearing in approximately 20 films and serving in the Air Force during World War II. In 1950 he took his fourth wife, Swedish ballerina Kaja Sundsten, to whom he remained married until his death.

Meredith's Struggle with Cyclothymia, A Form of Bipolar Disorder

Though we don't know when Meredith was diagnosed or how long he suffered with mental illness, he joined many other celebrities with bipolar disorder or other mental illnesses who have shared their challenges with the public.

Not only has this helped in reducing the stigma of mental illness, but brings hope to those who cope with these disorders today. Many, many people do lead successful and meaningful lives amidst the ups and downs of a mental illness.

That said, it wasn't until 1994 when he published his autobiography that Meredith confessed to suffering from mood swings due to cyclothymia, a type of bipolar disorder.

Cyclothymia is a disorder on the bipolar spectrum (and may be considered bipolar III disorder) characterized by episodes of hypomania which fluctuates with periods of depression. It often becomes apparent during adolescence, when periods of hypomania with decreased sleep, increased activity, and other characteristics become apparent. Without treatment, complications often include low self esteem, substance abuse, and repeated relationship difficulties. The disorder also carries an increased risk of suicide.

People may continue to show symptoms of cyclothymia, though 15 to 30 percent of people go on to develop full bipolar I or bipolar II disorder. Even if cyclothymia does not progress to full bipolar disorder, it is in itself a condition greatly deserving of treatment, not just as a "milder" form of bipolar disorder, but as a distinct disorder which can disrupt and destroy the lives of those who suffer with it unless appropriate attention to the disorder is made and treatment is sought. Misdiagnosis also carries the risk of having the disorder evolve and develop into other mental health disorders.

Meredith's "bleak" childhood where he saw little except "violence and fear" is not uncommon among people with bipolar disorder. Nobody know exactly what causes these disorders, but childhood trauma is one risk factor.

There is also a genetic component, though other than Meredith's father apparently being an alcoholic and his mother despairing, we don't know if either of his parents or other relations suffered from the disorder. The risk of developing the disorder is 15 to 30 percent if a child has one parent with bipolar disorder and 50 to 75 percent if both parents have the condition. Whether his mother's despair was due to clinical depression or bipolar disease or simply her personality we will never know. We also know that substance abuse is common among people with bipolar disorder.

Meredith's Legacy

Burgess Meredith passed away on September 9, 1997 due to complications related to Alzheimer's and melanoma. He was 89 years old.

Sources:

Faedda, G., Marangoni, C., Serra, G. et al. Precursors of Bipolar Disorders: A Systematic Literature Review of Prospective Studies. Journal of Clinical Pscyhiatry. 2015. 76(5):614-24.

Perugi, G., Hantouche, E., Vannucchi, G., and O. Pinto. Cyclothymia Reloaded: A Reappraisal of the Most Misconceived Affective Disorder. Journal of Affective Disorders. 2015. 183:119-33.

Continue Reading