Picks and Pans Review: Talking With...

updated 06/13/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/13/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

>Burgess Meredith

THE OLD MEN AND THE SEA

"MEMORY IS SUCH A FUNNY THING," says Burgess Meredith. "I'm not a great retainer, which I suppose is the by-product of being an actor. If you play three or four parts in a year, you've led three or four lives. You remember stales you've assumed rather than things you've lived."

Meredith keeps 25 volumes of clippings stretching back to 1920 when he won a national singing competition. "I don't live in the past," he says. "The main thing is to remember not what, but why I did things."

Between roles, he leads a quiet life with wife Kaja, 62 (with whom he has two children, Jonathan, 42, and Tala, 41), in a spacious compound in Malibu. The ocean is his passion. A sea voyage he look off the Baja California coast with John Huston in 1985 takes up three chapters of his memoirs and provides the book a poignant climax: friendship, death and the universe are pondered in grand style. He chuckles at a story that didn't make it into the book: "Just before John died, he and I were silting here by the ocean." Meredith recalls. "He was breathing with the aid of oxygen tanks. Suddenly, the police came and told us there was going to be a tidal wave! This turned out to be a false alarm, but John and I just stared at each other. I said, 'We know you need to take your oxygen tanks! But I've got a house full of scrapbooks. What do I take?' "

Meredith is now laughing. "I love John's answer, because really it sums up my whole altitude. He gathered himself up, looked me right in the eye and wheezed, 'Credit cards?' "

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