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Starring Ralph Meeker
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Ralph Meeker Profile

With a commanding presence and rugged good-looks, Ralph Meeker may not have become an A-list actor during the latter part of the Golden Age of Hollywood but he certainly left his mark by playing such diverse roles as Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and the condemned World War I French soldier Corporal Paris in Stanley Kubrick's chilling exposé of the madness of war, Paths of Glory (1957).

Born Ralph Rathgeber, Jr. in Minneapolis, Minnesota on November 21, 1920 to Ralph Sr. and his wife Magnhild Haavig, Meeker spent his childhood in Chicago and later Glen Arbor, Michigan, where he attended the Leelanau School for Boys. While attending Northwestern University from 1938 to 1942, Meeker studied musical composition but later switched to acting after appearing in plays during his freshman year. Meeker later recalled that ''[t]he dean thought it was very impractical to be an actor, and painted the blackest picture of the theatrical profession. He pointed at all the other actors who had gone from Northwestern to Broadway and had been failures. He did exactly the right thing.'' As the United States had just entered into World War II, Meeker enlisted in the Navy but injured his neck on-board ship and he was given a medical discharge after only a few months.

Fresh out of the Navy, Meeker returned to Chicago and despite the Dean of Northwestern's warning, entered the theater with his first role as a bellboy in the national touring company of The Doughgirls in 1943. When the play closed he went to New York where he took menial jobs while trying to break into the theater. After a brief time in stock, Meeker joined the USO and went to Europe to entertain the troops. When the war ended, Meeker returned to New York and his first Broadway play, Strange Fruit (1945) directed by José Ferrer, which ran from November 29, 1945 to January 19, 1946. That year he would again work with Ferrer in his landmark theatrical production of Cyrano de Bergerac as stage manager and in the small part of a lackey. The following year he would be Marlon Brando's replacement in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). Hal Erickson wrote in his All Movie Guide that "there were those who felt that he was closer to Williams' concept of Stanley [Kowalski] than the mighty Brando." This coincided with Meeker appearing in a small role in Mister Roberts (1948) starring Henry Fonda at the Alvin Theater. He won a Theater World award for most "Promising Personality" and this exposure led to Meeker being spotted by Hollywood.

A small role in the film Teresa (1951) with John Ericson and Pier Angeli won Meeker a contract with MGM and he appeared in several "B" movies in the early 1950's such as Shadow in the Sky (1952) opposite Nancy Davis (later First Lady Nancy Reagan), and Somebody Loves Me (1952) with Betty Hutton. Meeker spent the early 1950s alternating between Broadway and Hollywood. Of the two, Broadway must have been the more satisfying experience. In 1953 Meeker had his first starring role in William Inge's Pulitzer Prize winning play, Picnic with Janice Rule. Meeker and Rule were understudied by Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman (in his theater debut). The role won Meeker the New York Critics Circle Award, and the New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson wrote that he ''acts from the inside out, never forgetting that the character has a validity of its own.'' In later years, Meeker claimed he was offered the film version of Picnic but didn't want to enter into a long-term contract with Columbia Pictures, so the part went to William Holden. While Holden was filming Picnic Meeker was co-starring in a film called Big House, U.S.A. (1955) with Broderick Crawford. John G. Stephens, who was casting director on the film, later wrote about the experience, "I got to work on two good movies at Schenck & Koch [the producers]. One was [...] Big House, USA. Howard Koch got permission to film in the maximum-security area of the Canon City Prison in Canon City, Colorado. Ralph Meeker was cast. He had just lost the lead in Picnic - a part he had created on Broadway - to William Holden. You can imagine his frame of mind, going from losing Picnic to winding up in Big House USA for Schenck & Koch. The entire cast and crew, with the exception of Charlie Bronson, Ralph Meeker and myself, were drunk the whole time. Lon Chaney, Jr. was the only man I ever met who was drunk twenty-four hours a day. Bill Tallman was a mean drunk. Brod Crawford was a happy drunk. He was the only happy person on location. Ralph Meeker was usually mad. Charlie was always mad. When our actors walked through the maximum-security area of the Canon City Prison, the prisoners were scared."

His next assignment was Kiss Me Deadly, an independent film directed by Robert Aldrich and financed by Parklane Pictures. Based on Mickey Spillane's novel of the same name, the film starred Meeker as iconic L.A. private eye Mike Hammer. In the film Hammer picks up a young woman (played by Cloris Leachman in her film debut) wearing only a trenchcoat. Shortly after, she is killed and Hammer unravels the mystery, which leads to a cataclysmic conclusion. Shot from November 27 – December 23, 1954, it was a controversial film for its time, attracting the attention of the Kefauver Commission (charged with rooting out unwholesome influences) which called it the Number One Menace to American Youth for 1955.

In 1957 Meeker was second-billed to Kirk Douglas in Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory which was adapted from Humphrey Cobb's 1935 novel concerning actual events of World War I. A French Regiment was ordered on a suicidal mission that they refused. In retaliation their general, who wants to make a name for himself, orders that three men be chosen from the ranks, tried and executed as an example. Meeker played one of the condemned men, Corporal Paris, who is chosen because he suspected his Lieutenant had killed one of his men. Of all the films Ralph Meeker appeared in, Paths of Glory is the best remembered, although it was not a box-office success. Dark and at times frightening in its intensity, it is now recognized as a classic.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Meeker appeared more often on television than in films, especially in anthology drama programs like Studio One, Zane Grey Theater, Playhouse 90 and several episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He also returned to the theater in plays like Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros (1961) and Martin Gabel's production of Mrs. Dally (1965) co-starring Arlene Francis. Meeker was also a member of the Lincoln Center Repertory Theater under Elia Kazan during 1963-4, appearing in Arthur Miller's After the Fall.

In 1967 Meeker re-teamed with director Robert Aldrich for The Dirty Dozen and later that year he portrayed real-life gangster 'Bugs' Moran in The St. Valentine's Day Massacre. Meeker was chosen by director Roger Corman for his resemblance to Moran. Throughout the 1970s and up until his last film appearance Without Warning (1980), Meeker worked steadily on television playing police officers or detectives on shows such as C.H.i.P.S, Police Woman, Harry O, and The Rookies.

Ralph Meeker had been in ill-health for some time when he died of a heart attack at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, California on August 5, 1988 at the age of 67. He was survived by his second wife, Millicent.

by Lorraine LoBianco

SOURCES:
From My Three Sons to Major Dad by John G. Stephens
www.meekermuseum.com
The Internet Broadway Database
The Internet Movie Database
The All Movie Guide by Hal Erickson
Crime Wave: The Filmgoers' Guide to the Great Crime Movies by Howard Hughes
New York Times Obituary August 6, 1988
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