Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Guest Who: The Most with the Least

One of these days I'm going to let up with my recent fixation on visitors to Fantasy Island (1977- 1984.) But not just yet... Last fall, I had a post which documented MGM leading lady Cyd Charisse guest-starring alongside acting neophyte Michelle Pfeiffer, who had a teensy role in her TV debut. Now we're back once more, but this time our Michelle, who has costarred in movies opposite such actors as Al Pacino, Jeff Bridges, Daniel Day Lewis, Harrison Ford and others, is paired with... wait for it... "Ralph Malph" of Happy Days (1974-1983)! Yes, Donny Most is checking into Fantasy Island and his fantasy isn't even to land a hot chick.

Most, who plays an art teacher of dubious talent, is there to become - just for once in his life - a great painter! For reasons known only to the screenwriters of the series, he proceeds to go about this by painting a large mural of a semi-nude woman on the side of a white shack. (Because all "great" artists are on the level of advertisements for sunscreen or shaving lotion, not painting something on canvas that might have some sort of everlasting impact...) He has also, for reasons unknown, given his subject not one, but two beauty marks on her backside. Two female guests on the island happen to have one of these apiece, which raises no small amount of ruckus for their boyfriends.

One of them is Michelle Pfeiffer, there for a visit with ex-movie Tarzan Mike Henry (whose fluffy, dyed hair is making him look older instead of younger.) He is mystified as to how Most could know about Pfeiffer's birthmark when they only arrived the day before and starts to blame her for fooling around (and punches Most in the face, as well.)

For her part, she's utterly captivated by the artwork and stares at it in amazement, claiming that "it could be me," even though the naked lady in question has huge, pendulous boobs and, well, our Michelle does not. Unlike Pfeiffer's prior appearance on the show, when you had to look quick to spot her, this episode features several loving close-ups of her dewy-fresh beauty. No wonder that this same year, 1981, she began to work regularly in feature films and scarcely looked back to the small screen.

Feeling that she just has to meet the artist who rendered this portrait of "her," she heads to Most's bungalow and before long has fallen head over heels for him. (They don't call it Fantasy Island for nothin', folks.)

There's more to the story, including how Most used a special paintbrush on loan from a resident artist (played with a dazzlingly bad Irish broague by Peter Brown) and so he doesn't actually possess the talent that Pfeiffer admires so much. But somehow she remains incredibly attracted to the utterly-resistable Most.

By the time they're ready to leave, Henry has been all but forgotten and Most and Pfeiffer are ready to fly off into the sunset and live happily ever after!
Considering the caliber of leading men we're used to seeing her with, it is positively jarring to see her canoodling with someone like this. But it was all uphill from here. Not only was her movie career beginning in earnest, but within a decade she'd be an Oscar nominee (for 1988's Dangerous Liaisons, losing to Geena Davis - who also appeared on Island in 1984! - for The Accidental Tourist.) Two more noms would follow: 1989's The Fabulous Baker Boys (with the award going to Jessica Tandy for Driving Miss Daisy) and 1992's Love Field (this time with Emma Thompson taking home the golden boy for Howard's End.)
And now a bonus guest star featurette. The other story from this episode features on Eve Plumb of The Brady Bunch (1969-1974) and the more recent The Brady Brides (1981.) She plays a woman eight months pregnant who is fully aware that she will die upon the baby's birth. Her fantasy is to take a glimpse into the future and see how her child's life will emerge after she's gone.

Mr. Rourke (Ricardo Montalban) shows her one of three stages in her soon-to-be-born child's life. First up, she sees her husband teaching their little blonde daughter how to ride a bike. (Astonishingly, for this very brief, Christmas Carol-like trip, in which no one can see Plumb or speak to her, she feels the need to bring along her PURSE!)

On closer inspection, we find that Plumb's five year-old daughter is being enacted by none other than Heather O'Rourke, making her very first acting appearance! The very next year, O'Rourke would become a world-wide sensation for her role as "Carol Anne" in Poltergeist, entering the cultural zeitgeist for all time with her mysterious remark in front of a snowy TV screen, "They're here..."

O'Rourke would also proceed to appear on Happy Days from 1982-1983 as the daughter of Fonzie's love interest. There were other TV appearances and two Poltergeist sequels. However, in a saddening event that shocked the world, O'Rourke died at only age twelve from complications related to a bowel obstruction. The complicated circumstances of her illness and death led to a malpractice suit (settled out of court) and rumors of a curse upon the movie series.

After a brief visit with Plumb's daughter at age twelve (by an actress whose career was very short-lived), we check in again with her as a young lady. Um... lady of the evening, that is! It seems our little blonde beauty has grown up to become a runaway, street-walking prostitute! As if we weren't sure what was up with her reporting to a pimp (and it's nice to see that almost two decades into the future at this point, pimps are still wearing tight polyester pants, open shirts and gold chains!), there's even a red light in the frame so we know what sort of district this is!

But who's playing the daughter now? Why, it's Alison Arngrim, "Nellie Oleson" of Little House on the Prairie (1974-1982), clearly trying to break out of her ringlet and petticoat mold. It seems that the girl felt closed off from her father after he remarried and, with no real mother to turn to, ran away and eventually turned to hooking in order to get by.

Plumb, desperate to help her daughter, begs Mr. Rourke to allow her to become visible in the flesh so that she can rectify the situation. He relents and she instantaneously becomes un-pregnant and, in a hooty twist, dresses up like a prostitute herself in order to get to Arngrim and convince her to reach out to her father for help, all the while unable to reveal to the young girl just who she really is.

Plumb does succeed in getting Arngrim out of there and back to her father, but, in a rare unhappy ending for this series, she is still going to die once she's back in the real world and giving birth. In order to soothe her angst about it, she's given a 5x7 glossy by Tattoo (Hervé Villechaize) of the grown Arngrim, her handsome husband and their young son, signifying that all will be well in the future!  Lord knows how she's going to explain this picture to her husband once she gets back from the trip and unpacks. In true "Marsha, Marsha, MARSHA!" form, Maureen McCormick had guest-starred on the episode just prior to this one and left the island in love!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Inheriting the Meeker

Today's featured actor had the talent and versatility to accomplish practically anything, yet stopped short of major stardom, possibly due to one key decision regarding his career. Nevertheless, he proceeded to steady work on stage, television and in colorful movie roles, often as a jerk or a blowhard. To many folks, he's a barely discernible name from the past, but to those who are familiar with his work, he's more than a little captivating. I refer to Ralph Meeker.

Born Ralph Rathgeber on November 21st, 1920 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, he was actually raised in Chicago, Illinois. He later attended a boy's school in Glen Arbor, Michigan, familiarizing him with several parts of the American midwest. Returning to Chicago for enrollment at Northwestern University, he majored in musical composition. Taking a role in a freshman play, however, caused him to steer his interest towards acting.

Unfortunately, a little something known as WWII interrupted his education and he was enlisted into the U.S. Navy. A severe neck injury on board one of the ships, however, led to a medical discharge and he eventually returned to Northwestern and his acting pursuits. (Classmates included Charlton Heston and Patricia Neal.) He was able to land a small role in a touring production (The Doughgirls) in 1943 and then joined the USO in order to entertain troops stationed in Europe.

The war ended, he sought to try his luck in New York City and worked various jobs there while trying to break into the Broadway theatre scene. Prominent actor-director José Ferrer took an interest in the fledgling actor and placed him in the well-populated 1945 drama Strange Fruit. Next, he stage managed (and played a small role) in Ferrer's heralded Cyrano de Bergerac. His presence and physique led to his being selected as Marlon Brando's replacement in the famed Tennessee Williams drama A Streetcar Named Desire.

His notices from the critics in this role were strong. Some of them even preferred his take on the role and found it more authentic than that of the highly-regarded Brando. (Reportedly, even the play's author thought it was closer to his own conception of the character.) Still an unknown, however, his billing was substantially less prominent than the play's latest leading lady, Judith Evelyn. (Evelyn was a successful stage actress who was never permitted to translate her roles onto film, though she did later portray Miss Lonelyhearts in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, 1954.)

Next came a role in the big Broadway hit Mr. Roberts, which starred Henry Fonda who he under- studied. These stage roles eventually led to a “Promising Personality” award from Theater World and interest from the movie business. His debut came in the Fred Zinnemann film Teresa (1951), which starred John Ericson as an emotionally-affected WWII soldier whose problems don't end when he brings Italian war bride Pier Angeli home with him. Meeker played one of Ericson's commanding officers. This shot is the first that movie audiences ever saw of him.

Meeker, the platoon sergeant who takes the hapless Ericson under his wing, makes quite an impression in his debut. The role is small, but very capably delivered. He's very handsome with his five o'clock shadow, too. This part of the movie also contains a subtle level of homoeroticism with Ericson seeming to really love his mentor and Meeker offering a surprising amount of tenderness back to him.

Ericson, who is quite unprepared mentally or physically for combat, is taught how to fight and defend himself by Meeker, as seen here. This results in a tussle between the men that includes a lot of wallowing around in the dust and dirt, though by the end of it, they've established a feeling of trust and camaraderie.

Later, Meeker (who had declined the op- portunity to join his men on their jaunt of drinking and carousing) is in a battle situation with Ericson and Ericson is scared to death. Meeker tells him to stay put and takes the scarf from around his own neck and wraps it around Ericson's for comfort and reassurance (not that it winds up doing any good!)

It ought to have been clear from this small role that Meeker had charisma to spare, and it did lead to more work, but he was not yet a movie star. He followed Teresa with a Swiss-made movie called Four in a Jeep (1951) that starred Viveca Lindfors. In it, he played one of the title characters, a U.S. sergeant accompanied by others from England, France and the U.S.S.R. whose duty is to patrol Austria. The soldiers are drawn to Lindfors and her considerable problems concerning her POW husband.

Meeker won a contract with MGM and was soon enlisted to star in some of their lower-budget efforts. There was the boxing drama Glory Alley (1952) with Leslie Caron in which he played a haunted prizefighter who exits the ring, is branded a coward and then, after a stint amidst The Korean War, redeems himself.

Shadow in the Sky (1952) had him playing a mentally-disturbed Marine veteran who turns to his sister Nancy Davis (Reagan!) and brother-in-law James Whitmore for a place to stay during his recuperation. A real anomaly in his career was Somebody Loves Me (1952) in which he played a (possibly dubbed) real life song and dance man Benny Fields opposite Betty Hutton as Blossom Seeley while on loan to Paramount. He was devilishly handsome in the color production, but this was a far cry from the roles he would soon be known for.

Meeker made three films released in 1953 and the most prominent one is the western The Naked Spur, touted by many fans as an exemplary example of the genre. Starring James Stewart, Robert Ryan and Janet Leigh, Meeker was fourth-billed as a greedy and vicious dishonorably-discharged Union soldier. The tough, color film was a considerable hit.

He also starred in the low-budget Code 22 as a motorcycle cop cadet who enters the program with Keenan Wynn and Jeff Richards, but almost is expelled for his cocky attitude and behavior. Then came a tightly-plotted potboiler opposite Miss Barbara Stanwyck, Jeopardy.

In it, Stanwyck played a wife and mother whose husband Barry Sullivan becomes trapped under a dilapidated, secluded pier as the tide is about to begin roaring in. With only hours until he is overtaken and drowned, she has to turn for anyone she can for help. It's her bad luck that the only one around is escaped killer Meeker!

Stanwyck has to pay a high personal price in order to gain Meeker's reluctant assistance. As seen in the photos here, this was a physically taxing movie on its stars. Meeker and Stanwyck got along well during it. (The basic plot-line was later augmented into an episode of Stanwyck's series The Big Valley, with Lee Majors trapped in the mud under a wagon with Bruce Dern as the fugitive forced to help free him.)

After these movies, Meeker returned to the Broadway stage with a bang. He starred in the play Picnic as a handsome drifter who turns to an old buddy for help landing a job, but in the process steals the man's head-turning girlfriend. Paul Newman, in his Broadway debut, played the friend while Janice Rule was the emotionally torn girl.

This time it was Meeker's name that was first-billed and in bold print with all the other names lined up beneath it. It was a sexually magnetic part and brought him a heady amount of attention. He and the cast also appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1953 to promote the play.

The inevitable movie version of the hit production was planned out in 1954 for release the following year and, unlike so many Broadway stars whose properties are set for the cinema screen, Meeker was offered the chance to repeat his success on the silver screen. However, not wanting to commit to the seven-year Columbia contract that went with the deal, he turned it down. The movie was a smash hit for William Holden (who always felt himself too old for the role), seen below with Kim Novak, and Meeker's career as a movie leading man never got as close again to a big league production of that kind.

He was able, however, to plunge back into movies with moderate success. Big House, U.S.A. (1955) featured him alongside Broderick Crawford and, as seen here, a musclebound Charles Bronson as a would-be kidnapper whose victim accidentally dies, sending him up the river. Once there, he and some fellow inmates plot a daring escape.

He was top-billed in the colorful action potboiler Desert Sands (1955) as a French Foreign Legion officer battling desert tribes and encountering a sultry princess played by Marla English.

By far his most famous film of this time (and quite possibly of his entire movie career) was Kiss Me Deadly (1955), in which he portrayed hard-boiled private detective Mike Hammer. The gritty, no-nonsense movie is an often-cited high point of film noir mystery movies. Considered complex and tough now, it was positively jaw-dropping for 1955.

Directed by Robert Aldrich, it serves up a hard- nosed, egotistical, yet char- ismatic Meeker, an anti-hero at a time when that was rather uncommon in the movies. That the film ends on a bleak note during the rosy-hued 1950s only added to its reputation as a landmark movie of its kind.

Despite the notoriety of Kiss Me Deadly, Meeker next segued into television, working on Studio One in Holly- wood, The Alcoa Hour, Lux Video Theatre and Jane Wyman Presents The Fireside Theatre (with Neville Brand.) There was also A Woman's Devotion in 1956 with his Picnic costar Janice Rule, about a married couple in Mexico whose lives are dealt a blow when the husband (Meeker) is accused of murder.

More TV continued including Studio 57, Zane Grey Theatre (with Julie London), Playhouse 90 (which paired him again with Janice Rule along with Helen Hayes and Katy Jurado as well) and 20th Century-Fox Hour (with Steve McQueen.) He did land a supporting role in the western Run of the Arrow (1957) with Rod Steiger, a gritty Samuel Fuller-directed affair in which he played another snarling bad guy. This was one of his three movies that year.

Of a different sort was The Fuzzy Pink Night- gown (1957) as Jane Russell's would-be kidnapper (along with Keenan Wynn) turned love interest. In it, the guys nab her, then decide to let her go, but she insists that they go through with it in order to help her career as a movie star! Meeker was brought in to replace Ray Danton, who was allegedly fired for looking too young opposite the decade-older Ms. Russell.

By far the most notable of his 1957 films was Paths of Glory, a pet project of Kirk Douglas', directed by Stanley Kubrick. The stark black and white film focused on the inhumanity of war and featured Douglas fighting for the lives of three scapegoats who are to be executed for cowardice in order to set an example for others. Meeker plays one of the intended men to be slain and goes from cockiness to despair during the course of it. The film has only gained prestige as the years have passed.

Strangely enough, consid- ering his 1957 output, Meeker would not appear on a movie screen again until 1961. He did spend a brief period back on Broadway in 1958 for the very short-lived Cloud 7 and popped up on hit TV series such as Wagon Train, Wanted: Dead or Alive, The Loretta Young Show and four installments of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including its premiere episode with Vera Miles. Meeker, who was the principle star of many TV episodes had always declared he didn't want to star in a show of his own, but he eventually did.

Not For Hire (1959-1960) cast him as a U.S. Army investigator whose job was to examine crimes committed against army personnel. This was an early precursor to the sort of show that lives today in the form of NCIS (2003-present.)

His return to the big screen came with two films. There was Ada (1961) starring Susan Hayward and Dean Martin, with Meeker trying to use Hayward's past as a prostitute to prevent her husband Martin from being elected governor.

Then there was Some- thing Wild (1961), in which he played a misfit garage mechanic who saves a young girl (Carroll Baker) from suicide and takes her in only to become a threat to her physical and emotional health himself.

Meeker returned to Broadway once more for the satiric military play Something About a Soldier with Sal Mineo, Kevin McCarthy, Ken Kercheval and David Doyle (the latter two to gain TV stardom in the 1970s), but it closed after a dozen performances. He continued with TV appearances including Route 66 and The United States Steel Hour.

Wall of Noise (1963) found him playing the jerky, blowhard racehorse-owning husband of Suzanne Pleshette, who happens to be in love with hunky trainer Ty Hardin. He would not appear in another movie for four years, with continued TV work including The Outer Limits (in which he played a swimsuit-clad boat captain), The Defenders, The Green Hornet and Tarzan.

In 1964, he was back on Broadway in the moderate hit After the Fall, with many fine actors from Jason Robards to Hal Holbrook and Faye Dunaway to Salome Jens, who he wed that year, though they were divorced by 1966. (There were two other short-lived Broadway shows between 1964 and 1965 as well, the first one, But For Whom Charlie, reunited him with both Dunaway and Jens.)

His old Kiss Me Deadly director Robert Aldrich cast him in The Dirty Dozen (1967), a huge hit, as one of the men behind the scenes. He also played gangster Bugs Moran in The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (1967) for Roger Corman. He rounded out the year with a role in the family film Gentle Giant (1967), which served as the inspiration for the TV series Gentle Ben (1967-1969), but did not feature Meeker.

In 1968, he played a rough and tumble police detective opposite Frank Sinatra in The Detective. In it, his (and Robert Duvall's) callous methods of extracting information out of suspects makes Sinatra irate. The chief case the men are involved in is the murder (and penis amputation!) of a wealthy homosexual. His was a small role despite receiving third-billing (behind Lee Remick, as Sinatra's nymphomaniacal wife.)

By now Meeker was rather firmly estab- lished as a go-to guy for auth- oritative jerks, thought he occasion- ally broke out of that mold. He worked alongside Christopher George and Fabian in The Devil's 8 (1969) a low-level Dirty Dozen rip-off in which he was the target. In I Walk the Line (1970), he played a white trash moonshiner whose daughter (Tuesday Weld) becomes involved with sheriff Gregory Peck. But in The Anderson Tapes (1971), he played a big-mouthed policeman named “Iron Balls” Delaney!

Plenty of TV-movies and guest shots dotted his late-1960s and 1970s resume. He worked on the 1972 movie The Happiness Cage (starring Christopher Walken) where he met his second wife Colleen, a bit actress. She would remain his wife until his death. As the decade wore on, his looks dissipated and he began to play scroungier and scroungier types, most often of a villainous or sleazy nature with an occasional policeman role, as in Brannigan (1975) with John Wayne.

In the gory Johnny Firecloud (1975), he was a bigoted rancher making life hell for some Native Americans. During this period he was making occasional appearances on the excellent cop anthology Police Story as well as shows such as Harry-O, The Rookies and Police Woman.

In 1976, he hit what might be a career nadir when he took part in Bert I. Gordon's The Food of the Gods, loosely based upon an H.G. Wells story. In it, he became the food for some overgrown wasps, chickens and rats, who've become gargantuan in size thanks to some mysterious substance in the area. Gordon would later put Joan Collins and some other folks through a similar ordeal with Empire of the Ants (1977.)

By now Meeker was ensconced in the low- budget thriller/ exploit- ation movie genre, with Hi-Riders (1978), costarring Darby Hinton, The Alpha Incident (1978) and My Boys are Good Boys (1978) prime examples. The latter film costarred Ida Lupino who had previously joined him as chow for the beasts in Food of the Gods.

Winter Kills (1979), about a Presi- dential assass- ination cover-up, had an array of stars whose careers were on the wane on close to it including Meeker, Sterling Hayden, Dorothy Malone, Richard Boone and others. Meeker's final film role came with 1980's Without Warning, a hooty thriller about some campers and other folks in a rural community being terrorized by a vicious alien being.

Once again, he, looking delib- erately disheveled and drunken, was in a film heavily populated with actors in career jeopardy including Cameron Mitchell, Neville Brand, Larry Storch and with two stars, Jack Palance and Martin Landau, who astonishingly enough rebounded to the point of each winning Oscars as Best Supporting Actor in the coming years! This low-budget flick also features a young David Caruso among its cast (as well as Darby Hinton.)

Meeker retired from acting after this one and lived for another eight years with his wife Colleen. A heart attack claimed him in 1988 at age sixty-seven. Though Meeker had not been able to obtain household name star status, he left behind a large amount of interesting acting work and performed in films made by some of the industries most notable directors. He retains a considerable following among devoted fans. You can see him in action – highlighting his various looks and roles in all their rugged, sexy, handsome glory (oddly omitting Teresa!) – in a youtube tribute to him here.