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.


Gingerguy said...

I knew the name more than the face, but as I read his (very impressive) credits he got more familiar. What an interesting career. It could have been him in that shirtless pose made iconic from "Picnic". I mostly remember him from "The Detective" which I watched recently. It has to be viewed as a time capsule of homophobia, but it's pretty low as most exploitive movies go. He is very good in it. I have also seen "Jeapordy" too and liked it. I got the name of two movies from this post I have to look up-"Ada" and "The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown" both sound right up my alley. Thanks Poseidon for a very interesting post.

Roberta Steve said...

Poseidon, a very bittersweet post. It's one of those "what if" careers - what if he had accepted the film version of Picnic? What if he had stayed in the Broadway run of Picnic longer? (Paul Newman was his understudy and graduated to the lead role when Meeker left - and, of course, that's how Hollywood discovered Paul.)

When I was a kid and watching episodic TV shows, sometimes I'd wonder why some actors were referred to as "guest stars." Stars of what, I'd think. I'd never heard of half of them. Now I realize how many of them had notable and varied careers way before TV beckoned.

I vaguely remember Meeker from Wall of Noise (saw that during my Suzanne Pleshette girl crush phase) and the very excellent Police Story anthology series.

I didn't realize what a good looking guy he was in his prime. Kind of if Fredric March and Joel McCrea had a love child good looking.

Celebrating actors with familiar faces but not familiar names, or those "almost" stars, is one of the great joys of your blog. Thanks for giving Ralph Meeker top billing this time!

normadesmond said...

saw "something wild" on tv when i was a kid & it left a lasting impression. i more recently watched it & found it dumb. oh well.

Poseidon3 said...

Gingerguy, "The Detective" can be quite off-putting to a contemporary gay audience, but I still find myself drawn to it from time to time because of its gorgeously garish sets and great costumes on Lee Remick and others. Tony Musante's performance is simultaneously over the top and unbelievably raw. It has its issues, but what a great cast. I also find it interesting that Sinatra is very compassionate (particularly for the time) towards the homosexuals in the film.

Roberta, of course I completely agree about the "what if?" aspects of Meeker's career. (Perhaps even his life... did he begin drinking or losing his physique rather early on out of career disappointment?) I'm jealous that you've seen "Wall of Noise!" That's one I am on the lookout for.

Norma, I've yet to see "Something Wild" myself. I wonder whether I'll enjoyit or not. Usually if I like something, it's forever! Even if it isn't any good! LOL

Taylor Maddux said...

Thanks for this retrospective on the Meeker career, Poseidon.

I was interested to learn that Tennessee W. considered RM's performance in "Streetcar" to be closer to the mark than Brando's.

Was also glad to see that Miss Judith Evelyn was given such prominent billing. She's been a favorite of mine ever since her roles as Miss Lonelyhearts in "Rear Window" and Mrs. Vincent Price in the William Castle B-grade epic, "The Tingler."

chris prouty said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
chris prouty said...

Excellent piece on a terrific & compelling actor. I've always loved "Kiss Me Deadly" [including a bizarrely breathless Cloris Leachman in the opener]. Well done!