He played thugs, private dicks, cops, soldiers, and not just soldiers, but psychotic ex-soldiers. Early in his film career he appeared in musicals with Betty Hutton and Leslie Caron, but Hollywood in the 1950s had heavier work for this stage-trained tough guy . . .
Ralph Meeker was born Ralph Rathgeber in Minneapolis, Minnesota on November 21, 1920, the son of Ralph and Magnhild Senovia Haavig Meeker Rathgeber. At the age of three he moved with his family to Chicago. After graduating from Leelanau School for Boys in Glen Arbor, Michigan, he attended Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois, from 1938 to 1942, where he studied musical composition and later acting. After college, a brief stint in the Navy ended after a shipboard accident in which he injured his neck.
Returning to Chicago, Meeker made his professional stage debut in 1943 as the Bellboy in the national company of The Doughgirls. When the production closed, he moved to New York with $35 in his pocket and was forced to work as a soda jerk. He took another theatrical plunge with a role in a stock production of Up In Mabel's Room that toured several states. Following this he went to Italy for a role in a USO production of Ten Little Indians. On V-E Day Meeker was on the front-line . . . as an actor.
After the war Meeker returned to New York and in 1945 took an assistant stage manager job with Strange Fruit, later playing the roleof "Chuck" in the production. In 1946 he served as both assistant stage manager and understudy for a production of Cyrano de Bergerac. His next big break was a small but important role in the original 1947 production of Mister Roberts for which he received a "Theatre World" award as a "Promising Personality." Meeker also served as understudy for the star of the show, Henry Fonda, but never had to take Fonda's place. He did, however, successfully replace Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire when Brando left the original production in 1949. This success led Meeker to a new career -- in the movies.
He made his film debut in 1951 with a small role in MGM's Teresa, followed by a starring role (left) in the Swiss-made Four in a Jeep, directed by Leopold Lindtberg. Back in Hollywood, Meeker accepted an MGM contract and spent the early 1950s starring in good-but-minor films like Shadow in the Sky, Glory Alley, Somebody Loves Me, and Jeopardy. In 1953 he was featured in Anthony Mann's western classic The Naked Spur, starring with James Stewart, Janet Leigh, and Robert Ryan. That same year Meeker returned to New York for his greatest stage success, starring as "Hal Carter" in the original 1953 Broadway production of William Inge's Picnic. Meeker and his leading lady, Janice Rule, were understudied by Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and Newman was featured in a supporting role. For his performance in Picnic, Meeker was awarded the New York Critic's Circle Award in 1954. Picnic became a classic film in 1956, with William Holden and Kim Novak starring in the roles originated by Meeker and Janice Rule. In an interview, Meeker once said he was offered the starring role in the film version, but didn't want to sign a long-term contract with Columbia Pictures.
Returning to films after the termination of his MGM contract, Meeker starred as Mike Hammer in the 1955 Robert Aldrich film of Mickey Spillane's Kiss Me Deadly. Barely noticed when first released, the film is now regarded as a film noir classic. A 1997 video release features the long-missing original ending of the film.
Kiss Me Deadly
With his work in Kiss Me Deadly more or less overlooked by the movie industry and the public, Meeker continued to appear in minor but entertaining films like Desert Sands (1955), A Woman's Devotion (1956) and Sam Fuller's violent 1957 western, Run of the Arrow . Then, in 1958, his movie career peaked slightly with an important role in Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory. Meeker, as one of three French soldiers wrongly sentenced to the firing squad, was second-billed to star Kirk Douglas.
Throughout the 1950s, Meeker also starred frequently in television programs of the era and even substituted for Ed Sullivan several times as host of the Talk of the Town series. Meeker starred in four half-hour productions for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents series, including the first episode, "Revenge," directed by Hitchcock himself. In a 1958 episode of Wagon Train, Meeker had the title role in A Man Called Horse, a story remade for the big screen in 1970 with Richard Harris.
Meeker had one of his best film roles in the moody 1961 drama Something Wild, which starred Carroll Baker, directed by her then husband Jack Garfein. The film probably should have been called "Something Bizarre," for it's the story of an emotionally disturbed young woman (Baker) whose suicide attempt is thwarted by a man (Meeker), who imprisons her in his dreary basement apartment. Naturally, these misfits were meant for each other and they eventually fall in love -- but only after Baker has kicked one of Meeker's eyes out!
Meeker married two times. His first wife was actress Salome Jens. The marriage lasted from 1964 to 1966. His second marriage was to Colleen Meeker, with whom he produced the 1978 film My Boys are Good Boys. Meeker starred with Ida Lupino and Lloyd Nolan in this low-budget film about juvenile crime.
In the 1960s and 1970s Meeker continued in television and movies, and made frequent trips back to his first love -- the stage. But despite roles in important films (1967's The Dirty Dozen; 1971's The Anderson Tapes; 1979's Winter Kills, major success continually eluded him. He died of a heart attack on August 5, 1988, in Woodland Hills, California.
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