Meeker, Ralph


Meeker, Ralph
(1920–1988)
   Ralph Meeker (Corporal Paris in PATHS OF GLORY, 1957) was a prolific American actor, performing lead and character roles from the 1950s through the 1970s. He appeared for the last time on cinema screens in 1980, after having performed in nearly 50 films in addition to his television work. On television, Meeker appeared in such prestigious, high-profile anthology series as Alfred Hitchcock Presents (four times), The Goodyear Television Playhouse (twice), The Alcoa Hour,The Outer Limits, The United States Steel Hour (twice), and the quasi-anthology series Route 66 (twice) and Police Story. He played in such Western series as Wanted: Dead or Alive, Barbary Coast,The Virginian,Wagon Train, Zane Grey Theater, and High Chaparral; he also appeared in a number of crime dramas, including The F. B. I. , Cannon, Ironside, Harry O, and the crimehorror hybrid The Night Stalker. Meeker even tried his hand at producing with 1978’s My Boys Are Good Boys, which contained his last top-billed film role. Meeker had been a stage actor through the 1940s and was Henry Fonda’s understudy in the stage version of Mister Roberts. Meeker got his big break when he replaced MARLON BRANDO in the Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, and he went on to play the lead in William Inge’s Picnic in 1953. That same year, he garnered his first major film role, in Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur, playing a discharged cavalryman enlisted by James Stewart to aid in capturing outlaw Robert Ryan. Meeker played that character with the same kind of moral ambiguity that would be the hallmark of his best-known role: as Mickey Spillane’s popular series detective Mike Hammer, in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Hammer has had numerous incarnations over the years, played by actors as varied as Biff Elliot (in the first screen version of I, the Jury, 1953), Stacy Keach (two Hammer television series),Armand Assante (a remake of I, the Jury, 1982), and even Mickey Spillane himself (The Girl Hunters, 1963). Meeker’s Hammer, however, is far from the straightforward hero played by Spillane and Keach, or the brooding protagonist essayed by Assante. Where Spillane’s novels are marked by frankly reactionary politics, Aldrich views Hammer from a liberal perspective. Rather than softening the character’s rightwing edges, however, Aldrich presents Hammer as perhaps the epitome of the FILM NOIR antihero. As played by Meeker, Hammer is preening, crassly opportunistic, manipulative, and self-absorbed. The violence and misogyny of the book are retained in Aldrich’s film, but viewed with far more critical detachment. Meeker’s Hammer possesses an all-tooevident sadism, his upper lip curling with gleeful cruelty as he beats and tortures helpless characters to obtain information, or forces his secretary to prostitute herself in pursuit of a lead. The end result is a tour de force of acting and directing, and Meeker’s Hammer remains an indelible portrait of American cold-war masculinity run amok.
   Meeker acted in a handful of films in the next few years, most notably Samuel Fuller’s Run of the Arrow (1957). That same year, he played Cpl. Phillip Paris in STANLEY KUBRICK’s Paths of Glory. Paris goes on a reconnaissance mission early in the film with his commanding officer, Lieutenant Roget (WAYNE MORRIS), and Private Lejeune. Roget panics in the course of the mission, retreats, and throws a grenade that kills Lejeune. Paris, who has long known and disliked Roget, confronts him. Later in the film, officers are called upon by their superiors to nominate men who will face court-martial for cowardice in battle, and Roget nominates Paris. The implication is that he does so in order to keep Paris quiet about Roget’s own irresponsibility and cowardice. Roget’s actions constitute one of many instances of leaders demonstrating a blithe willingness to betray their own troops, and Paris remains the most sympathetic victim of this callousness and selfishness. The other two men chosen for court-martial are Private Arnaud (JOE TURKEL) and Private Fereol (Timothy Carey). Arnaud’s response is to get drunk, whereupon he rails hysterically against the hypocrisy of the situation and, in a rage, attacks a priest. Paris subdues him, in the process fracturing Arnaud’s skull; Arnaud remains mostly unconscious until his execution. Fereol reacts cynically at first, though he holds onto the hope that Colonel Dax will save them all. When it becomes clear that Dax will fail to do so, Fereol collapses into fear and panic; when he is led to his fate, he cries and pleads for mercy until the end.
   This leaves Paris as the focus of our sympathy. Paris despairs at his fate but retains self-control. Despite his own lack of religion, he delivers his confession to the priest, whom he then defends against Arnaud. Paris breaks down on the day he is to be killed,but he regains his dignity to save his family’s honor. He dies courageously, refusing a blindfold, defiantly facing Roget, whom Dax has assigned as the presiding officer over the execution. Among the three victims, it is Paris, then, who carries the weight of our reaction to the tragedy that befalls all of them. Though KIRK DOUGLAS’s Colonel Dax is the film’s protagonist—the character who articulates the film’s antiwar (or, more precisely, antimilitary) rhetoric, and whose response to his men’s predicament mirrors our own—it is Paris who most clearly validates our outrage at the injustices perpetrated on all three doomed soldiers. Meeker’s work is restrained but convincing, not least when he abruptly breaks down in tears, yet manages to collect himself before facing his fate. Meeker skillfully balances fear, despair, resignation, and determination in this scene. After a number of film roles in the early 1960s, Meeker did not appear again on American screens until Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967). In that film, Meeker plays a mild-mannered army captain who aids Lee Marvin in his struggle to shape the titular soldiers, all under sentence of death, into a crack fighting unit. This role signaled Meeker’s transition from lead to supporting actor, and it is in this capacity-as sidekick, boss, or villain—that he continued to work in film. Credits from this later phase of his career include Roger Corman’s The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967), The Detective (1968), John Frankenheimer’s I Walk the Line (1970), and Sidney Lumet’s The Anderson Files (1971). After a series of roles in television, including a number of made-for-TV features, Meeker returned to film in the mid-’70s, appearing in films of such highly varied quality as the John Wayne cop drama Brannigan (1975), the low-budget, giantmutated-animals horror pic Food of the Gods (1976), and William Richert’s brilliantly subversive, satiric conspiracy thriller, Winter Kills (1979). Meeker was twice married; his first marriage, to actress Salome Jens, ended in divorce in 1966. His second marriage, to Colleen Meeker, lasted until his death of a heart attack in August 1988.
   References
   ■ “Ralph Meeker,” Internet Movie Database, www.imdb.com;
   ■ Katz, Ephraim, The Film Encyclopedia (New York: HarperCollins, 1994).

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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