Ralph Meeker (November 21, 1920 – August 5, 1988) was an American film, stage and television actor best known for starring in the 1953 Broadway production of Picnic, and in the 1955 film noir cult classic Kiss Me Deadly.
He was born Ralph Rathgeber in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the son of Ralph and Magnhild Senovia Haavig Meeker Rathgeber.
He was a graduate of the Leelanau School in Glen Arbor Township, Michigan, and would later be made a member of its hall of fame. Meeker served in the United States Navy during World War II, but was discharged after a few months with a neck injury.
He made his film debut in 1951 with a small role in MGM’s Teresa, followed by a starring role in the Swiss-made Four in a Jeep (1951), directed by Leopold Lindtberg. In 1953, he was cast as a misfit ex-cavalryman in the classic western The Naked Spur directed by Anthony Mann.
For his performance in William Inge’s Picnic, Meeker was awarded the New York Critic’s Circle Award in 1954. Picnic became a classic film in 1955, with William Holden and Kim Novak starring in the roles originated by Meeker and Janice Rule. According to Turner Classic Movies, Meeker turned down the lead role because he did not wish to sign a long-term contract with the production company, and he never was offered a role of similar stature again.
Around the same time, Meeker was cast in several low-budget films, including Code Two (1953), co-starring Keenan Wynn, in which Meeker portrayed a brash young rookie cop in Los Angeles.
He played an escaped killer who terrorizes Barbara Stanwyck in the 1953 thriller Jeopardy and a cold-blooded convict in Big House, U.S.A. (1955).
In perhaps his most-remembered role, Meeker starred as private detective Mike Hammer in the 1955 Robert Aldrich film of Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly. Many years later, this film acquired cult status and was seen as an influence on French New Wave directors such as Jean-Luc Godard.
In 1957, he appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, playing a soldier, Corporal Paris, accused of cowardice during battle in World War I.
Later films included 1961’s political story Ada with Dean Martin, the drama Something Wild that same year, in which Meeker portrayed a mechanic who saves a young woman (Carroll Baker) from committing suicide but then holds her captive in his apartment, and the 1967 crime drama The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, in which he played gangster George “Bugs” Moran.
Meeker was also in the 1967 war film The Dirty Dozen as Captain Stuart Kinder, a military psychologist who attempts to analyze the men. Meeker portrayed police officers in The Detective (1969) with Frank Sinatra and The Anderson Tapes (1970) with Sean Connery. He was producer of the film My Boys Are Good Boys (1978).
During the Cold War, he appeared in a 1963 U.S. Department of Defense informational film Town of the Times, which encouraged the construction of public fallout shelters.
On television, Meeker starred in the 1955 premiere episode, “Revenge,” of CBS’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents, along with Vera Miles. He later appeared on three other Alfred Hitchcock segments.
He starred in the 1958 episode “A Man Called Horse” of NBC’s Wagon Train.
From 1959-1960, Meeker had the leading role as United States Army Sergeant Steve Dekker in the 39-episode television series Not for Hire. Dekker is an investigator in the Army Criminal Investigations Division; the series was somewhat a precursor 40 years earlier of the 21st century hit NCIS, with Mark Harmon in a Navy role akin to Meeker’s Army screen assignment in 1959.
Meeker was cast with Dorothy Provine in the 1959 episode, “Blood Money”, of the CBS western series The Texan, starring Rory Calhoun.
In 1962, Meeker portrayed Jack Slade in the episode “The Crooked Angel” of ABC’s drama series Going My Way, starring Gene Kelly as a Roman Catholic priest in New York City and loosely based on the Bing Crosby 1944 film of the same name. He was also cast in 1962 as Barney Swanton in the episode “Walk Like a King” of the NBC modern western series Empire, starring Richard Egan.
In 1963, he appeared as Murray Knopf in “The Bull Roarer” on ABC’s medical drama about psychiatry, Breaking Point, starring Paul Richards and Eduard Franz.
Meeker guest-starred as Frank Marin in the 1964 episode “Swing for the Moon” of ABC’s Channing, set on a fictitious college campus and co-starring Jason Evers and Henry Jones.
In 1967, he appeared as Kermit Teller in the episode “Glory Rider” of the ABC military-western Custer, with Wayne Maunder in the title role. In 1971, Meeker played FBI agent Bernie Jenks in the television movie The Night Stalker.
He made guest appearances on numerous other television series, including Ironside, CHiPs, Dundee and the Culhane, Toast of the Town, The Outer Limits, The Green Hornet, Studio One, The High Chaparral (episode “The Price of Revenge”), The Men from Shiloh (episode “Experiment At New Life”), and The Eddie Capra Mysteries (episode “Murder Plays a Dead Hand”).
Meeker married three times: his first wife (1964–1966) was actress Salome Jens, his second was Colleen Meeker, and his third was Millicent Meeker.
In 1980, he suffered a severe stroke, which ended his career. His health steadily declined, punctuated by several more strokes.
He spent the last year of his life in the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in the Woodland Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, and died there, age 67, of a heart attack. He was survived by his third wife, Millicent.