OBITUARIES : Played Tough Guys and Villains : Ralph Meeker; Stage, Screen, TV Actor

Times Staff Writer

Ralph Meeker, who originated the role of the swaggering vagrant in "Picnic" on Broadway and moved easily from the legitimate theater to motion pictures to television over the ensuing 30 years, died Friday.

He was 67 and at his death at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills had become known for his portrayal of mean-spirited villains and tough guys, among them detective Mike Hammer in the 1955 film "Kiss Me Deadly."

Spokeswoman Jean Ferris said Meeker had been in the hospital since September, 1987, and died of a heart attack.

Born Ralph Rathgeber in Minneapolis, he attended Northwestern University and made his theatrical debut in the national company of "The Doughgirls" in 1943. After roles in "Strange Fruit," "Cyrano de Bergerac" and "Mister Roberts," he was cast as Marlon Brando's replacement in "A Streetcar Named Desire" and was compared favorably to Brando's Stanley Kowalski in the touring company of the Tennessee Williams play.

Offered Role

Based on that success he was offered the role of itinerant Hal Carter in William Inge's 1953 "Picnic."

In the play, Carter--in a single, sweltering Labor Day--manages to arouse several of the unloved and unfulfilled women of a small Kansas town, even persuading one to run off with him. The play won a Pulitzer Prize, Drama Critics' Award, Outer Circle Award and Theater Club Award and was made into a film starring William Holden in Meeker's role.

Two years earlier, Meeker had made his film debut in "Teresa," followed quickly by "Four in a Jeep," "Shadow in the Sky," "Somebody Loves Me," "The Naked Spur," "Code Two" and "Big House U.S.A."

He interspersed his screen appearances with stage roles and was seen in New York and Washington in "After the Fall," "But for Whom Charlie" and "Mrs. Dally."

3 Dozen Movies

In all, Meeker appeared in more than three dozen movies, including "The Dirty Dozen," "Brannigan" with John Wayne, and the highly praised "Paths of Glory." He also starred for two years in his own ABC-TV series, "Not for Hire." In that 1960-61 series he played Sgt. Dekker, "a guy with a sense of humor," Meeker said in a 1960 interview, "but everything he does well turns out wrong."

Funeral services are scheduled at 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital chapel.

Meeker is survived by his wife, Millicent.

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