INTEGRITY PERSONIFIED - the legacy of Gregory Peck
At once, these four words that actor Gregory Peck scribbled on the back of his working script for To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) symbolize both the man and the character of Atticus Finch; men whose moral compass and level of personal integrity remain unquestionable brands in a singular existence - blessed and reciprocated with blessings of an enduring filmic legacy.
“As an actor…” Peck once acknowledged, “…we’re salesmen of a story.” How true. Yet how grossly inadequate in summarizing his extraordinary gifts of intensity, perception, intelligence and conviction. Throughout his career, Gregory Peck built a body of work based on these touchstones of moral turpitude. All of his characters – from Atticus Finch to Captain Horatio Hornblower – and yes…even the unscrupulous Lewt McCanles in Duel in the Sun (1946) – continue to resonate with audiences, largely because Peck himself was never entirely removed from the equation. His, was a presence, a triumph of the human spirit and an emotional kindness that, as one critic more accurately assessed, represented “the best of us.”
Asked to summarize what made him a ‘living legend, the ever modest Peck was often quite fond of quoting Carol Lombard’s assessment of stardom – that - “It takes 10 pictures to make a star.”
IN THE BEGINNING
He was born Eldred Gregory Peck in La Jolla, California on April 5, 1916. In his later years, Peck would jokingly muse about the appointment of that first name – which he despised – saying “I think my mother wanted something different. She certainly got it!”
The young boy’s life was far from idyllic. His father, Gregory Sr. was a pharmacist at a Ferris & Ferris Drug Store in San Diego, working the night shift near the seedy piers and administering leaches as medicinal cures for sailors whose eyes had been blackened in fisticuffs and skirmishes. Applied to their swollen eyes, the leaches would eventually fill with blood and drop into the patient’s lap.
At the age of three, Gregory was sent to live with his maternal grandmother in La Hoya – a brief 2 year hiatus from the unrest between his parents – until they decided to enroll him in a Catholic Military boarding school instead. “Faith,” Peck would reflect, “gives you a sense of inner balance and perspective on life.”
Perhaps stigmatized by his parent’s divorce, the young Gregory grew into awkward shy youth. After a brief stint as a truck driver, he enrolled in Berkeley University to become a lawyer. However, in his senior year, Peck was bitten by the acting bug, performing in 5 plays and developing a taste for the liberties he was allowed to outwardly express as a stage character.
In 1939, Peck made the move to New York City where he became a barker at the World’s Fair. That brief stint was followed by a two year professional contract with The Neighborhood Playhouse, where Peck continued to tirelessly hone his dramatic craft. As was the custom in those early years after a play’s debut, Peck and his fellow actors remained behind for the reviews and potential offers to come in.
It was during one of these vigils that a telephone call came for Peck from producer Guthrie McClintic. Ever the optimist, and determined to make good, Peck sprinted the distance between the theater and McClintic’s offices in record time, arriving at the producer’s front door even before he had had a chance to hang up from making his inquiries with the theater’s secretary. McClintic was so impressed by Peck’s drive that he cast him opposite the legendary Katherine Cornell in The Morning Star. The play proved to be Peck’s first critical success.
Yet, Hollywood did not instantly sit up and take notice. But his personal and professional prospects were improving. In October of 1942, Peck married for the first time to Greta Kukkonen; a union that saw out the rest of the decade and produced three sons; Jonathan, Steven and Carey.
A screen test for David O. Selznick that same year was a polite disaster and Peck returned to his stage work, steadily improving by investing himself completely in the art of acting. In 1943, RKO Studios signed him for Days of Glory – a leaden war melodrama that did little to boost Peck’s ego. The reviews, in fact, were scathing.
However, Peck soon discovered that his boyish good looks had caught on and landed him in the middle of a studio bidding war, one eventually levied by Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox. Zanuck cast Peck in The Keys of the Kingdom (1944) – a lavishly produced and sumptuously mounted spectacle set in China. Peck played Father Francis Chisholm, a Catholic priest who is sent abroad to establish a missionary. Largely a tall of tolerance in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, The Keys of the Kingdom was Peck’s first Hollywood success and it paved the way for better projects.
Shortly after the film’s triumphant premiere, Peck was asked by Gary Cooper how he was getting along in Hollywood. When Peck informed him that he had one flop and one success to his name, Cooper politely confided, “You’re ahead of the game.”
The uniqueness of Gregory Peck’s early years in Hollywood cannot be underestimated; for he managed to politely refuse any and all long term contracts that the studio’s offered him, yet managed to incur their respect and procure a diverse cross section of work from all the major production companies – in essence, becoming one of the first truly independent free agents of his generation. For MGM, Peck made The Valley of Decision (1945) a film that cast him opposite that studio’s number one leading lady, Greer Garson in a tale of bittersweet unrequited love.
‘Valley’ was a colossal success. Peck followed it with an even more impressive and complex characterization in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), as a troubled amnesiac who believes that he may also be a murderer. With each subsequent performance, his respect within the industry grew, primarily because he seemed to effortlessly defy being typecast. In 1946, Peck returned to MGM for The Yearling – the film that earned him his first Best Actor Oscar nomination.
Although the award went to Fredric March for The Best Years of Our Lives, Peck continued to produce quality from his filmic output. He costarred for director King Vidor, in Selznick’s over-inflated soap opera, Duel in the Sun (1946) – a production much maligned by the critics, though Peck’s performance was singled out as a particular highlight worthy of distinction. The following year, Peck earned another Oscar nomination for Elia Kazan’s Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947); one of the first films to openly address anti-Semitism in the U.S. and one that MGM’s L.B. Mayer had quietly tried to get Zanuck to shelve.
But again, Oscar eluded Peck. He rebounded with a masterful performance as English barrister Anthony Keane in Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case (1947), but the film was a rare – and unjustly judged critical and financial flop on both their résumés. Undaunted, and in fact, more popular than ever, Peck bounded from one noteworthy film to the next. For roughshod director, William Wellman, Peck delivered a poignant and powerful performance as Stretch Dawson in Yellow Sky (1948); for Henry King, he made a pair of box office favorites – Twelve O’Clock High (1949) and The Gunfighter (1950). Steadily growing in reputation, Gregory Peck stood at the forefront of Hollywood’s A-list of acting talent.
“You have to dream. You have to have a vision and you have to set a goal for yourself that might even scare you a little, because sometimes that seems far beyond your reach. Then I think you have to develop a kind of resistance to rejection and to the disappointments that are sure to come your way.” – Gregory Peck
Peck moved into more spirited adventures with a trio of ambitious films; Captain Horatio Hornblower, Only the Valiant, and, David and Bathsheba – all made in 1951. Professionally, Peck had never been on more solid ground. But his marriage to Greta was slowly crumbling. Assuming that a separation might ease their strain, Peck departed for France to film Roman Holiday (1953) – William Wyler’s elegant fairytale that marked the debut of the enigmatic Audrey Hepburn.
Ever the admirer of artistic talent, and even more the gentleman for whom self respect meant far more than personal vanity - midway through shooting, Peck telephoned his agent to demand that his billing be changed so that Hepburn would receive sole credit above the title. It was a kindness that Hepburn never forgot.
Peck remained abroad after Roman Holiday, making 1954’s Night People, then traveling to Britain where he made two films for the J. Arthur Rank Corporation; The Million Pound Note (1953) and The Purpose Plain (1954) – neither a winner with audiences. Infinitely more fulfilling to the man was a chance meeting with young French newspaper reporter, Veronique Passani. After giving Passani a candid interview, Peck flew to England. Yet, he could not dismiss the attraction. So, he traveled back to France to inquire about a polite dinner arrangement with Passani the following afternoon. His request received an awkward, but polite reply. The two were married on New Year’s Eve 1955. Shortly thereafter, Passani confided to Peck that her initial reluctance had been predicated on the fact that the day Peck called she had been scheduled to conduct an interview with noted theologian and physicist, Albert Schweitzer at no less than the home of imminent existentialist/philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Decades later, Peck would publicly muse, “You made the right choice, kiddo!”
CHANGES IN THE WIND
In the 1950s, Hollywood was in a mad dash to affirm to audiences that the movies were bigger and better than ever, even as television continued to cut theater attendance across the country by nearly half. Gregory Peck’s filmic output – though consistent – in many ways reflects and mirrors the industry’s discomfort. With the advent of widescreen innovations like Cinerama and Cinemascope, movies were indeed getting bigger. Yet, on the whole, Hollywood had abandoned the sort of intimate character driven melodramas that had made Gregory Peck a household name. Would either survive the winds of change?
For Fox, Peck turned in an understated and poignant performance as The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) – a winner on all accounts. But his turns in Moby Dick (1956), Vincente Minnelli’s rather feather-weight comedy, Designing Woman (1957) and the leaden Hemmingway clunker, Beloved Infidel (1959) were unworthy of his talents.
A bright spot in this artistic deluge was William Wyler’s masterful and sprawling western melodrama, The Big Country (1958) for which Peck sparred in a bare-knuckle brawl with the imposing Charlton Heston. But the best was yet to come. In his third decade as an actor Peck debuted a much darker, more self assured and passionate self in Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach (1959). He was a tower of inner strength as Capt. Keith Mallory in The Guns of Navarone (1961); fought a homicidal former client as lawyer, Sam Bowden in the original Cape Fear (1962); and won his one and only Best Actor Oscar as Atticus Finch in the filmic adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird (1962).
During the filming of ‘Mockingbird’, Peck toyed with a pocket watch as part of his character study; that of a stoic small town lawyer who must face down racism and bigotry. The watch was a studio prop. However, when author Harper Lee saw Peck’s performance she decided to give him the actual time piece belonging to her late father, on which she had based the character of Atticus, because Peck had so perfectly embodied his deportment and character. As an actor, Peck could have received no greater honor.
THE WORST OF TIMES
“Tough times don’t last. Tough people do!” – Gregory Peck
Peck’s list of 60s successes was topped off by How The West Was Won (1962) – one of the few feature-length films shot in the enveloping three strip process of Cinerama. Massive, both literally – in its size of projection – and scope, (it featured a staggering list of Hollywood alumni) ‘West’ was Peck’s last major film of merit.
As the decade wore on, the tastes of film goers drew away from glamour. 1964’s Behold the Pale Horse was a huge disappointment for Peck and his director Fred Zinneman; one Peck compounded with an equally troubled characterization as Captain Newman M.D. in the film by the same name. When Peck’s next two efforts; Mirage (1965) and Stanley Donen’s attempt at recapturing the majesty of his own Charade (1964) failed with Arabesque (1966), Peck decided to take a leave of absence from making movies.
During the next three years Peck instead chose to indulge in the art of renewed fatherhood. He and Veronique had by then two children of their own, Tony, born in 1956 and Cecilia, 1958. By all accounts, Peck was as devoted to his new family as he had been to his first and, over time and with great patience, the Peck household became a blended family that provided sublime retreat away from the fray of making movies.
During this absence from the screen, Peck did appear infrequently on television – mostly in interviews and talking about film making in general, but in 1969 he returned to the big screen in four ambitious movies; The Stalking Moon, McKenna’s Gold, The Chairman and Marooned – all were poorly received. The early 1970s were no more creatively satisfying. Though he continued to steadily work; I Walk the Line (1970), Shoot Out (1971) and Billy Two Hats (1974), it seemed that the audience had at last decided to put Peck’s sagely screen characters out to pasture.
Amidst this epic spiral into artistic oblivion, Peck suffered a more personal loss when his eldest child, Jonathan committed suicide from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. The death sent Peck into a dark deep depression – one from which he emerged even more resilient and committed to a life on screen with the acceptance of his next filmic role in Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976).
Starring as American diplomat, Robert Thorn – who begins to suspect that the child he has adopted from an Italian orphanage is, in fact, the anti-Christ, The Omen proved to be a resounding smash at the box office. Its’ success placed Peck at the forefront of new projects. He tread the familiar route of being type cast as famous historical figures; first as war hero, Gen. Douglas MacArthur in MacArthur (1977), then, as Nazi demigod Dr. Josef Mengale in 1978’s The Boys from Brazil. But more and more, Peck was quietly tiring of the roles he was offered, and increasingly retreating into the secure home life and inner peace he had found with Veronique and his children.
LIFE & TIMES
Though Gregory Peck actively continued to field offers, and occasionally did appear in films and on television throughout the 1980s and early 90s, in retrospect few seem to recapture or even hint at his most glorious past accomplishments. The artistic mélange that made Hollywood during its truly great years had become a myth – one already taking hold of the industry when Peck was invited to accept his lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute (AFI).
Addressing the audience who had come to honor his body of work in 1989, Peck spoke as eloquently as always about the currency of Hollywood’s perilous artistic situation.
“There has been a lot of glamorous financial news in the papers lately…of corporate mergers,” said Peck quietly, “Well, I for one, would like to hear some glamorous talk about elevating the quality of films and television.”
He, as did the many others of his generation who sat in silence that evening, had good cause for concern. By 1978, MGM, one of the oldest, and arguably most prestigious and emblematic of landmarks – under the aegis of Kirk Kerkorian had ceased making movies. Readily, the corporate structures at Fox, Warner Bros. and Universal were being rocked by upheavals in top management and dwindling box office receipts that threatened their studios with a similar fate; the dismantling of a filmic history that Peck had worked so diligently over the years to elevate into a conscious and enduring artistic tapestry.
After a round of thunderous applause Peck continued with, “Entertainment that, in the words of T.S. Elliot, enlarges the sympathies, stimulates the mind and the spirit, that warms the heart, punctures the balloons of hypocrisy, greed and sham, tickles the funny bone and leave us with a glow that comes when we have been well entertained.
Asked to provide advice to future generations of actors, Peck paraphrased his favorite actor, Spencer Tracy with “Know your lines. If you learn them and learn them well, you learn what’s underneath them. Why the character must say them at that point. You learn concentration. You learn detachment. And you learn storytelling!”
When an audience member made the inquiry as to when one should contemplate retirement, Peck was quick to state, “I can’t see myself retired. I don’t like the word retired.”
Finally, when asked how he would like to be best remembered, Peck’s response recalled a fundamental truth – that life is textured and worthy of the journey only when it has purpose in someone who is there to periodically remind just what that purpose is; “…as a good husband and father. I don’t do that to encourage any applause. It’s the truth.”
On June 12, 2003, just days after the AFI named his Atticus Finch the screen’s greatest hero, Gregory Peck died peacefully in Los Angeles with his wife and children at his side. He was 87 years young, but his legacy lives on.
@Nick Zegarac 2007 (all rights reserved).