Gregory Peck

Elder statesman of the screen who stood for nobility, honour and decency
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The Independent Online

Eldred Gregory Peck, actor: born La Jolla, California 5 April 1916; Chairman, Board of Trustees, American Film Institute 1967-69; President, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences 1967-70; married 1942 Greta Rice (two sons, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved 1954), 1955 Veronique Passani (one son, one daughter); died Los Angeles 12 June 2003.

Most film actors look big on screen and are smaller when you see them in real life. But the real Gregory Peck was bigger, taller and more presidential than he ever was on film. He was always the butt of old Abe Lincoln jokes; but his face truly belonged on Mount Rushmore.

He also had a voice which an American critic, Kathleen Murphy, once likened to "good tweed, buttery corduroy, and sometimes lush velvet". It was not a voice, though, that gave itself readily to mimics - not the drawl of John Wayne or James Stewart, nor the slur of Robert Mitchum or the tommy-gun patter of James Cagney. Peck's voice and physique exuded confidence and integrity and, it must be said, a kind of blandness.

He was a member of the third generation of stars, the group which followed the silent stars and then people like Cary Grant and Gary Cooper who made their mark in the Thirties. Peck came to real prominence during the Second World War years, along with Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster and Robert Mitchum. The most straitlaced of them all, Peck offered the screen a sort of nobility, honour and decency. He was a man whom one might follow into battle and many of his co-stars did just that.

A line from his biggest hit, The Guns of Navarone (1961), sums up his appeal. David Niven is goading him about his stuckupmanship when Peck growls back, "Somebody's got to take the responsibility if the job's to get done. Do you think it's easy?" Peck actually made the burden look easy and he did it with total conviction. The rest of the cast - notably Niven and Anthony Quinn - jump through hoops, chew up the scenery and delight us with colourful character acting. Peck is there to retain a sense of order, to remind us that this war frolic also has a moral message to deliver about the futility of war. In doing this he often ran, knowingly, the risk of being dull.

One way of estimating Peck's talent and personality is to consider William Wyler's Roman Holiday (1953), which made a star out of Audrey Hepburn. This romantic comedy about a princess who runs away from protocol and into the arms of a scoop-hungry American journalist in Rome employs the sort of role-playing and culture clash that Billy Wilder made his stock-in-trade. In Wyler's hands, the picture is a slightly overcooked soufflé, just a tad stodgy for a comedy, and Peck is no comedian: the jokes are always at his expense.

Put William Holden into the part and the journalist's final moral decision not to exploit his good fortune might have been a shock. But with Peck, you know from the outset that he will respect Hepburn's desire for privacy and this takes the edge off their relationship. A secondary character, a photographer played by Eddie Albert, must assume the cynicism that should have been expressed by Peck. Despite this, Roman Holiday, which was filmed on the streets of Rome and is thus Hollywood's answer to neo-realism, is hard to dislike and Peck and Hepburn became long-term friends, each turning out for the other at awards ceremonies, including Hepburn's posthumous award at the 1993 Oscars.

We might also examine Cape Fear (1962), in which Peck co-starred with Robert Mitchum. Peck had bought the rights to John D. MacDonald's novel The Executioners and planned to play the part of the upright lawyer, knowing that his was the less showy part. Playing the vengeful psychotic who terrorises Peck and his family, Mitchum accordingly stole the picture; there was no way that the actors could have traded roles. But in Martin Scorsese's flashy and gratuitously violent remake of 1991, in which Peck and Mitchum were given cameos, Nick Nolte and Robert De Niro could have swapped roles with ease since either of them could be convincing as a crazed killer. Maybe this shows how the old stars stood for something and how today's stars are simply good for nothing. Or maybe today's stars are more versatile and less typecast than actors of Peck's generation.

Peck became a star with his very first picture, Days of Glory (1944), in which he played a Russian resistance fighter. He next played a saintly priest in The Keys of the Kingdom (1944). The American critic James Agee wrote, "I was moved by his newness, his unusual handsomeness and his still more unusual ability to communicate sincerity." No one who looked like that - or like Charlton Heston - could ever be a second-string player and when those two stars met, as they did in William Wyler's The Big Country (1958), it was a battle not only of physical titans but a contest of dignity, of hubris.

Whilst Peck made some valiant efforts to escape this image - playing Joseph Mengele in The Boys from Brazil (1978), but only because it was a chance to act with Laurence Olivier - he is widely regarded as having been an actor who lacked real fire and passion. That is often the penalty for playing a hero.

The son of divorced parents who lived with his grandmother in La Jolla, California, and then a military boarding school in Los Angeles, Eldred Gregory Peck became a movie addict and watched the transition from silents to sound. He majored in English at the University of California at Berkeley and rowed for the university team. It was then that the director of the university theatre asked him to play a minor role in a stage version of Moby Dick. He ended up doing five plays at Berkeley and after graduating left for New York, determined to become a professional actor and taking the stage name Gregory Peck. He made his Broadway début in 1940, in Emlyn Williams's Morning Star, and was quickly snapped up by Hollywood.

Peck turned down an exclusive seven-year contract at MGM and instead signed an unusual dual contract with 20th Century-Fox and David O. Selznick. He was one of the first stars to negotiate some independence from the studio system. His fourth film was for Alfred Hitchcock - the ludicrous cod-Freudian thriller with Dalí-knobs on, Spellbound (1945) - and then Hitchcock called him back for the boring The Paradine Case (1947). Peck later said he thought he came to Hitchcock too young and that Hitchcock's indifference to interior motivation, which Peck was big on at the time, shook his confidence. Peck was in awe of Cary Grant's work with Hitchcock. "He knew how to express everything with body language. Hitchcock loved that." As for Hitchcock, he thought Peck was "the most anecdoteless man in Hollywood".

Despite his striking looks, Peck somehow was never an especially sexual actor. Only once, really, in Selznick's production of Duel in the Sun (1946), which quickly became known as "Lust in the Dust". Selznick wanted to go one better than Gone with the Wind and create an indulgent monument to the sexual allure of his wife, Jennifer Jones. The hero of the movie, Lewt, was to have been John Wayne until Selznick realised that Wayne "has represented to date the exact opposite of what this script requires: if this doesn't come off as a sex story it is going to misfire". It caught fire with Peck's performance, which is more than two hours of priapic smouldering in the arid Arizona desert and the most violent of Technicolor, culminating in his rape of Miss Jones. It is a rare instance of Peck's allowing himself to overcome the emotional reserve that was his trademark.

There are plenty of other Peck pictures - he made 60. He bravely took the part of a gentile journalist who poses as a Jew in Elia Kazan's Gentleman's Agreement (1947) but was much more relaxed in a western, The Gunfighter (1950), in which - to the alarm of Darryl F. Zanuck - he wore a droopy moustache, giving his character of a tired gunman a compelling sadness and sagacity. His King David in David and Bathsheba (1951) is a pontificating bore in a short skirt, his Hemingway in The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952) ditto in a safari jacket and his Scott Fitzgerald in Beloved Infidel (1959) ditto in a tuxedo. Cast against the likes of the sultry Ava Gardner and Susan Hayward, Peck's awkwardness with women on screen is obvious. It probably added to his appeal with female audiences and, at the same time, did not alienate male audiences for the same reason.

Peck's biggest challenge was playing Captain Ahab in John Huston's version of Moby Dick (1956) - a white elephant of a movie if ever there was one and financed only because of Peck's involvement. But Peck, who wanted to play Starbuck, had deep misgivings, believing he lacked the essential demonic qualities and that he was too young. Like many people on the set he felt that Huston should have played Ahab - "Huston was more Ahab himself than any actor could be" - whilst wags felt that Orson Welles (who had played Ahab on stage and in the film had a cameo as Father Mapple) should have played the whale.

Filmed in the most arduous conditions off the coasts of Ireland and the Canary Islands, as well as in the tank at Elstree, the picture was not well received and Peck's performance was heavily criticised. In a 1989 interview Peck blamed his voice:

I think I played it too much for the richness of Melville's prose, too vocal a performance. I've always wished that Huston had just said to me, "Play it with a cracked voice, or whisper it, as if your vocal cords are gone."

Although Peck and Huston fell out a year later (Peck suspected Huston had made an advance to his wife), Huston always stood by Peck's performance: "There was a kind of massive dignity." In a made-for-television version of Moby Dick in 1998 Peck followed Welles in taking the role of Father Mapple, for which he was nominated for an Emmy and won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor.

As the studio system died in the late Fifties, Peck began to initiate his own projects, sometimes acting as a producer. The pictures also became more political and preachy. A lifelong Democrat, Peck's political views were formed during the Depression - "The influence of FDR, the conviction that part of our government's responsibility is to look after the least and neediest of its citizens," he said. The Big Country might have been a big, entertaining western but it also carried a hefty pacifist message; Pork Chop Hill (1959) showed a group of American GIs taking an allegedly strategic hill in the Korean War; and in On the Beach (1959) Peck witnessed the end of the world from the bridge of his nuclear submarine.

This was, of course, the era of JFK and the civil-rights movement and a key product of that time, in which Peck took arguably his most characteristic role, was To Kill A Mockingbird (1963), for which he won an Oscar as Best Actor. For his role as Atticus Finch, the Southern lawyer who defends a black youth against the charge of rape, Peck put

everything I had into it - all my feelings and everything I'd learned in 46 years of living, about family life and fathers and children. I drew on my own childhood and my recollections of my father. And on the social side, I drew on strong feelings that I have on those questions, so it was a natural for me.

During this time Peck was a frequent visitor to the White House, enjoying a close relationship with Lyndon Johnson:

I knew him before the Vietnam War caught up with him. I liked him and knew what his dreams were for the country. I saw the disaster of Vietnam overtake him and destroy him. I saw him when he was back on the ranch after he refused to run in '68. I saw a broken man, a Shakespearean tragedy enacted before my very eyes.

Peck's own contribution to the Vietnam debate was The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, which was shown at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival and enjoyed a limited release in America. Peck financed the film personally to the tune of $300,000 (he called his company Melville) and served only as producer. It was a wordy adaptation of a play by Father Daniel Berrigan about the persecution of nine Jesuit priests, artists and intellectuals who burned their draft papers and opposed the Vietnam War and CIA subversion in Latin America.

It was said that Peck was bugged by the Nixon administration, a distinction he shared with the far more outspoken Jane Fonda. It was often said he could have run for president but whereas Henry Fonda, a right-winger, got to live fictionally in the White House several times, Peck managed it just once, inevitably as Lincoln, in a television mini-series of 1982.

Peck's screen career was now faltering. For 10 years after To Kill a Mockingbird there was a run of expensive flops or ambitious failures: Behold a Pale Horse (1964), Mackenna's Gold (1969), Marooned (1969), I Walked the Line (1970). Then, in 1976, he picked up a project from Charlton Heston's "Out" tray called The Omen, a spirited shocker which turned out to be Peck's last box-office success.

In his final years he busked it - taking over at the last moment from Burt Lancaster in Old Gringo (1989), a flop of massive proportions which virtually ended Jane Fonda's career; cameos in Other People's Money and Cape Fear (both in 1991), and in 1993 a television movie called The Portrait, an On Golden Pond-ish drama directed by Arthur Penn and co-starring Lauren Bacall and Peck's daughter, Cecilia.

Gregory Peck lived a scandal-free life - a long second marriage to a French journalist, Veronique Passani, and four children (a fifth committed suicide) - and became an elder statesman. He served as Chairman of the American Cancer Society; helped found the American Film Institute (from which he received the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989); served three terms as President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in 1967 won the Academy's prestigious Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and, from Lyndon B. Johnson in 1969, the Medal of Freedom.

Adrian Turner