Wednesday 22 January 2020

Gregory Peck: born to play the hero

The good guy: Gregory Peck chats to a group of young fans in Copenhagen in 1953. Photo: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
The good guy: Gregory Peck chats to a group of young fans in Copenhagen in 1953. Photo: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
Gregory Peck played Atticus Finch, a widowed father of two young children in To Kill a Mockingbird

Some weeks back, a survey of 2,000 British readers voted Atticus Finch the most inspiring literary character ever. He may have been on their minds of course: his creator, Harper Lee, died in February. But in picking Finch, they must surely have chosen Gregory Peck as well.

The lanky Californian was so perfect as Finch in Robert Mulligan's 1962 film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird that he's become synonymous with the character, and it's impossible now to read Lee's novel without seeing his square-jawed profile. It was Peck's greatest role, won him his only Oscar and his performance was praised by everyone, including Harper Lee, who later said "when he played Atticus Finch, he played himself".

But the continuing popularity of To Kill a Mockingbird has tended to obscure the other achievements of this old-fashioned but very effective screen actor, who may have been synonymous with earnest and morally upright roles but was well capable of comedy, and even melodrama, and kept working well into old age. He was politically engaged, too, and a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War.

Peck would have turned 100 this month, and might be happy to know he remains one of Hollywood's most enduring icons.

He was born, Eldred Gregory Peck, in San Diego on April 5, 1916, just weeks before the Easter Rising in Dublin, with which he would later acknowledge a familial connection. His father was Irish on his maternal side, and his grandmother was related to Thomas Ashe. Peck was an only child, and his parents divorced when he was six, after which he was raised by his maternal grandmother, who took him to the movies as a treat every week. A love of films and acting took hold, and while studying medicine at the University of California, he became involved in amateur theatrics. By the time his studies finished he was hooked, and in 1939, the 23-year-old Peck made a fateful decision: he left for New York City with just $160 to his name.

There, he enrolled in the Neighbourhood Playhouse, where he would study under the great Sanford Meisner. He also decided to change his name. "I never liked the name Eldred," he would later recall, claiming his mother had picked it out of the phone book. "Since nobody knew me in New York, I just changed to my middle name." But times were tough for the young actor, who was often broke and occasionally ended up sleeping on benches in Central Park.

His potential, though, was blindingly obvious. Broad-shouldered, 6ft 3in and darkly, soulfully handsome, Peck thrived under Meisner's guidance. Young leading men were thin on the ground during wartime, and after impressing the critics in a play called The Morning Star, Peck was noticed by Hollywood.

His first film, Days of Glory, was one he preferred to forget: he played a Soviet partisan in a film that somehow found romance in the Nazi invasion of Russia. It tanked at the box office, but luckily Peck followed it with a role that was tailor made for him.

In Keys of the Kingdom (1944), he exuded the humble decency that would become his trademark, playing a missionary Catholic priest in 19th-century China. An Oscar nomination followed, and his Hollywood career was underway.

Peck was upright, innately noble-looking and had, as Anthony Quinn once memorably put it, the "reticent majesty" of Abraham Lincoln, whom he'd later play. He would have been so easy to typecast as an upright goodie, but Peck resisted such pigeon-holing, cleverly refusing to sign long-term contracts with studios.

He knew that his range was fairly narrow, but stretched it whenever he could. While some initially dismissed his acting as stiff and lifeless, he confounded these criticisms in The Yearling (1946), playing a warm and affectionate frontier father. Cast against type later the same year in David O Selznick's Duel in the Sun, Peck excelled as a treacherous and vicious cowboy who lusts after Jennifer Jones. And in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945), he used his cool composure to great effect playing an eminent psychiatrist who's really a deluded and neurotic imposter.

He cemented his status as a commanding leading man in Gentleman's Agreement (1947), playing a journalist who campaigns against anti-Semitism, and by the end of the decade was one of Hollywood's most sought after actors, earning as much as $1m a picture.

Peck was almost too handsome for his own good, and his kind eyes and warm baritone made it hard to think badly of him, no matter who he played. He would be doomed in the main to play good guys, but did his best work playing complex variations of his honest and compassionate persona.

In 12 O'Clock High (1949), he gave a thoughtful turn as a US bomber commander who's tired of war, and the destruction he's obliged to wreak. And in The Gunfighter (1950) he played a melancholy gun slinger who becomes a target for every fool with a gun when he tries to turn his back on violence.

Though he did so rarely, he was an adept comic actor, and strayed very successfully into Cary Grant country opposite Audrey Hepburn in the 1953 William Wyler classic, Roman Holiday. He looked less comfortable, however, playing the demented whaling skipper Captain Ahab in John Huston's 1956 adaptation of Moby Dick, and later said, "I wasn't mad enough, not crazy enough, not obsessive enough - I could have done more".

Like Gary Cooper and James Stewart, Peck came to represent an idealised vision of the moral and redoubtable American male that might have been a fantasy but was a very attractive one. And in Peck's case, the squeaky-clean public image wasn't so very far from the truth. But his political views were diametrically opposed to those of the reactionary, commie-hating Cooper, and indeed Stewart's, who after all campaigned for Nixon and Reagan and was a staunch supporter of the Vietnam War.

Peck was a liberal through and through, and never afraid to nail his colours to the mast. In 1947, as the communist witch-hunts began to unfold in Hollywood and most stars were keeping their heads down, he signed a letter deploring the activities of the House un-American Activities Committee.

A life-long Democrat, he was approached in 1970 about running for California governor against Ronald Reagan, whose neo-liberalism he would come to deplore. And in 1987, he would vehemently and successfully oppose Reagan's nomination of an ultra-conservative judge called Robert Bork to the Supreme Court.

Peck's stiff-upper-lipped decency began to seem old-fashioned in the 1960s, and as he entered his 50s the juicy roles began to dry up. But he made a comeback of sorts in the 1970s, starting with the cult 1976 horror classic The Omen. He managed to remain believable playing the a US diplomat who's just been appointed ambassador to the UK when he finds out his son is in fact the anti-Christ, and bravely kept a straight face as Josef Mengele is the ludicrous but enjoyable 1978 thriller Boys from Brazil.

His portrayal of General Douglas MacArthur in a 1977 biopic was widely praised, and Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote that "Mr Peck not only looks and sounds like the general, he also makes the character disgracefully appealing, even when he is being his most outrageous".

In his later years, Peck began touring with a show featuring clips and reminiscences, during which he'd answer questions from the audience.

And when someone asked him why he'd almost always played sympathetic characters, his response was characteristically disarming. "I don't think," he said, "I could stay interested for a couple of months in a character of mean motivation."

To Kill a Mockingbird

Gregory Peck played Atticus Finch, a widowed father of two young children in To Kill a Mockingbird

We tend to forget how controversial To Kill a Mockingbird was back in 1962, when the southern states were in turmoil over Civil Rights. Apparently, James Stewart was offered the part of Atticus Finch but turned it down because he feared the film was "too liberal". Gregory Peck had no such qualms: after being approached, he read Harper Lee's book in one sitting and said yes. "I identified with everything that happened in that story," he would say later.

Peck would be the solid, central and immovable anchor of the film, playing the widowed father of two lovable children who's also a lawyer to the poor and dispossessed in a small Alabama town. Atticus stands up to be counted when he defends a black man accused of raping a white girl, and Peck did Finch's unforgettable nine-minute court summation in just one take. Harper Lee was on the set from time to time, and Peck noticed her crying after he'd shot a scene in which he greets his children. She told him he looked and sounded just like her late father, on whom the character of Atticus had been based.

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