Friday, February 3

Gregory Peck

Talk about tall, dark and handsome.  This most American of American film actors captured my attention the first time I saw him on television in The Yearling (1946).  I thought his Penny Baxter was about the kindest father I had ever seen.  I had longed for that kind of father, completely captivated that he held such high regard for his son, played by the perfectly cast Claude Jarman Jr.

I always found such sincerity in the performances of Gregory Peck.  I loved how he lifted his eyebrows when he was surprised, I loved his uneasy but usually warm smile.  I trusted him.  I saw how he stood up for things he believed in.  He was solid.  He was self-effacing.  He was a hero to me at a time when I sorely needed one.  When I got out of a Gregory Peck movie, I thought life was going to work out.

Aside from my opening sentence, there was that voice... so strong, so purposeful, so clear.  It had a tonal quality that seemed to come from his lower extremities.  It was one that demanded you pay attention to it.  It was a voice that was so famous one would know who was speaking without seeing a face.

He was never anything but a star.  He never worked his way up, he never slipped off his perch.  He was a actor of major accomplishments for six decades.  Some of his films were duds, in some he was miscast, in only a few was he the bad guy, but Peck has one of the most impressive bodies of work of any American actor.  So many of his performances in some of the finest films ever made are the stuff of legend.  The American Film Institute has acknowledged Gregory Peck as the 12th greatest American  male actor of all time.

Early on he was under contract to both David O. Selznick and 20th Century Fox.  For the latter he was undeniably a successor to the resident moneymaker and heartthrob Tyrone Power, who was beginning to draw the curtain on his time at the studio.  All studios liked having an insurance policy in another actor waiting in the wings.  Henry King had been Power's favorite director and he would assume the same status in Peck's career.                                                       

In his first five years as a young actor, Gregory Peck garnered an astonishing five Oscar nominations for The Keys of the Kingdom (1944) about a kind priest working in China, the aforementioned The Yearling, Gentlemen's Agreement (1947), an incisive look at anti-semitism, which garnered Oscar's Best Picture award, and Twelve O'Clock High (1949), a superior war drama.

He not only had his choice of many fine scripts but he worked early on with some of the best directors in Hitchcock, Elia Kazan, Raoul Walsh and William Wyler.  He could learn his craft from such gifted character actors as Charles Laughton, Agnes Moorehead, Thomas Mitchell, Karl Malden, Dean Jagger.  And he had some of the best actresses of their day in costars such as Jennifer Jones, Ingrid Bergman, Dorothy McGuire, Jane Wyman and three who would remain lifelong friends, Ava Gardner, Audrey Hepburn and Lauren Bacall.

One could never get enough of Gregory Peck because the market was never flooded with his films.  He was given to making only one or two a year, most of them distinguished.  Most were dramas.  He was usually the hero.  He is the star of two of my alltime favorite movies, in my top 25.

In 1946, after five nice-guy roles, he turned on the randy charm as a likeable bad guy (a wastrel as they liked to say about cowboy thugs), in the monster epic Duel in the Sun, directed by King Vidor and produced by O'Selznick, married at the time to the star, Jennifer Jones.  If Peck played against type, so did Jones.  As they rolled all over the countryside, the crew took to calling it Lust in the Dust.  By today's standards it's a little tame but in those halcyon days after the end of WWII, folks had to apply cold washcloths to their heated brows.

He kept his cowboy duds for 1948's Yellow Sky, a film that might have been a bit of a B film in others' hands but as directed by William Wellman and with fiery Anne Baxter and treacherous Richard Widmark along in the saddle, Peck helped elevate the film of outlaws lusting for another's gold to A-picture status.

Third time's the charm in another western, the critically-acclaimed The Gunfighter (1950), as a retired gunfighter finding it difficult to hang up his guns.  It was due to this film, however, that he turned down the role that eventually went to Gary Cooper (and won him an Oscar) in High Noon.  Peck found the roles too similar.  As good as The Gunfighter is, High Noon is arguably better and it would have been interesting to see what Peck would have done with Will Kane.  (Years later and for other reasons, Peck would turn down the Yves Montand role opposite Marilyn Monroe in Let's Make Love.  Even though that film was a dud, it might have been a hoot to see Peck as a song and dance man.)

He then worked with two actresses he'd worked with before, Ava Gardner and Susan Hayward, in The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), which is a personal Peck favorite of mine.  The critics were less kind (probably somewhat because not a principal player had gone to Africa), but Peck was thrilled to be essentially playing Ernest Hemingway, a man and writer he admired.

He never did much comedy and when he did, it was more or less light comedy (with one gorgeous exception) and in 1953 he made what is without a doubt one of his most famous movies, William Wyler's Roman Holiday.  Peck was no slouch with his comedic antics but all attention, of course, was on newcomer Audrey Hepburn and that's just as it should be.  Peck suggested her for the role after negotiations with Elizabeth Taylor and Jean Simmons fell through.  A romp through the streets of Rome as a reporter and a princess on the lam was sheer delight from start to finish. 

It was around this time that Peck's 13-year, quite unhappy marriage to Greta Kukkonen dissolved and he married a beautiful Parisian reporter Veronique Passani, a union which lasted the rest of his life.  He remained in Europe for much of this time and I think did some of his least interesting work.  Maybe his mind was on other things.  One of his three sons with Greta would commit suicide.  He would go on to have a son and a daughter with Veronique. 

Originally to reteam Grace Kelly (who instead married some foreign guy) and James Stewart, Designing Woman was released in 1957 with Peck as a sportswriter who marries a fashion designer (winningly played by Lauren Bacall).  He scarcely knows her and when their two worlds collide, we're in for some good comedy.  Peck and Bacall (a virtual stranger to comedy herself) did some great ribald stuff here.  A scene involving Dolores Gray pushing a plate of sketti in his suited lap was priceless.

Great excitement came to me in 1958 as I heard Jerome Moress' riveting theme open The Big Country.  Great excitement came to Peck, too.  Not only was the country big, but so was the big scope, the big salaries, the big expeditures, the big egos, the big fights.  Peck became a co-producer with his old buddy Wyler and they just couldn't stay on the same page.  Wyler was also the director and an exacting one, and Peck was the star and he knew how he wanted to be presented.  Their feud over a number of things (the amount of cattle to be used, redoing a buckboard scene, etc.) became the stuff of Hollywood legend.

I regard The Big Country as my favorite western ever and that's quite a statement coming from me, the eternal cowboy.  The story is about an easterner who comes west to marry a girl he hardly knows and is reluctantly caught up in her father's hatred of a neighboring family and their fight over water rights.  Jean Simmons had already bewitched me so I was thrilled she saddled up for the ride.  Charlton Heston, Carroll Baker, Peck's old friend Charles Bickford, Chuck Connors and the superb Mexican actor Alfonso Bedoya rounded out the cast.  Peck himself championed the larger-than-life Burl Ives to accept the most colorful role in the film and Ives would win a supporting Oscar for doing so (and in the same year that he went on to even greater acclaim as Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.)  He delivered a speech as the poor neighbor who marches unannounced into his rich enemy's fancy house party that still raises the hair on the back of my head every time I see it.  (You set foot in Blanco Canyon once more and this country's gonna run red with blood.)

He was probably miscast being dark and 6'3' as the much shorter and blonder F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1959's Beloved Infidel, but I loved him in the part.  The film was not successful and as Peck has said, it might have been received more favorably had it simply been about any non-famous writer.  This film is as close as I ever got to him.  I was a teenager walking along a private road in Malibu and came across moviemaking paraphernalia sitting on the road itself, including two director's chairs that read "Mr. Peck" and "Miss Kerr," and not a person in sight.

The same year Peck also made the very interesting, well-done and depressing On the Beach, about the end of the world.  Costarring was his old pal Ava Gardner and a newly-minted dramatic actor named Fred Astaire.  If we were going down, there's no one I'd rather see leading the way than Gregory Peck.

Up next are The Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear, both 1961.  The former is one of my favorite war-adventure films.  I would like war films much more if they were like this one.  With a cast that included David Niven, Anthony Quinn and the wonderful Irene Pappas, it was about a group of people out to destroy big German guns high in a fortress over the sea.  This was a very popular and financially successful film.

Cape Fear was about a way-crazy ex-con who returns to the small town where he lived to menace the attorney who put him away. Peck again co-produced but great guy that he was, he gave the juicier role of the felon to Robert Mitchum who turned in one of his best performances.


In 1962 Gregory Peck gave the best performance of his life as the loving and widowed attorney and father in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Here was his shining hour, his favorite role.  The American Film Institute called Peck's Atticus Finch the top film hero of the last 100 years.  In some ways this performance certainly reminded me of that kind father I first saw in The Yearling and Mary Badham and Phillip Alford were every bit as impressive as his children as Claude Jarman Jr. was in The Yearling.
Based on Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, it was not a true story but it was based on her lawyer father.  She always thought Peck should play the part, she was often on the film set and gave him her father's pocket watch as her thanks for a brilliant performance.  And it certainly was that.

As a liberal and poor southern lawyer, a widower with two lively pre-teen children, he takes on the case of a black man accused of raping a white woman which results in putting his beloved children in harm's way.  The role was made for Peck, much like Liza Minnelli was born to play Cabaret's Sally Bowles and Yul Brynner in The King and I.  Both Finch and Peck are liberal, kind, thoughtful, devoted family men, engaged in a singleness of purpose toward decency and doing what's right no matter what.  In real life Peck detested racial inequality, injustice of all kind and not stepping up.  No wonder Harper Lee thought of him for the part.

In addition to the American Film Institute honor, which came much after the making of the film, Peck was put on a U.S. stamp as Atticus Finch.  He also won the Academy Award and I believe his portrayal is one of the three best American male performances ever.  Over the years I have had two friends who named their dogs Atticus. 

In 1963 he returned to comedy in Captain Newman, M.D., as a military psychiatrist.  Costarring Tony Curtis, Angie Dickinson and Bobby Darin, it was underrated at the time but has gathered steam over the years.  I thought it was great as I did another underrated Peck film, a return to westerns, in the exciting The Stalking Moon (1969).  He was an army scout trying to relocate a white captive (Eva Marie Saint) and her Indian son to safety before the boy's murdering father finds them.

In 1976 Peck made a bit of a departure in films.  He made The Omen... a genuinely frightening and creepy horror film.  While he was his usual competent self, totally believed as the put-upon father, it was the film itself that was the star.  Two years later he made an even bigger departure, a risk really.  He hadn't been a genuine bad guy (to the core) ever.  But that all changed when he played real-life nazi doctor Josef Mengele in The Boys from Brazil.
There were those who thought he was all wrong for the role... nice guy Greg Peck playing one of the most vile men in history.  Well, with a little help from the makeup department, he proved them all wrong.  He was superb.

In 1987 and now age 71, looking, of course, much older but still distinguished, he did something he hadn't done since the 40s, he took second billing to another actor... in this case, Jane Fonda, who was co-producing and starring in Old Gringo. He had the title role as writer Ambrose Bierce who got involved in the Mexican revolution.  His old pal Burt Lancaster had earlier signed for the part but he couldn't pass insurance requirements, so Peck stepped in. 

Peck was a great supporter of liberal causes... another reason I loved this man.  I am sure he got a chuckle out of making Richard Nixon's infamous Enemies List.  He was a great humanitarium, often giving his knowledge, time and money to many things that lift up people.  In addition to his competitive Oscar for To Kill a Mockingbird, he was honored with Oscar's coveted Jean Hersholt Humanitarian award and also the Cecil B. DeMille award for outstanding contribution to the entertainment world.  In 1989 he was honored with AFI's Life Achievement Award.  Frankly, he has received too many honors to mention here (but easy to see on the internet), but his greatest is undoubtedly the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 1969.

His humanity was about making a difference.  He cared about suffering.  He was the guest of presidents and European royalty.  He was rewarded and awarded by his chosen profession.  He understood the art of acting and was determined to do the very best job he knew how.  He left a legacy of films second to none.   

Gregory Peck died quietly in 2003.  He was a man of culture and great intelligence and had an infinite capacity for caring.  I saw him  as one of America's most cherished actors.  He provided me with hours and hours of brilliant acting in thoughtful roles.  I am beholden. 

NEXT POSTING:   Jessica Lange

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