The Guardian (14/Jun/2003) - Obituary: Gregory Peck
(c) The Guardian (Jun/14/2003)
- keywords: Academy Awards, Alfred Hitchcock, Darryl F. Zanuck, Emlyn Williams, Gregory Peck, James Stewart, New York City, New York, Patrick Hamilton, Spellbound (1945)
Enduring Hollywood star whose restrained and intelligent screen image reflected his personality
Gregory Peck, who has died aged 87, was an actor whose film career emphasised the importance of being earnest. Serious, restrained and intelligent, though never very exciting, he was one of Hollywood's most enduring stars.
At 6ft 3in tall, the lanky Peck was a pillar of moral rectitude standing up for decency and tolerance. In his most characteristic roles, his controlled baritone voice expressed sympathy and concern. This is the image that most cinema audiences had of him, engendered by performances such as his Oscar-winning portrayal of Atticus Finch, the white lawyer who defends a southern black man on a rape charge in To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) - Peck's own favourite film.
So strong is this image of Peck that his few honourable attempts at comedy, and his less successful portrayals of the baddie, are often forgotten. But he was there opposite Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday (1953), and Lauren Bacall in Designing Woman (1957); as he was, too, in Duel In The Sun (1946), as Captain Ahab in Moby Dick (1956) and as the Nazi Josef Mengele in The Boys From Brazil (1978). Perhaps his chiselled good looks worked against him, but Peck's best roles were as more complex variations of his honest liberal persona.
Director Henry King mined these characteristics best in 12 O'Clock High (1949), with Peck as a war-weary airforce officer, and in The Gunfighter (1950), in which, sporting a moustache for the first time, he played an ageing gunfighter who wants to renounce violence but whose past makes him a target for every young killer on the make. Alfred Hitchcock also used Peck effectively in Spellbound (1945), where his outward solidity masks a serious phobia.
He was born Eldred Peck in La Jolla, California, the son of a chemist. His parents divorced when he was five, and he was brought up by his grandmother, who took him to the movies every week. Although he planned to become a doctor, and studied medicine at the University of California at Berkeley, he became more interested in acting for the stage. So, in 1939, at 23, he skipped graduation, and with $160 and a letter of introduction in his pocket, left for New York.
There he enrolled at the Neighborhood Playhouse as Gregory Peck. "I never liked the name Eldred," he recalled much later. "Since nobody knew me in New York, I just changed to my middle name."
At the Neighborhood Playhouse, he was taught movement by Martha Graham, who, he insisted, gave him the back injury that kept him out of uniform during the second world war. Later, 20th Century Fox claimed that the cause was a rowing injury. "In Hollywood, they didn't think a dance class was macho enough, I guess. I've been trying to straighten out that story for years," Peck explained.
Years later, he made up for the story by playing military brass in Pork Chop Hill (1959), The Guns Of Navarone (1961), The Sea Wolves (1980) and, above all, the title role of [General Douglas] MacArthur (1977), though he played the flamboyant US officer as if expressing disgruntlement were enough.
Peck made his Broadway debut as a young doctor in Emlyn Williams's wartime drama The Morning Star (1942), with Gladys Cooper. The New York Times critic wrote, "Peck plays with considerable skill, also avoiding in his acting the romantic tosh of the writing."
A year later, he was in Hollywood, where he starred as a Russian partisan in Days Of Glory, a performance he preferred to forget. But he was nominated for an Oscar for his second film, The Keys Of The Kingdom (1944); based on the AJ Cronin novel, it gave Peck the chance to exude righteousness as a simple Catholic priest in China.
Peck continued to define decency in The Valley Of Decision (1945), as the scion of a mine-owning family who marries the maid (Greer Garson) against his parents' wishes, and as the stern, but loving, father in The Yearling (1946). In Gentleman's Agreement (1947), he had the archetypal Peck role as a journalist posing as a Jew to investigate American anti-semitism. He is particularly good when his repressed anger surfaces at a hotel where there are apparently no rooms available.
That same year, with Dorothy McGuire and Mel Ferrer, Peck founded the La Jolla Playhouse in southern California. There, he appeared in Patrick Hamilton's thriller Angel Street, Elliott Nugent's The Male Animal and Moss Hart's Light Up The Sky, before his film schedule became increasingly demanding.
Among his movies of the late 1940s and early 50s were two Hemingway adaptations, The Macomber Affair (1947), in which he was a white hunter resisting married Joan Bennett's advances, and The Snows Of Kilimanjaro (1952), having his pick of Ava Gardner and Susan Hayward. He played opposite Hayward again in David And Bathsheba (1951), cast because Darryl F Zanuck thought he had "a biblical face".
But it was in westerns that Peck's dour integrity showed itself best: unshaven and tough in Yellow Sky (1948); a dude learning to adapt to the west in The Big Country (1958); and obsessively after the men who raped and killed his wife in The Bravados (1958).
In the swinging 1960s, Peck's sober style seemed a little out of place, though he appeared in a couple of flashy Hitchcockian thrillers, Mirage (1965) and Arabesque (1966), and adapted to the new Hollywood as best he could, looking rather bothered as the father of a demon in The Omen (1976).
Always a supporter of liberal causes, he was simultaneously outspoken against the Vietnam war, while remaining a patriotic supporter of his oldest son, Jonathan, who was fighting there. In 1972, he produced the film version of Philip Berrigan's play, The Trial Of The Catonsville Nine, about the prosecution of a group of Vietnam protesters for civil disobedience.
In the 1980s, Peck moved into television with the mini series The Blue And The Gray (1982), in which he played Abraham Lincoln. Still handsome into old age, with animated black eyebrows under a grey mane, in 1995 he started touring in a show of film clips and reminiscences, anwering questions from the audience, a task he continued for a further seven years. "I don't lecture and I don't grind any axes. I just want to entertain," Peck remarked.
He is survived by his second wife, the French journalist Veronique Passani, whom he married in 1955, their son and daughter, and by the younger of the two sons of his first marriage. The older son, Jonathan, killed himself with a shotgun in 1975.
Derek Malcolm writes...
I met Gregory Peck on several occasions, and his courtesy did not seem as false as some of those faced by a critic who might be inclined otherwise to snipe at them. He was modest enough to consider himself lucky to have lasted so long in people's affections, but proud of his achievements in film, while insisting that many of his directors and co-stars helped him gain his reputation.
He was a genuinely nice man, largely unspoilt by fame, though latterly a bit miffed that he was not hired more often, not just for old times' sake but because he was actually worth it. The problem was that few wanted to use him in any way other than as an American version of the slightly stiff-upper-lipped nature's gentleman. Indeed, so strongly did he portray this character that he seemed almost like a distant cousin of Abraham Lincoln.
Like James Stewart and Gary Cooper, Peck expressed in very tangible form so much with his mere presence that sometimes he scarcely had to act at all. But he never took the easy way out. He always tried hard and, though a little limited, generally succeeded. Principally, his work reflects that, in the movies, less almost always means more. It is a lesson some of the twitching heroes who copy Marlon Brando have yet to learn, skulking in their luxurious caravans waiting for inspiration.