Gregory Peck, Thoughtful Hollywood
A Decent Man
Among the names of the Hollywood great and good, few are as well-respected and universally adored as Gregory Peck. For more than fifty years, he was a major presence in the theater, on television, and most importantly, on the big screen. For many, Peck was a symbol of the American man at his best - a pillar of moral courage and a constant defender of traditional values.
He was one of 20th Century Pictures most popular film stars, from the 1940s to the 1960s, and played important roles well into the 1990s. In 1999, the American Film Institute named Peck among the Greatest Male Stars of All Time, ranking him at No. 12. He was nominated for Best Actor Oscars five times in the course of his career and appeared in nine Best Picture nominated films.
Eldred Gregory Peck was born in 1916, and spent most of his early life in and around La Jolla, California. By the time he was six, his parents had divorced. His mother married a travelling salesman and was often away with her new husband, while his father, a local pharmacist, spent much of the time working the night-shift. For a number of years he lived with his maternal grandmother, but at the age of ten was sent to St. John's Military Academy in Los Angeles. The four years he spent there were important in forming his sense of personal discipline. There he also began to acquire a sensitivity to the social importance of authority figures - a topic that remained important throughout his career. After the Academy, he returned to live with his father, and to attend public high school.
After graduating, Peck enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley.beginning as a pre-med student. By the time he was a senior, however, he found his real interests to be in writing and acting and he soon realized that he had a natural gift as both an expressive actor and a storyteller. After graduating in 1939, he changed his name from Eldred to Gregory and moved to New York. He enrolled in the Neighbourhood Playhouse and debuted on Broadway, after graduation, in Emlyn Williams' stage play 'The Morning Star'. His abilities were almost immediately recognized and although many of his early plays were doomed to short runs, it seemed clear that Peck was destined for something bigger.
In 1944 he obtained his first two Hollywood roles, as Vladimir in Days of Glory and then as Father Francis Chisholm in The Keys of the Kingdom. This was only his second film but he was nominated for an Oscar and achieved instant stardom.
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From the outset, he enjoyed unique leverage as a performer; he refused to sign a long-term contract with any one studio, and selected all of his scripts himself. For MGM, he starred in 1945's The Valley of Decision, a major hit. Even more impressive was the follow-up, Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound, which co-starred Ingrid Bergman. For 1946's The Yearling, Peck grabbed his first Academy Award nomination and followed it with another rousing success, King Vidor's Duel in the Sun. His second Oscar nomination arrived via Elia Kazan's 1947 social drama Gentleman's Agreement, a meditation on anti-Semitism which won Best Picture honors. For the follow-up, Peck reunited with Hitchcock for The Paradine Case, one of the few flops on either's resumé. He returned in 1948 with a William Wellman Western, Yellow Sky, before signing for a pair of films with director Henry King, Twelve O'Clock High (earning Best Actor laurels from the New York critics) and The Gunfighter.
After Captain Horatio Hornblower, Peck appeared in the Biblical epic David and Bathsheba, one of 1951's biggest box-office hits. Upon turning down High Noon, he starred in The Snows of Kilimanjaro. To earn a tax exemption, he spent the next 18 months in Europe, there shooting 1953's Roman Holiday for William Wyler. After filming 1954's Night People, Peck traveled to Britain, where he starred in a pair of features for Rank - The Million Pound Note and The Purple Plain - neither of which performed well at the box office; however, upon returning stateside he starred in the smash The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. The 1958 Western The Big Country was his next major hit, and he quickly followed it with another, The Bravados. Few enjoyed Peck's portrayal of F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1959's Beloved Infidel, but the other two films he made that year, the Korean War drama Pork Chop Hill and Stanley Kramer's post-apocalyptic fantasy On the Beach, were both much more successful.
Atticus Finch convincing the jury
Still, 1961's World War II adventure The Guns of Navarone topped them all - indeed, it was among the highest-grossing pictures in film history. A vicious film noir, Cape Fear, followed in 1962, then Peck was able to show the world the true range of his talents in Robert Mulligan's classic adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird.
To Kill a Mockingbird is an indeliable portrait of courage and principle seen through the eyes of three children in small, Depression-era Southern town. As Atticus Finch, an idealistic Southern attorney defending a black man charged with rape, Peck finally won an Academy Award.
Also that year he co-starred in the Cinerama epic How the West Was Won, yet another massive success. However, it was to be Peck's last for many years. For Fred Zinneman, he starred in 1964's Behold a Pale Horse, miscast as a Spanish loyalist, followed by Captain Newman, M.D., a comedy with Tony Curtis which performed only moderately well. When 1966's Mirage and Arabesque disappeared from theaters almost unnoticed, Peck spent the next three years absent from the screen. When he returned in 1969, however, it was with no less than four new films - The Stalking Moon, MacKenna's Gold, The Chairman, and Marooned - all of them poorly received.
In the 1980s, Peck moved to television, where he starred in the mini-series The Blue and the Gray, playing Abraham Lincoln. He also starred with Barbara Bouchet in the TV film The Scarlet and The Black, about a real-life Roman Catholic priest in the Vatican who smuggled Jews and other refugees away from the Nazis during World War II.
Peck retired from active film-making in 1991. Like Cary Grant before him, Peck spent the last few years of his life touring the world doing speaking engagements in which he would show clips from his movies, reminisce, and answer questions from the audience.
He came out of retirement to appear in the 1998 remake of one of his most famous films, Moby Dick, portraying "Father Mapple" (played by Orson Welles in the 1956 version), with Patrick Stewart playing Captain Ahab, the role Peck made famous in the 1956 film.
On June 12, 2003, Peck died in his sleep from cardiorespiratory arrest, and bronchial pneumonia, at the age of 87 at Torrance Memorial Medical Center in Torrance, California. His wife of 48 years was at his side. Peck is buried in the mausoleum of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, California.
For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Gregory Peck has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6100 Hollywood Blvd.
Peck married his first wife, Greta Kukkonen, in 1942 and they had three sons, Jonathan, Stephen and Carey. Jonathan, a TV reporter, committed suicide at age 30. Greta was awarded the Rose of Finland, equivalent to a Medal of Freedom. They were divorced on December 30, 1955 and maintained a very good relationship as parents. After his divorce Peck married Veronique Passani, a Paris reporter. She had interviewed him in 1953 before he went to Italy to film Roman Holiday. He asked her to lunch six months later and they became inseparable.They had two children, Anthony and Cecilia, both actors.
More Great Hollywood Sites to Visit
Gregory Peck Movies
Gregory Peck 1916-2003
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