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Gregory Peck - 8/15
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Gregory Peck Profile

Hollywood lost a hero when Gregory Peck died on June 12, 2003 at age 87. Just weeks before his death, the American Film Institute had named Peck's character Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) as the top hero on its list of 100 Heroes and Villains in the American cinema. He beat out movie good guys like Indiana Jones, James Bond and George Bailey based on the AFI's definition of a hero: "a character who prevails in extreme circumstances and dramatizes a sense of morality, courage and purpose - to show humanity at its best." While this certainly sums up lawyer/father (and Peck's favorite of his roles) Atticus Finch, it might also be said of the man himself. Peck's air of on screen decency was more than just good acting. It carried over from real life.

Eldred Gregory Peck was born on April 5, 1916 in La Jolla, California. His parents split up when he was only three, and he went to live with his grandmother. Soon he was sent to military school where he became an athlete and student leader. And after that, it was on to Berkeley for college where Gregory Peck first discovered acting.

Or rather, maybe, it discovered him. As the story has it, a man tapped Peck on the shoulder one day and asked the lanky Peck to try out for a play. It seems the man was staging scenes from Moby Dick and needed "a tall, skinny Starbuck to go with his short, fat Ahab." Peck decided to give it a try and ended up doing five plays in his senior year. Not bad for a guy who started out pre-med. Peck also signed up for a dance class that would change his life - in the form of a permanent back injury. It was this injury that kept him out of WWII and in Hollywood where there was a definite shortage of male stars. Of course Hollywood would later polish up the injury story, giving it a more macho spin by claiming Peck hurt his back in a rowing accident.

Fresh out of college, Peck set off for New York, where he won a scholarship to the Playhouse School to study method acting. During his second year of study, he was asked to make a screen test for David O. Selznick. But the producer's reaction was quite negative. "He photographs like Abe Lincoln, but if he has great personality, I don't think it comes through," remarked Selznick. It could've been a crushing blow to the young actor. But Peck would consider the rejection a lucky break. He found out after the fact that if the test had been approved he would have been locked in a seven-year contract with Selznick. (It was considered standard policy at the time to sign seven-year contracts on the basis of an approved screen test). It was a commitment Peck would have been unprepared to make. After this, his desire to be a free agent would remain a constant factor throughout his Hollywood career.

Peck returned to the stage for work in several regional productions, and finally, in September of 1942, Gregory Peck made his Broadway debut in the play The Morning Star. The production only ran twenty-four performances, but Peck drew favorable reviews and again got the attention of Hollywood. This time, it was a writer-producer named Casey Robinson that came calling. Robinson was searching for some unknown faces for a film he'd written to be directed by Jacques Tourneur. The female lead went to Ballet Ruse dancer Tamara Toumanova and Robinson, having seen The Morning Star, wanted Peck for the male role. The resulting movie, Days of Glory (1944) wasn't a significant critical or popular success, but it did serve as Gregory Peck's big screen debut.

Peck's second movie, The Keys of the Kingdom (1944) was considerably better and even earned the actor his first Academy Award nomination. The role demanded that Peck's character, a Catholic missionary in China, age from nineteen to seventy over the course of the film. It was a performance that made Hollywood take notice. Heda Hopper exclaimed in her column, "Gregory Peck is the hottest thing in town. Some say he is a second Gary Cooper. Actually, he's the first Gregory Peck." Peck's success in The Keys of the Kingdom also set off a bidding war between studios who wanted to sign him. Fox, MGM and RKO (under Selznick who was now interested) all made offers. But Peck bucked the still-in-place studio system, refused to make an exclusive deal with any studio and ended up with a 4-picture deal with each of them. It was an unusual move in 1945.

His first movie with MGM was The Valley of Decision (1945) opposite Greer Garson, followed up by a trip back to RKO for Spellbound (1945) with Hitchcock and Ingrid Bergman and then a return to MGM for The Yearling (1946) and a second Oscar nomination. 1946 would bring Peck his first villainous role in Duel in the Sun. Yet despite the character's evil streak, Peck brought a certain sympathy to the part. The movie was directed by King Vidor and co-starred Jennifer Jones.

Next came a hard-hitting and controversial look at anti-Semitism in Gentleman's Agreement (1947). Peck, who was again nominated for Best Actor, did not win the Oscar®, but the film did win Best Picture, along with Elia Kazan for Best Director. From the seriousness of Gentleman's Agreement, Peck struck a lighter note with two Westerns that followed: Yellow Sky (1948) and The Gunfighter (1950). He also appeared in the war drama, Twelve O'Clock High (1949), for which he received his fourth Best Actor nomination. After Yellow Sky and The Gunfighter, however, a fear of being typecast as a Western actor led him to turn down High Noon (1952). That role, of course, went to Gary Cooper.

1953 was an important year for Gregory Peck. He spent much of the year overseas where he filmed Roman Holiday with newcomer Audrey Hepburn, and he met the woman who would become his second wife -- French journalist Veronique Passani. Peck had three children with first wife Greta Rice (their marriage lasted from 1942 to 1955) and two more with Passani. The marriage to Veronique would stand the test of time. She was at Peck's side when he died in June of 2003. As for Roman Holiday, it was of course a hit that made Audrey Hepburn a star (and an Oscar® winner), and it gave Peck an opportunity to try his hand at comedy.

His second comedy came in 1954 with Man With a Million, which was based on a Mark Twain short story called The Million Pound Bank Note. And later, there was a romantic comedy pairing with Lauren Bacall for Designing Woman (1957), directed by Vincente Minnelli. But Peck's heroic appeal still played best in dramas such as The Big Country (1958), Pork Chop Hill (1959), On the Beach(1959), The Guns of Navarone (1961) and Cape Fear (1962). Peck came full circle with Moby Dick in 1956. He'd played Starbuck on stage in college. In John Huston's film adaptation, however, Peck got promoted to Captain Ahab. And of course there was a memorable star turn as MacArthur in the General's 1977 biography.

But the role for which Gregory Peck is best remembered, came in 1962's To Kill a Mockingbird. And he knew it was a special movie from the start. To hear Peck tell it, "that was "his" lucky day -- when Robert Mulligan and Alan Pakula sent "him" the book." He could barely wait for the morning to call and accept the role of Atticus Finch. And after four previous nominations, it was the role that would finally win Peck the Oscar®.

Peck also received the Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy in 1967 for his extra-curricular activities that were as equally impressive as his film contributions. Along with Dorothy McGuire, Mel Ferrer, Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten, he founded the La Jolla Playhouse in 1947. He served as the first Chairman of the AFI, the President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (1967-1970), volunteered for the National Council of the Arts and was National Chairman of the American Cancer Society. SAG gave Peck an award for "outstanding achievement in fostering the finest ideals in the acting profession." He received the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989 and the Cecil B. DeMille Award from the Hollywood Foreign Press in 1968. And perhaps most notably President Johnson echoed the sentiments of moviegoers everywhere when he presented Gregory Peck the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969. The citation read, "an artist who has brought new dignity to the acting profession, Gregory Peck has enriched the lives of millions. He has given his energies, his talents and his devotion to causes which have improved the lives of people. He is an humanitarian to whom Americans are deeply indebted."

by Stephanie Thames

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