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Submitted by Roger Mellor
The Telegraph; June 13th 2003
Gregory Peck, the film actor who has died aged 87, appeared on the screen
as the epitome of male virtue.
Tall, dark, handsome and romantic, he stood for goodness, decency, sobriety and sound sense - to an extent that risked appearing dull. It was true that Peck could seem wooden, while the cynical complained of his complacency, blandness and political correctness. "When I'm wrongly cast," he himself admitted, "I sink with the ship."
But a film had to be very bad indeed to undermine his appeal at the box office. From the 1940s to the 1980s he was the star of nearly every film he played in.
Certain parts stand out. In Roman Holiday (1953) Peck was at his most beguiling as an American journalist who determines to get a story from Audrey Hepburn's princess, but who is unable, when it comes to the point, to betray the romance of their encounter.
Audrey Hepburn was relatively unknown when they made the film, but Peck was so impressed by her performance that he insisted that she should receive equal billing. Forty years later, after her death, he showed that his feelings had not died when he paid tribute to her at the Oscar ceremonies of 1993.
Peck himself was nominated five times for an Oscar, for his roles in The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), The Yearling (1946), Gentleman's Agreement (1947), Twelve O'Clock High (1949) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Only on the last occasion did he carry off the prize. The part of the liberal Southern lawyer battling racial prejudice in the film of Harper Lee's novel might have been written specially for him.
But Peck's effortless ability to radiate nobility and integrity against the odds carried with it the inference that there might be imperfections in the American way of life. Under President Nixon he received the supreme accolade of being listed by the White House as an enemy, though President Johnson, awarding him the Medal of Freedom in 1969, had called him "a humanitarian to whom Americans are deeply indebted".
Not that Peck always played the prince of virtue. In Duel in the Sun (1946) he was the leering and sardonic seducer of Jennifer Jones; in The Great Sinner (1949), a film inspired at some remove by Dostoevsky, he appeared as a young writer who becomes a compulsive gambler.
He made a respectable stab at Captain Ahab in Moby Dick (1956), and in The Boys from Brazil (1978) even attempted an out-and-out villain - a Nazi in hiding from Jewish revenge but still harbouring schemes of world domination.
Yet the quintessential Peck invariably gave the impression of being under moral stress. He excelled at portraying a conscience at work, and the audience were never surprised when he finally came to the righteous conclusion.
Twelve O'Clock High (1949) presented him dithering traumatically as the commander of an American bomber unit who is obliged to send his crews to their deaths over Nazi Germany. In The Gunfighter (1950) he was superb as Johnny Ringo, at once weary of shooting upstarts less quick on the draw and haunted by the eventual certainty of death at the hands of a younger man.
There were other good Westerns. In Yellow Sky (1948) Peck was the leader of a gang of robbers - albeit one that reformed by the end of the film - who are chased into a salt flat after holding up a bank. Though tortured with fatigue and thirst, and decidedly short on words, he remained every inch the man in charge.
In The Big Country (1958) he displayed moral grit by refusing all manner of provocation, and physical grit when he finally becomes involved in savage fisticuffs with Charlton Heston. The plot of the film turned on a battle for land - a subject dear to Peck, who acquired no fewer than seven cattle ranches.
He was still enduring against the odds in The Stalking Moon (1969), when he played a US Army General who retires to the New Mexico ranch which he has bought unseen by mail order. Other, less remarkable Westerns in which he appeared were Only the Valiant (1950), The Bravados (1958, with Joan Collins), How the West Was Won (1963), McKenna's Gold (1969), I Walk the Line (1970), Shootout (1971) and Billy Two Hats (1974).
For all his toughness and integrity on screen, in real life Peck was one of those heart-throbs who complain of insecurity and lack of self- confidence. Certainly, his early career did not give much cause for it.
Eldred Gregory Peck was born on April 5 1916 at La Jolla, California. His paternal grandmother Catherine Ashe had been born in Co Kerry in 1864, emigrated to America at the age of 16, and married Samuel Peck, of English descent. Though her husband died young, she subsequently made a considerable sum selling corsets, and was able to give her son Gregory (the film star's father) $10,000 to set up a drugstore at La Jolla.
Gregory senior married a girl from St Louis, who was obliged to become Roman Catholic. But soon after Gregory junior was born, the drugstore went bankrupt, the marriage failed, and his mother took him back to St Louis. Later he was returned to La Jolla, where he was brought up by his father and by grandparents.
After schooling at San Diego High School and St John's Military Academy, Los Angeles, young Gregory began to read Medicine at the University of California at Berkeley; but he soon switched subjects and took a degree in English. His free time was divided between rowing (at which he represented the university) and acting.
In 1939 Peck moved to New York to train at the Playhouse School of Dramatics. In 1941 he joined the Cape Playhouse at Cape Cod in 1941, and the following season he played on Broadway opposite Jill Esmond (Laurence Olivier's first wife) in Emlyn Williams's Morning Star. But when Peck took a screen test in 1941 he did not impress. "He photographs like Abe Lincoln," commented David Selznick, "but if he has a great personality, I don't think it comes through in the tests."
Peck decided that his future lay in the theatre. But a spinal injury kept him out of the Second World War, and in the absence of contemporaries who had been called up, he was employed to appear as a Russian partisan in Days of Glory (1944), opposite the Russian ballerina Tamara Toumanavia. The fee of $1,000 a week helped him to forget his devotion to the theatre.
Peck put in a serviceable performance, but made far more of an impression as Father Chisholm in The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), from A J Cronin's novel which traces the life of a Roman Catholic missionary in China. Nominated for an Oscar, he was suddenly in demand from all quarters.
Peck played a handsome steel magnate in The Valley of Decision (1945) opposite Greer Garson; an amnesiac head of a mental hospital cured by Ingrid Bergman's psychiatrist in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945); and a father who is obliged to kill his boy's pet deer in The Yearling (1946).
In Gentleman's Agreement (1947) Peck posed as a Jew and a journalist to root out racial prejudice in a series of indignant magazine articles. The film established him among the top 10 stars of America - and no one received more fan mail.
"Let me spend the night with you," women would write. "It would make my dreams come true." "I'm all booked up," his secretary was instructed to reply.
In Hitchcock's The Paradine Case (1947) Peck showed refreshing signs of moral frailty as a British barrister, whose judgment is disastrously warped by his beautiful client (Alida Valli), on trial for murdering her husband.
Peck donned a tricorn hat for Captain Horatio Hornblower RN (1951); remained at sea in The World in his Arms (1952), this time as a seal pirate in the Bering Straits; took on the male lead in David and Bathsheba (1951), a film which, according to one critic, gained "hardly a single intentional laugh"; and appeared as a wounded hunter looking back over his life in The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), a hugely popular film based on various writings by Ernest Hemingway.
The Purple Plain (1955) gave Peck the opportunity to display his quietly confident heroics after his aircraft came down in the Burmese jungle. In The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) Peck was a New York executive who looks back on wartime adultery before deciding that his first loyalty lies with wife and children. Then came Designing Woman (1957), a comedy in which Lauren Bacall tips a plate of spaghetti in his lap.
Various military escapades followed - as a platoon commander with a conscience (as usual) in The Pork Chop Hill (1959), as an honourable soldier in The Guns of Navarone (1958) and as a submarine commander on the brink of nuclear war and Ava Gardner in On the Beach (1959).
In civilian dress he attempted, disastrously, to impersonate Scott Fitzgerald in Beloved Infidel (1959); and he found himself menaced by Robert Mitchum in the determinedly unpleasant Cape Fear (1962).
To Kill a Mocking Bird (1962) was Peck's last great film. The comedy Captain Newman MD (1963), in which he played opposite Tony Curtis, failed to catch fire; and Behold a Pale Horse (1964) presented him, unconvincingly, as a Spanish loyalist.
The comedy thrillers, Mirage (1965) and Arabesque (with Sophia Loren, 1966) represented some improvement, but The Most Dangerous Man in the World (1969), in which Peck played a scientist on a mission to Red China, was a feeble offering. Marooned (1970), which found him as a space mission controller, was an even bigger flop.
In the mid-1970s Peck turned unsuccessfully to producing. It was perhaps in desperation that he accepted a part that Charlton Heston had rejected in The Omen (1976). As the American ambassador in London, he is persuaded that he has to stab to death his (adopted) boy, who is demonically possessed, on a sacrificial altar with a special set of daggers.
In MacArthur the Rebel General (1977), Peck played the soldier who loses his command rather than conform to presidential orders; he caught MacArthur's intelligence but not the general's overweening pride and lunacy.
Peck essayed a British accent in Sea-Wolves (1980), directing a raid by fellow veterans of the Calcutta Light Horse on a German spy ship. In Amazing Grace and Chuck (1987) he played the American president, while in Old Gringo (1989) he attempted a portrait of the American satirist Ambrose Bierce, who vanished in New Mexico during the Revolution of 1914.
Having avoided television for much of his career he turned up in The Blue and the Grey (1982) and The Scarlet and The Black (1983). He appeared again in The Portrait (1993) and in 1998, he returned to Moby Dick, playing the part of Father Mapple in a television adaptation of the novel.
On the big screen his late appearances included the modern version of Cape Fear (1991), directed by Martin Scorsese, this time playing a shady lawyer called Lee Heller; the same year he appeared in Other People's Money. Two years later, he took the part of Atticus Finch in the short film Passage a l'acte, which dealt with an American family warring at the breakfast table.
From 1967 to 1970 Peck was President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He was also chairman of the trustees of the American Film Institute, which he had helped to found, and in 1966 served as chairman of the American Cancer Society. An active supporter of the campaign to strengthen regional theatre in the United States, he was a member of the American National Council on the Arts.
Gregory Peck married first, in 1942, Greta Konen Rice, a Finnish screen hairdresser; they divorced in 1954. They had three sons, one of whom died in 1975.
He married secondly, in 1955, Veronique Passani, whom he had met when she interviewed him for France Soir. When he telephoned her at Paris Presse a few months later to suggest a visit to the races, she abandoned an interview with Albert Schweitzer to accept. They had a son and a daughter.
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