Gregory Peck (April 5, 1916 - June 12, 2003) was an Oscar-winning American film actor. He was one of the most popular film stars from the 1940s to the 1970s, and played important roles well into the 1990s. He is perhaps best known for his portrayal of Atticus Finch in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, for which he won an Academy Award. He was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his lifetime humanitarian efforts.
In 1999, the American Film Institute named Peck among the Greatest Male Stars of All Time, ranking at No. 12.
Born Eldred Gregory Peck in La Jolla, California, Peck was the son of Bernice Ayres (a Missouri-born convert to Catholicism) and Gregory Peck (a chemist/pharmacist of Irish-Catholic maternal descent and English paternal ancestry). Gregory's paternal grandmother, Catherine Ashe, was related to the Irish patriot Thomas Ashe, who took part in the Easter Rising less than three weeks after Peck's birth and died while on a hunger strike in 1917. Despite their strict Catholic religion, Peck's parents divorced when he was five and he was reared by his grandmother.
Peck was sent to a Roman Catholic military school in Los Angeles at the age of 10 and then attended San Diego High School. When he graduated, he enrolled at San Diego State University to improve his grades so that he could earn admission to his first-choice college, the University of California, Berkeley. For a short time, he took a job driving a truck for an oil company. In 1936, he enrolled as a pre-med student at UC Berkeley, majoring in English.
Since he was 6'3" and very strong, he also decided to row on the university crew. He developed an interest in acting and was recruited by Edwin Duerr, director of the school's Little Theater. He went on to appear in five plays during his senior year. Although his tuition fee was only $26 a year, Peck still struggled to pay, and had to work as a "hasher" (kitchen helper) for the Alpha Gamma Delta sorority in exchange for meals. Peck would later say about Berkeley that, "it was a very special experience for me and three of the greatest years of my life. It woke me up and made me a human being." In 1997 he donated $25,000 to the Berkeley crew team in honor of his coach, Ky Ebright.
After graduating in 1939 from Berkeley with a BA degree in English, Peck dropped the name "Eldred" and headed to New York City to study at the Neighborhood Playhouse. He was often broke and sometimes slept in Central Park. He worked at the World's Fair, as a Radio City Music Hall tour guide, and as a catalog model for Montgomery Ward.
He made his Broadway debut as the lead in Emlyn Williams' The Morning Star in 1942. His second Broadway performance that year was in The Willow and I with Edward Pawley. Peck's acting abilities were in high demand during World War II, since he was exempt from military service owing to a back injury suffered while receiving dance and movement lessons from Martha Graham as part of his acting training. Twentieth Century Fox claimed he had injured his back while rowing at university, but in Peck's words, "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's first film was Days of Glory, released in 1944. Though many critics initially dismissed Peck's acting as wooden, he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor five times, four of which came in his first five years of film acting: for The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), The Yearling (1946), Gentleman's Agreement (1947), and Twelve O'Clock High (1949).
Each of these early films introduced an aspect of Peck's persona, establishing him, by the end of the 1940s, as the quintessential leading man. The Keys of the Kingdom emphasized his stately presence. As Penny Barker in The Yearling, he beamed good-humored warmth and affection toward the characters playing his son and wife, confounding critics who had been insisting he was a lifeless performer. Duel in the Sun (1946) showed his range as an actor in his first "against type" role as a cruel, libidinous gunslinger. Gentleman's Agreement established his power in the "social conscience" genre in a film that took on the deep-seated but subtle anti-Semitism of mid-century corporate America. Twelve O'Clock High was the first of many successful war films in which Peck embodied the brave, effective, yet human fighting man.
His three biggest films of the 1950s were Roman Holiday (1953), in which he all but defined the tall, dark and handsome romantic lead, Moby Dick (1956), in which he tied the strong knot between classic American literature and film, and On the Beach (1959), a film that brought to life the potential terrors of global nuclear war. However, it was not until the early 1960s that Peck's mastery of his craft would intersect with an equally masterful script.
Peck won the Academy Award for his fifth nomination, playing the role of Atticus Finch, a Depression-era lawyer and widowed father, in the film adaptation of the Harper Lee novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Released in 1962 during the height of the US civil rights movement in the South, this movie and his role were Peck's favorite. In 2003, Atticus Finch was named the top film hero of the past 100 years by the American Film Institute. His other popular films include The Guns of Navarone, the war film where he starred with David Niven and Anthony Quinn, and Roman Holiday, in which he appeared as a reporter alongside Audrey Hepburn in her Oscar-winning film debut. Peck and Hepburn were close friends until her death, and Peck even introduced her to her first husband, Mel Ferrer.
In 1947, while many Hollywood figures were being blacklisted for similar activities, he signed a letter deploring a House Un-American Activities Committee investigation of alleged communists in the film industry.
In 1949, Peck, Mel Ferrer and Dorothy McGuire founded The La Jolla Playhouse at his birthplace. This local community theater and landmark (now in a new home at the University of California, San Diego) still thrives today. It has attracted Hollywood film stars on hiatus both as performers and enthusiastic supporters since its inception.
He served as the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1967, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the American Film Institute from 1967 to 1969, Chairman of the Motion Picture and Television Relief Fund in 1971, and National Chairman of the American Cancer Society in 1966. He was a member of the National Council on the Arts from 1964 to 1966. President Richard Nixon placed Peck on his enemies list due to his liberal activism.
A lifelong supporter of the Democratic Party, Peck was suggested in 1970 as a possible Democratic candidate to run against Ronald Reagan for the office of Governor of California. Gregory Peck encouraged one of his sons, Carey Peck, to run for political office. Carey was defeated both times he tried for Congress, in 1978 and in 1980, by Republican Congressman Robert K. Dornan, both times by slim margins.
In an interview with the Irish media, Peck revealed that former President Lyndon Johnson had told him that, had he sought re-election, he intended to offer Peck the post of US ambassador to Ireland — a post Peck, due to his Irish ancestry, said he might well have taken, saying, "it would have been a great adventure."
He was outspoken against the Vietnam War, while remaining supportive of his son, Stephen, who was fighting there. In 1972, Peck produced the film version of Daniel Berrigan's play The Trial of the Catonsville Nine about the prosecution of a group of Vietnam protesters for civil disobedience. Despite his initial reluctance to portray the controversial General Douglas MacArthur on screen, he did so in 1977 and ended up with a great admiration for the man.
Though so well known and loved, he was not above all criticism. Pauline Kael described him as "competent but always a little boring." Even those greatly admiring him would admit to a touch of stiffness in certain roles. Yet these qualities may have been a necessary trade-off for the iconic status he reached, and he may have known it.
A physically powerful man, he was known to do a majority of his own fight scenes, rarely using body or stunt doubles. In fact, Robert Mitchum, his on screen opponent in Cape Fear, often said that Peck once accidentally punched him for real during their final fight scene in the movie. He said that he felt the impact of the punch for days afterwards and said, "I don't feel sorry for anyone dumb enough who picks a fight with him."
Gregory Peck was married twice and had five children. He had three sons by his first wife, Greta Kukkonen, and a son and daughter by his second wife, Veronique Passani. Children with Kukkonen: Jonathan (b. 1944 - d. 1975), Stephen (b. 1945) and Carey Paul (b. 1949). Children with Veronique Passani: Tony (b. 1956) and Cecilia (b. 1958). In 1975, Peck's 30 year-old son Jonathan, a television news reporter, committed suicide by gunshot.
Peck owned the thoroughbred steeplechase racehorse Different Class which raced in England. The horse was the favorite for the 1968 Grand National but finished third.
Gregory Peck was close friend with French president Chirac, who stated on his death, "Depuis de nombreuses années, il était pour moi un ami très cher." meaning "For numerous years, he was a very dear friend of mine."
He was of Armenian, British, Scottish, and Irish heritage.
Later life and career
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 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, having received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in 1989, and Crystal Globe award for outstanding artistic contribution to world cinema in 1996.
In 2000, Peck was made a Doctor of Letters by the National University of Ireland. He was a founding patron of the University College Dublin School of Film, where he persuaded Martin Scorsese to become an honorary patron.
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.
In early 2003, Gregory Peck was offered the role of Grandpa Joe in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He said he'd seriously consider it. He was looking forward to playing Grandpa Joe which he considered "the greatest swan song of them all," but he died before he could accept.
On June 12, 2003, Peck died in his sleep from cardiorespiratory arrest and bronchial pneumonia at the age of 87 in Los Angeles. 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. In November 2005, the star was stolen. It has been replaced with a new one.
Peck was nominated for five Academy Awards, one of which was successful. He was nominated in 1946 for The Keys of the Kingdom, in 1947 for The Yearling, in 1948 for Gentleman's Agreement, and in 1950 for Twelve O'Clock High. He won the Oscar in 1963 for To Kill a Mockingbird. In 1948, he was awarded with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
Peck received several Golden Globes. He won in 1947 for The Yearling, in 1963 for To Kill a Mockingbird, and in 1999 for Moby Dick. He received the Cecil B. DeMille Award in 1969, and was given the Henrietta Award in 1951 and 1955 for World Film Favorite - Male.
In 1969, Lyndon Johnson honored Peck with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award by a President.
In 1971, the Screen Actors Guild awarded Peck with the SAG Life Achievement Award. In 1989, the American Film Institute gave Peck the AFI Life Achievement Award.
Inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in 1979.
"I put everything I had into it – all my feelings and everything I'd learned in 46 years of living, about family life and fathers and children. And my feelings about racial justice and inequality and opportunity." - on his role as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird
"They say the bad guys are more interesting to play but there is more to it than that - playing the good guys is more challenging because it's harder to make them interesting."
"I'm not a do-gooder. It embarrassed me to be classified as a humanitarian. I simply take part in activities that I believe in."
"You have to dream, you have to have a vision, and you have to set a goal for yourself that might even scare you a little because sometimes that seems far beyond your reach. Then I think you have to develop a kind of resistance to rejection and to the disappointments that are sure to come your way."
"It just seems silly to me that something so right and simple has to be fought for at all." - speaking at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation Awards
"You made the right choice, kiddo!" - Peck's tongue-in-cheek response when he discovered that his second wife, the French journalist Veronique Passani, had passed up an opportunity to interview Albert Schweitzer at a lunch hosted by Jean Paul Sartre in order to go out on a date with Peck.
"I just do things I really enjoy. I enjoy acting. When I'm driving to the studio, I sing in the car. I love my work and my wife and my kids and my friends. And I think, 'You're a lucky man, Gregory Peck, a damn lucky man.'"
"Gregory Peck is the hottest thing in town. Some say he is a second Gary Cooper. Actually, he is the first Gregory Peck."
"I don't lecture and I don't grind any axes. I just want to entertain."
"Faith is a force, a powerful force. To me, it's been like an anchor to windward - something that's seen me through troubled times and some personal tragedies and also through the good times and success and the happy times."
"Faith gives you an inner strength and a sense of balance and perspective in life."
"I had that stubborn streak, the Irish in me I guess."
"Inside of all the makeup and the character, it's you, and I think that's what the audience is really interested in... you, how you're going to cope with the situation, the obstacles, the troubles that the writer put in front of you."
"In art there is compassion, in compassion there is humanity, with humanity there is generosity and love," Brock Peters said.
"Ramon, whatever happens, it's strictly between you and me and the horse."
"There we were, hundreds of us lined up, waving at the great man as he tipped his hat to us. And that is the extent of my acquaintance with Albert Einstein."
"Tough times don't last; tough people do, remember?"
"My feeling about him is that the America that we have today, the freedoms we enjoy and the privileges we have, are really the reflection of Abe Lincoln's convictions, his vision, and his toughness."
"I never liked the name Eldred. Since nobody knew me in New York, I just changed to my middle name."
"What did I do in high school? I grew from 5 feet 4 inches to 6 feet 2 inches."
"Thank you, Harper Lee."
Singer/Songwriter Bob Dylan mentions Peck several times in the song "Brownsville Girl." Among the lyrical references: "Well, I'm standin' in line in the rain to see a movie starring Gregory Peck...I'll see him in anything so I'll stand in line."
Writer Maddox mentions Gregory Peck as being a "man's man" in one his posts detailing real men and their accomplishments.
Gregory Peck is parodied in the Family Guy episode "Saving Private Brian." He is shown with his three kids on a car trip who all look and sound like him wearing different colored sweaters (a.k.a. Donald Duck and his nephews).
Peck twice appeared in remakes of movies in which he'd starred. In the 1991 remake of Cape Fear, he played the drunken defense lawyer, Lee Heller. In the 1998 TV remake of Moby Dick, he plays the preacher, Father Mapple.
His earliest movie memory was of being so scared by The Phantom of the Opera (1925) at age 9 that his grandmother allowed him to sleep in the bed with her that night.
Claiming he was worried about the 600,000 jobs hanging on the survival of the Chrysler Corporation, he volunteered to become an unpaid TV pitchman for the company in 1980.
He took in former co-star Ava Gardner's housekeeper and dog after her death in 1990.
Was President of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences during the late 1960s. He was the one who decided to postpone the 1968 Oscar ceremony after Martin Luther King's assassination.
Marched with Martin Luther King.
Chosen by producer Darryl F. Zanuck for the epic film David and Bathsheba (1951) because Zanuck thought Peck had a "Biblical face."
Brock Peters delivered his eulogy on the day of his funeral and burial, June 16, 2003.
Was the first native Californian to win an Academy Award for Best Actor.
Cited that his favorite leading ladies were Audrey Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, and Ava Gardner.
He had always wanted to do a Disney movie.
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