Deserved of his iconic status as an American leading man, this handsome and imposing performer built an impressive screen resumé over nearly 50 years, primarily (but hardly exclusively) on winning characterizations of fundamentally decent men looked to as a moral compass. The son of a San Diego druggist, Eldred Gregory Peck’s youthful ambition was to become a doctor, but the acting bug bit hard in the course of his pre-med studies at the University of California at Berkeley. Years later he reminisced about his days at Berkeley, saying, “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.” Peck would later donate $25,000 to the Berkeley rowing crew in honor of his renowned coach, Ky Ebright.
Peck left the West Coast for NYC’s Neighborhood Playhouse, and made his Broadway debut in 1942 as Gregory Peck. By 1944, he accepted his first film role in RKO’s WWII effort, Days Of Glory, which casts him as the commander of a group of Soviet guerrillas battling the Nazis in the Russian wilderness. It took only his second picture, later that year in The Keys Of The Kingdom, to garner the first of five acting Oscar nominations and establish him as a star for his performance in the sweeping religious-themed drama which traced the career of a humble Catholic priest as a missionary in China.
The ensuing decade brought many of his most notable performances. At MGM, he went right to the top by co-starring with Greer Garson in 1945’s The Valley of Decision, a sprawling drama of romance, labor strife, and class differences, set against the backdrop of the Pittsburgh steel industry of the late 1800s. That same year, the Alfred Hitchcock suspense classic Spellbound explored the “prison of the mind,” as new psychiatric hospital head Peck is discovered to be suppressing a dark secret by colleague Ingrid Bergman. In 1946, he continued his streak of major motion pictures as the wise backwoods father in Metro’s adaptation of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling, co-starring Jane Wyman and Claude Jarman, Jr.
Seven years after Gone with the Wind, producer David O. Selznick asked Peck to co-star in his equally grandiose epic set in the Old West, Duel in the Sun, as Lionel Barrymore’s “bad seed” son, feuding for the love of a half-breed Indian girl (Jennifer Jones); and 1947 became a banner year for Peck with a string of high-profile motion pictures: with Gentleman’s Agreement, he was Oscar-nominated for his role in Elia Kazan’s scathing look at anti-semitism, garnering the Oscar for Best Picture of the Year; then, Hitchcock came calling again when Peck starred in the gripping courtroom thriller, The Paradine Case, as a high profile London barrister who finds his career and his marriage in jeopardy when he begins to fall in love with his latest client, a beautiful Italian socialite (Alida Valli) accused of poisoning her blind husband.
The decade continued as Peck became box office gold; in 1949, William Wellman rounded him up as the leader of a band outlaws in a bank robbery, then seeks refuge in a deserted Arizona town known as Yellow Sky, finding greed and avarice in the likes of tomboy Anne Baxter and her prospector grandfather, who seeks the stolen loot along with ornery Richard Widmark. He ended the 1940s with his iconic action movie, Twelve O’Clock High and helped Dean Jagger win his career Oscar. Actual combat footage and a dramatic look at the burdens of command highlight this classic WWII tale set at an Allied air base in England with Peck as the hard-nosed general who turns the men into a crack flying unit. With all of his accolades, Peck’s finest work was yet to come.
In The Gunfighter in 1950, one of the first of the ’50s “adult westerns,” Gregory Peck was a weary gunslinger who, after killing a man in self-defense, attempts to convince his estranged wife to reunite with him. Along the way, he discovers that he can’t escape his notorious reputation as the “fastest draw in the land.” In the lavish adaptation of C.S. Forester’s novel, the thrilling adventure saga Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951), Peck continued to command as a British naval officer caught in the crossfire between the Spanish, the French and a Central American dictator during the Napoleonic Wars.
Then, in Only the Valiant, Peck was a rigid Cavalry captain who alienates the men under his command after sending a popular young lieutenant on a suicide mission; David and Bathsheba (1952), the Biblical tale of forbidden love and betrayal, was given Hollywood’s epic treatment, with an all-star cast that included Peck as the troubled King of Israel; followed by the Raoul Walsh helmed The World in His Arms, a rousing adventure with Peck and rival Anthony Quinn racing to save an abducted Russian countess (Ann Blyth), betting their bounty and their ships on the outcome; and in the powerhouse actioner The Snows of Kilimanjaro based on Ernest Hemingway’s classic short story, Peck starred as a frustrated author and big game hunter who is critically injured during a safari in Africa, reflecting upon his failures, regrets and lost loves.
In 1953, Gregory Peck was superb in Roman Holiday as a hard-bitten newspaperman planning to get a story out of beautiful Audrey Hepburn, a runaway princess traveling incognito in the Eternal City — but winds up falling in love with her. He couldn’t have known at the time that his good working relationship with award-winning director William Wyler would deteriorate just five years later; Mark Twain’s Man With a Million and 1954’s cold war thriller, Night People followed. He entered his middle years with efforts like the captivating World War II drama, The Purple Plain, as a Royal Air Force pilot, grief-stricken following his wife’s death during the Blitz, but after crashing in the Burmese jungle, realizes how strong his will to live is as he leads two wounded companions through enemy territory.
Peck was on fire from then on with major successes such as Nunnally Johnson’s 1956 take on Sloan Wilson’s classic look at middle-class life in the 1950s, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, playing a Madison Avenue executive who questions the future of his marriage, his integrity and his past as a soldier in Europe during World War II. Herman Melville’s classic tale of obsession and revenge, Moby Dick captivated audiences in 1956 when John Huston directed a screenplay he co-wrote with Ray Bradbury in an electrifying fashion. Peck delivered a stellar performance as Captain Ahab, commander of a whaling boat who risks his ship and crew in his relentless pursuit of the great white whale that took his leg; and it was the less serious of Peck moviegoers enjoyed as he and Lauren Bacall sparred with each other in Designing Woman.
In 1958, Peck returned to the world of Westerns with his first of two in 1958: in the powerful drama of frontier justice, The Bravados, he starred as the man out to catch four outlaws he believes were responsible for assaulting and killing his wife, only to learn that his vigilante actions come at a terrible cost. Although a serious film, trivia buffs might be interested in seeing “Curly Joe” De Rita as a hangman.
His next film, The Big Country, from his own production company, didn’t turn out the way he envisioned it when he and respected director William Wyler locked horns enough times during filming that Peck walked off the set. His agent coaxed him back but he and Wyler didn’t speak after that. Luckily the public didn’t know about any of their squabbles and saw an epic story about a sea captain who retires to what he thinks will be a quiet life on the frontier and a happy marriage, only to find himself in the middle of a range war. (Get the full behind-the-scenes story of this great film in Victoria Balloon’s insightful articles “The Big Country: For People Who Don’t Like Cowboy Movies” and “The Big Country: A Big Mess“).
Another popular war-themed drama for Peck in ’59 was the compelling Pork Chop Hill directed by Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front), telling the story of the final days of the Korean War as an American battalion fights to maintain a strategic position. Also in 1959, he was F. Scott Fitzgerald in Beloved Infidel and Stanley Kramer enlisted Peck for his classic all-star doomsday chiller On the Beach, set in Melbourne, Australia, in 1964, where five people contemplate their fate after a nuclear war; then, two years later he pulled out all the stops for his outstanding performance in the tense, Oscar-winning special effects of the WWII suspenser based on Alistair MacLean’s The Guns of Navarone, when Peck leads a squad of Allied commandos whose mission is to disable a powerful Nazi cannon battery on a remote island.
Cape Fear was his next project; the Southern backwoods become a setting for suspense and shock, as sadistic ex-con Robert Mitchum tracks down lawyer Peck and his family for vengeance. It was originally titled “The Extremists” but Peck changed the name after looking at a map and picked out the North Carolina location as the name. Years later, Peck spoke about his experience making the film with Mitchum as his co-star and confided, “I had given him the role and had paid him a terrific amount of money. It was obvious he had the better role. I thought he would understand that, but he apparently thought he acted me off the screen. I didn’t think highly of him for that.” Cape Fear was later remade by Martin Scorsese in 1991, in which both Peck and Mitchum had cameo roles. Although the film attained tremendous popularity years later, it was this film’s poor returns at the box office in 1962 that spelled doom for Peck’s production company, Melville Productions. The same year, when Cinerama was in its heyday, Peck gladly added his name to the star-studded sprawling story of three generations of 19th-century pioneers, and their odyssey from New England to the frontier in the true western classic How the West was Won.
However 1962’s To Kill A Mockingbird (for which he won the Best Actor Oscar) is the film that changed his public image forever, when he took the starring in the dramatic look at life in the ’30s South, as seen through the eyes of two children whose father defends a black man charged with raping a white woman. Peck’s character, Atticus Finch, was named for author Harper Lee’s mother’s maiden name and 40 years later was voted as the top screen hero of the last 100 years by the American Film Institute. He spoke about his role a few years later: “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.” Although To Kill a Mockingbird was his favorite film of all his work, what is probably the most interesting aspect of his performance is that he was not the first choice for the role — having originally been offered to Rock Hudson.
Peck returned to the dramatic comedy genre in Captain Newman, M.D. (1963) as a WWII Army psychiatrist attempting to treat his traumatized and battle-fatigued charges. In ’64, he was a commander for the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War who encounters his old nemesis, diabolical police chief Anthony Quinn, in Behold a Pale Horse and was perfect in the fast-paced thriller, Mirage (1965), as everything seems to revolve around amnesiac accountant Peck, and draws him into a dangerous global conspiracy; tongue-in-cheek James Bondian adventures were a natural for Gregory Peck portraying a language professor hired to decipher a secret code outwitting paid assassins in Stanley Donen’s Arabesque (1966) with alluring co-star Sophia Loren.
By the end of the ’60s, his film projects were more middling, and other responsibilities such as his numerous charitable pursuits and the presidency of AMPAS took up more of his time. In 1968, he was a a retired frontier scout who agrees to help Eva Marie Saint and her half-breed son escape from their Apache captors in The Stalking Moon and followed with another sprawling frontier adventure in 1969’s star-laden Mackenna’s Gold as a sheriff who is given a map, said to show the location of a large cache of gold hidden in a valley, and soon finds he’s the target of every fortune hunter in the West; then he switched gears to thrilling Cold War action when, as an American scientist in The Chairman, he is sent behind the Bamboo Curtain to spy on a Chinese agricultural experiment that will let crops grow in any environment; and finished the decade in Marooned, a science-fiction drama about a three-man team of American astronauts who are stranded in orbit 200 miles above the Earth when their ship’s engines fail.
The seventies brought less roles of interest and Peck worked only sporadically. In John Frankenheimer’s gripping drama, I Walk The Line, as a small-town sheriff, Peck finds his moral integrity strained and his devotion to his wife and job in jeopardy when he becomes obsessed with the fetching young daughter (Tuesday Weld) of a local moonshiner; then back on horseback he starred in two offbeat westerns: Shootout (1971) and in ’74, Peck teamed up with half-Indian boy Billy Two Hats (Desi Arnaz, Jr.) for a bank robbery that leaves Billy captured by the law, leaving Peck to plan the escape.
Peck saw a renaissance in the late ’70s with The Omen (1976), a chilling horror classic, bizarre circumstances lead Peck to believe that his young son Damien may well be the prophesied Antichrist, Satan’s ruler on Earth; in 1977, although he did not necessarily admire Gen. Douglas MacArthur, he was fascinated enough to portray him in MacArthur, the impressive, action-packed account of one of the most controversial public figures of the century; and for only the second time in his career to play a scoundrel, he appeared in The Boys From Brazil (1978), the gripping thriller about the plans of Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele (Peck) to create a new Hitler through a sinister global conspiracy.
In the 1980s, Peck became even more selective about his roles and in 1980, starred in an edge-of-your-seat WWII true story, The Sea Wolves, following a group of former British intelligence officers who come out of retirement to destroy three German freighters that are supplying information to the Nazis. When Peck finally turned to world of TV, he did it in grandiose fashion. First, in The Blue and the Gray (1982), about the war that shattered the nation, he starred as Abraham Lincoln; then in ’83 in the exciting WWII true life drama, The Scarlet and the Black, Peck starred as a Vatican official who hides escaped POWs and refugees from the Gestapo under the eyes of German officers.
Peck delivered a great turn as Ambrose Bierce in 1989’s epic historical tale, The Old Gringo; then, in ’91, Peck excelled as the company patriarch whose empire is being destroyed in a hostile takeover, when he plans to out-smart the slimy “liquidators” in Norman Jewison’s savage satire of corporate greed, Other People’s Money; and his last foray in a major motion picture on the big screen was his cameo in the ’91 remake of Cape Fear. In 1993, he appeared with his old friend Lauren Bacall in the made-for-TV movie, The Portrait and made a cameo appearance in the TV remake of Moby Dick in 1998.
During his life in the public eye, Peck was the recipient of Academy Awards and Golden Globes and also received the Academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1967. He spoke about the humbling experience and said, “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.” He was also awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, given him by President Lyndon Johnson in 1969, rumored to be a replacement for an Ambassadorship to Ireland, which would have come to fruition, had Johnson run for a second term. In 1999, Peck was named among the Greatest Male Stars of All Time by the American Film Institute, proudly filling spot #12.
He left a legacy to all young actors who will follow him by stating, “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.” Always politically progressive, Gregory Peck was active in such causes as anti-war protests, workers’ rights and civil rights. He died at age 87, in his sleep at home in June 2003.
And now, see Peck at his peak in these scenes from the 1951 theatrical trailer for Captain Horatio Hornblower: