Classic Hollywood: Memories of Gregory Peck, 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' and Marilyn Monroe


his is L.A. Times movie writer Susan King, reporting for Classic Hollywood duty. Every Friday, I’ll invite you to celebrate the Golden Age of Hollywood as I report on the latest vintage films -- as well as beloved TV series -- on DVD, famous movie and TV milestones, fun Classic Hollywood happenings around town, and notable births and deaths.

Part of what stokes the huge appetite for all things Classic Hollywood are the legendary, seemingly bigger-than-life stars of that era -- stars who never go out of style.

Today marks the 12th anniversary of the death of one of those Hollywood giants, Gregory Peck, who won an Oscar for his unforgettable performance as Atticus Finch in 1962’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which was directed by Robert Mulligan and produced by Alan J. Pakula.

Peck also starred in such classics as Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 “Spellbound,” 1953’s “Roman Holiday” with Audrey Hepburn -- has there ever been a more beautiful screen couple -- and 1961’s World War II drama “The Guns of Navarone.”

He was also one of my favorite interviews. I got the opportunity to talk to him at the house he shared with his late wife Veronique in 1997 when ABC aired "Mockingbird" on Christmas Day and two years later for the TCM documentary, "A Conversation With Gregory Peck.”

Gregory Peck in 1962's 'To Kill a Mockingbird.' (Universal Studios)

You'll be happy to know that Peck was a true gent, a real Atticus Finch off-screen. He was gracious, funny and thoughtful. He loved Bob Dylan. And we even played baseball and movie trivia.

I asked him in 1997 whether he ever had thought Atticus would become his signature role. And his answer was heartfelt and self-effacing:

“I didn't know that. Mulligan and Pakula acquired the film rights and sent me the novel. Other guys could have played it, but I'm so glad they thought of me first.  I read the book one night, and I couldn't wait to call them in the morning and tell them, 'If you want me, I'd love to do it.'

"It felt good while we made it. It seemed to just fall into place without stress or strain -- the screenplay by Horton Foote was very well-written. When you have that kind of screenplay, it becomes rather easy if you lend yourself to it, and you go along and share the emotions with the character. You always have got to keep a clear head, of course. You can never get so emotional that you get foggy up there [points to his head]. You have to think your way through the part and identify emotionally with the situations and characters.

"I remember seeing a rough cut. I usually have lots of suggestions, and I like to write suggestions. I can badger a director or producer, and have many times, with suggestions for rewrites and certainly suggestions for editing.

So I trot in there with my yellow legal pad, and I watched about 15 minutes, and I just flipped the pad in the air. I didn't want to make any notes. Bob and Alan laughed.”

Here is the L.A. Times obituary of Peck that appeared in the paper on June 13, 2003.

Movie Milestones

It’s hard to believe that Steven Spielberg’s rip-roaring, fun-filled “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” starring Harrison Ford and Karen Allen, opened on June 12, 1981.  A few weeks back, I talked about my obsession with “Star Wars” during the summer of 1977. Well, the same was true 34 years ago with “Raiders.” I ended up seeing “Raiders” five times at the venerable Alex Theatre in Glendale. Of course, I  bought the John Williams soundtrack album, the tie-in book, the posters and the VHS tape as soon as it was released. And time has not diminished the thrill-ride excitement I felt three decades ago.

Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) in 1981's 'Raiders of the Lost Ark.' (Lucasfilm Ltd.)

Sneak Peek

In this Sunday’s Classic Hollywood, I visit the Hollywood Museum in the old Max Factor building on Highland Avenue to see the new “Marilyn Monroe Missing Moments” exhibition, which features her costumes, personal clothes and jewelry, never-before-published photos by Milton H. Greene, furniture, collectibles and even medication found in her house when she died.

A production picture of Marilyn Monroe from 1953's 'Gentleman Prefer Blondes,' on display in 'Marilyn, The Exhibit.' (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Around Town

The first 3-D presentation took place on June 10, 1915, at New York’s Astor Theatre with three one-reelers, including a travelogue of Niagara Falls. The American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre is celebrating the centenary with its “Golden Age of 3-D” retrospective, which ends Sunday. The festival features a selection of classics from the 1950s when Hollywood introduced 3-D to lure people away from television and back into the theaters.

Screening tonight are two Vincent Price horror flicks -- 1953’s “House of Wax” and 1954’s “The Mad Magician.” On tap for Saturday is the restored 1953 MGM musical “Kiss Me Kate” with Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson, and the 1953 melodrama “Miss Sadie Thompson” with Rita Hayworth. The seminal 1954 horror flick  “Creature From the Black Lagoon” is set for Sunday afternoon along with Alfred Hitchcock’s only foray into 3-D, 1954’s “Dial M for Murder.” The 1953 noir thriller “Inferno” is scheduled for Sunday evening.

DVD Vault

Jack Benny was originally cast opposite Walter Matthau in the 1975 comedy “The Sunshine Boys,” which arrives Tuesday on DVD from Warner Archive.  The Herbert Ross-directed film version of Neil Simon’s 1973 Broadway hit revolved around two old feuding vaudeville comedy partners who reunite for a TV appearance. Sadly, Benny was diagnosed with cancer not long after he was cast, and he died in December 1974. It was Benny who recommended  his good friend, fellow comedy legend George Burns, for his role. Despite the fact that Burns hadn’t made a movie since 1939, his comedy timing was impeccable.

When Burns won the supporting actor Oscar for his performance,  he quipped:  “This is all so exciting. I’ve decided to keep making one movie every 36 years. You get to be new again.”

And the Answer Is

Last week, I asked which Oscar-winning actor played Lt. Columbo in the 1962 theatrical production of “Prescription: Murder.” The veteran performer was none other than the wonderful character actor Thomas Mitchell  (he played Scarlett O'Hara's father in "Gone With the Wind). In fact, Columbo was his last role. Mitchell died of cancer at age 70 on Dec. 17, 1962.

From the Hollywood Star Walk

Notable births this week include that of Jim Nabors (June 12); Basil Rathbone (June 13);   Malcolm McDowell (June 13); Gene Barry (June 14); Dorothy McGuire (June 14); Erroll Garner (June 15); Harry Langdon (June 15); Jack Albertson (June 16); Stan Laurel (June 16); and Ralph Bellamy (June 16).

Harry Langdon in 1926's 'Tramp, Tramp, Tramp.' (Kino Video)

For the record

In the June 5 newsletter, we reported that TCM's Summer of Darkness film noir festival would run Fridays and Saturdays through July. The movies will air every Friday.

For more vintage Hollywood, go to the Classic Hollywood Los Angeles Times Facebook page and follow me on Twitter at @mymackie