Gregory Peck, who will be honored tonight as the 17th recipient of the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award, got his first close-up taste of the movies as a child, watching silent comedies being filmed on the beaches of La Jolla, where he grew up.
He was fascinated but not awed, and he viewed the male actors in particular with suspicion. “Lounge lizards,” Peck said during a talk we had a few years ago, smiling as he remembered a wonderful period term.
Possibly because of his feelings about the lizards, acting was not to be his career; medicine was. His father was a pharmacist in La Jolla and Peck admired his work and the esteem in which he was held by the community. But there appears to be no immunity to the acting bug and it caught Peck at Berkeley, where he was doing premed studies.
He switched to the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. In the great tradition, he supported himself between auditions with odd jobs: being a barker at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, a tour guide in Rockefeller Center.
Barred from military service by a sports injury to his spine, he came back to Hollywood and made his first film in 1944. Directed by Jacques Tourneur, “Days of Glory” was a patriotic wartime drama about Russian peasants resisting the Nazis, but its claim on history now is as Peck’s debut.
He was a film natural, lean and classically handsome with a mellifluous and commanding voice. On the screen he often looked pale beneath the black hair and the contrast gave him a brooding intensity that was, however, sympathetic, not alarming, strong rather than menacing.
In an interview with Marshall Berges in The Times’ West magazine years later Peck complained that he liked doing comedy above all things but was seldom given a chance. “Five films out of 50,” he said in 1974.
He was in fact terrific opposite Audrey Hepburn in “Roman Holiday,” the lovely romantic comedy directed by William Wyler in which Peck was a newspaperman, a lounger although surely not a lizard. Peck also received high marks as another newspaperman, married to a high-powered Lauren Bacall in “Designing Woman,” directed by Vincente Minnelli.
But, as difficult as comedy is to do well, actors who do it well are in better supply than actors who can convey stature, heroic nobility and a thoughtful sensitivity. Peck from early times had a career cut out for him as the uncommon man of feeling and honor.
He received the first of his Academy Award nominations for only his second film, “The Keys of the Kingdom,” from A. J. Cronin’s best-selling novel about a missionary priest in China.
There have been subsequent nominations for “The Yearling,” “Gentleman’s Agreement” (Peck again a journalist, this time probing anti-Semitism in a film courageous for its time) and “Twelve O’Clock High” (a wracking story of psychological pressures on wartime fliers).
The Oscar itself came for “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 1962, and Peck’s portrayal of the small-town lawyer in the South, defending a black man on a rape charge, is probably as fine as anything he has ever done, which is saying a good deal. Horton Foote’s adaptation of the Harper Lee novel and Robert Mulligan’s unobtrusive direction were just right, but it was the moral authority Peck brought to the role that gave the film its classic size.
The only other actor who might have brought a comparable authority to the role might have been Henry Fonda, and there are parallels between the two men: their stature, their dignity, their ability to play American Presidents convincingly, their dedication in their private lives to good and sometimes controversial causes.
There are differences--the present tense is appropriate because films live on. Fonda is indefatigably Midwestern, as American as Omaha, with a laconic, homespun aura even in upmarket roles. Peck is somehow the unregional American, the all-encompassing Californian, quite at ease in the surtax brackets. Perhaps a contributing strength of Peck’s performance in “To Kill a Mockingbird” is in fact that he was a less obvious choice to play the part than Fonda would have been.
Peck will be 73 next month, and as he is being honored for a life’s achievements, it is interesting to remember just how varied those achievements have been: the obsessed lover in “Duel in the Sun,” the obsessed, mad Captain Ahab in “Moby Dick,” a wigged-up barrister in Hitchcock’s “The Paradine Case” and--the real sign of the star--the man in the title as well as above it: “Captain Horatio Hornblower,” “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” “The Chairman,” “MacArthur the Rebel General.”
Box-office successes like “The Omen,” in which he had profit participation, have given Peck the freedom not to do roles that look unsatisfying going in. In 1978 he took a fair risk, playing a mad and unrepentant Nazi in “The Boys From Brazil.” Portraying evil incarnate is not Peck’s forte, but by the sheer force of his craft he brought it off.
In 1987 he played the President of the United States in a low-budget, critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful anti-nuclear film called “Amazing Grace and Chuck,” his most recently released film. It was a labor of love for Peck, who worked hard to promote it (and drew rave reviews for his own role as a President who was goodness incarnate). But Peck had less luck with his advocacy of the film than in his commercials opposing the candidacy for the Supreme Court of Judge Robert Bork.
Peck continues to work, extending a screen career that now spans 45 years. He will shortly be seen in “Old Gringo,” in which he co-stars with Jane Fonda. Among his many achievements, Peck has moved up through the decades with a rare and continuous ease.
“I hope there will be older parts for me,” he told Berges years ago. “I don’t resist change. I love the seasons of life. I’m fascinated with the pageant of growing older.”