You hear it time and again: After a lifetime as a movie star, Gregory Peck is a remarkably regular guy. Yes, he clearly enjoys the trappings of success, but he is seemingly unaffected by fame. Now 84, he is polite, engaging and full of humor.
These days, Peck describes himself as retired and focuses much of his energy on his role as honorary chair of the Los Angeles Library Foundation, which supports the L.A. Public Library through a variety of programs, including an innovative project to encourage reading among teens. For the past five years, Peck has produced a series of readings at the library featuring well-known actors; next month, he’s putting on a benefit dinner to raise funds for the foundation.
Peck describes his childhood as somewhat lonely and full of self-doubt. His parents divorced when he was 6, and he was raised, in part, by his grandmother. Still, he developed an early love for books. As soon as he graduated from UC Berkeley, he headed for New York to pursue an acting career, where he was an almost instant success.
Peck was quickly courted by Hollywood, but demurred because he was more interested in the stage. He claims he made Louis B. Mayer cry when the mogul begged him to sign a contract and Peck refused. Eventually. Peck did succumb to the siren’s call of Hollywood, but he did so without signing the then-standard seven-year contract.
It was his role as a small-town lawyer, Atticus Finch, in the film version of Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” that crystallized his image in the public mind as a powerful voice of decency and humanity. In line with that role, Peck has garnered a reputation as one of Hollywood’s leading liberals. He was a vocal anti-nuclear activist and remains a strong proponent of gun control. His political views landed him on Richard M. Nixon’s enemies list, and Ronald Reagan once referred to him as “my former friend.”
Peck is married to former French journalist Veronique Passani. They have a son and daughter; Peck has three sons from a previous marriage. Sitting in an overstuffed chair in his living room, surrounded by paintings and prints by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Raoul Dufy, Peck talked about his long film career, the development of his political views and his love of books and reading.
Question: When you were young, you studied medicine, but after seeing a Broadway play, you dropped your medical ambitions and became an actor. Is that true?
Answer: That’s not at all true. I took premed courses for a couple of years, but I graduated as an English major. I just wasn’t that good at math or science, so I . . . went over to what I really liked, which is literature, reading and writing. I got my library card at the age of 6. I hauled out several books at a time, such fare as “Tom Swift and His Electric Flying Machine.” I was very fond of a series of books about a family of cave dwellers. Then I moved onto “Kidnapped” and books like that. I always read two or three books at the same time, hopping, skipping and jumping from one to another. Right now, I’m reading one called “Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist.” It’s very entertaining, very readable and very revealing. I’m also reading Sidney Portier’s autobiography. . . . Finally, I’ve just started a book about globalization, called “The Lexus and the Olive Tree.”
Q: Do you mostly read nonfiction?
A: Yes, I haven’t read any novels lately. I suppose these days I’m interested more in facts than in fiction.
Q: You’ve had everyone from Norman Lloyd to Billy Bob Thornton reading in your series. How do you go about selecting these people?
A: I just get on the phone and organize it. I always let the actors choose their own material. I hope that people will come, experience these fine actors reading great literature and, in turn, go home and read something. I’m told by many people that is exactly what happens. We rehearse and prepare the material carefully. At the fund-raising dinner [on Nov. 14], Anjelica Huston is reading “You Were Perfectly Fine,” by Dorothy Parker; Jack Lemmon will read monologues from Eugene O’Neil’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”; and Patrick Stewart is going to read from Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward. This will be followed by a series of six evenings of readings at the library.
Q: How were you able, fairly early on as a screen actor, to become independent and work outside of what was then a very rigid contract system?
A: I was on Broadway, and I was in three hit shows. People began to come backstage. I remember Hal Wallis and Louis B. Mayer. Although I was interested in making movies, I was bound and determined to come back to the theater, so I wasn’t willing to sign the standard contract. Eventually, a fellow named Casey Robinson offered me a two-picture contract, and I thought that wasn’t too bad; he also offered me approval of the material. . . . Later, I found that I liked acting for the screen, and I signed for four pictures with David Selznick, four with MGM and another four for 20th Century Fox. Daryl Zanuck offered me “The Keys to the Kingdom,” and I liked the book so much I thought, what the hell, I’ll sign for four pictures. My aim was to pick and choose and do the kinds of roles I really wanted, and that was really unheard of in those days.
Q: You turned down the Gary Cooper role in “High Noon,” because you had just done another Western and didn’t want to do two in a row.
A: That still hurts. I’d done “The Gunfighter,” and I was idealistic in those days. I wanted to vary my roles as much as possible. I felt “The Gunfighter” was too similar to “High Noon.” Anyway, I turned it down, to my great regret.
Q: How have your thoughts about fame evolved over the years?
A:Well, Carole Lombard told me one time that it takes 10 pictures to make a star. I don’t think that is any longer true. . . . Today, a big weekend at the box office will make anybody famous, and they jump up into the $10-million-to-$20-million-per-picture category very quickly. In this regard, I fear I was born 40 years too soon.
Q: Since the dawn of Hollywood, there has been the notion of star quality. Do you think whatever this undefinable quality is has changed?
A: That’s something that is also sometimes called X-quality. I think it is a combination of personality and acting ability. If you ask me my favorite actress of all time, I will tell you that it is Greta Garbo. She shared her emotions with the camera and the audience. They were very truthful emotions. To my mind, she was an early practitioner of the Method. She felt everything she did and had the intelligence to go with it. . . . And that is the key for the audience. If they believe it, then they’ve spent a couple of good hours at the cinema.
Q: It’s easy to think of you as playing someone like Atticus in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But when you play an extremely evil character, such as Josef Mengele in “The Boys From Brazil,” how do you introduce an element of truth to that role?
A: That, you see, was acting. In that particular role, the appearance helped a great deal. I had a nasty little mustache and my hair was blackened. The exterior and the accent helped a lot. . . . Then, of course, there was the idea of working with Sir Laurence Olivier. He was just about “it” in my opinion. . . . I suppose he and Spencer Tracy were my favorite actors.
Q: One could hardly pick two people with greater differences in approach. What was it about Tracy’s acting style that appealed to you?
A: You believed it.
Q: Was that all technique?
A: Concentration. He had total concentration. I saw “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” recently. He’d had a heart attack and knew he wasn’t long for this world, and he put everything he had into that role. Without self-pity. And without showing any effort.
Q: Did you ever feel that you should abstain from expressing certain views because of your fame, or conversely, did you feel that you should use your fame to speak out on issues you felt strongly about?
A: I suppose I have spoken out. I made two pictures about nuclear warfare. I was against it. The first was “On the Beach” and the second was a little picture called “Amazing Grace and Chuck.” I made pictures about discrimination. There was “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” So I think I was among the most outspoken. Not the most, but among the most.
Q: But there is a distinction between choosing roles that you see as a way to express your views as an actor, and expressing them as an individual, as Gregory Peck the man.
A: Yes. There’s nothing wrong with good entertainment, and every film doesn’t have to have a message. I’ve certainly made swashbucklers and comedies and, of course, Westerns. Someone said to me that I could be among the Western stars, so why don’t you stay with it. And I said, because I like to talk, I like to have something to say. In life and in my work, I have spoken out against bigotry and discrimination of any kind. I am for gun control: registration of every single gun. They say that we who are for gun control want to take away hunters’ rifles, or pistols from people who enjoy marksmanship. Nonsense. We want to take guns out of the hands of children and people who are mentally deranged.
Q: Where did you form your political views?
A: I don’t think I was too much aware of things political before I went to New York. My dad was a Hoover Republican, and he was proud of it. . . . But I suppose I picked up my liberal ideas when I went to New York.
Q: What can you tell us about the process of aging?
A: Well, I’m not as wise as I’d hoped to be. There’s obviously more to remember than to look forward to. But I suppose in the end, I am a family man. I like having a 20-month-old grandchild. I like thinking about him. I like thinking about all my grandchildren. In the long term, family is all that counts. The fame and the awards and the nonsense that goes with them fades away. You’re left with a good family and maybe some good works.