From the Archives: Gregory Peck Was ‘Last Aristocrat’ of Hollywood Golden Era

Times Staff Writers

Academy Award winner Gregory Peck, one of Hollywood’s best-loved actors, whose characters embodied a gentle dignity, heroism and compassion for the underdog in such films as “To Kill a Mockingbird,” died early Thursday at his home in Los Angeles.

Peck, who was 87, died about 4 a.m., with his wife, Veronique, at his bedside, according to family spokesman Monroe Friedman.

“He wasn’t feeling well,” Friedman said. “She told me she went to him and held his hand and he looked at her and closed his eyes and was gone.”


Friedman denied reports that Peck had been in ill health or had suffered a stroke. “He had not been gravely ill,” Friedman said. “He was certainly getting older and showing his years.”

Over the course of nearly six decades, Peck had been a major star and top box office draw. He was classically handsome — tall, lean and chiseled — his voice a sonorous mix of strength and tenderness.

Last week, the American Film Institute named Atticus Finch of “To Kill a Mockingbird” — the performance for which Peck won an Oscar in 1962 — the top screen hero in Hollywood history.

“He was the last of the true aristocrats of the old Hollywood,” said Frank Pierson, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an organization Peck once led. “We all miss that time.”

Although a young, beginning actor, Peck was nominated for a best actor Oscar four times early in his career — as a missionary in China in “The Keys of the Kingdom” (1944), a taciturn father in “The Yearling” (1946), a reporter battling anti-Semitism in “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947), and as a psychologically tormented aviator in “Twelve O’Clock High” (1949). But it wasn’t until he portrayed an older, white Southern lawyer defending a black man accused of rape in “To Kill a Mockingbird” that he took home an Oscar.

“I’ve often joked that my obituary would read ‘Academy Award-winner for [ ... “Mockingbird”],’ ” Peck told an interviewer in 1989 on the release of his 53rd film, the unsuccessful “Old Gringo.”


And, he added, “I’ll settle for that.”

In 1967, he received the academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and in 1989, the life achievement award of the American Film Institute, which he helped create. The same year, he won a special prize honoring his career from the Cannes Film Festival. And as late as four years ago, he won a Golden Globe for best supporting actor as a fire-and-brimstone preacher in a cable remake of “Moby Dick.”

His characters were mostly charming but occasionally chilling. He played a penniless freelance reporter in the Eternal City who sweeps a princess, played by Audrey Hepburn, off her feet in “Roman Holiday” (1953). But he also relished playing the bad guy, like the hot-tempered rancher’s son in “Duel in the Sun” (1946), the obsessed Captain Ahab in “Moby Dick” (1956) and Nazi war criminal Dr. Josef Mengele in “The Boys From Brazil” (1978).

“He was a towering figure in the history of the movie industry,” said Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America. “He made a series of films which illuminated great truths of character.” One of those films, Valenti noted, was “Gentleman’s Agreement,” where “he took on a role that for the first time on the screen confronted anti-Semitism.”

“Gregory Peck will be missed greatly,” said Jean Picker Firstenberg, director and chief executive of the American Film Institute. “AFI is here to see that his movies will live on forever.”

Director Steven Spielberg said Peck’s “legacy not only lies in his films but in the dignified, decent and moral way in which he worked and lived.”

As one of the last giants from the Golden Era of Hollywood, Peck was known for his charitable and political fund-raising and other humanitarian efforts off-camera. He served as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences three times (1967-70), and in 1971 headed the Motion Picture and Television Relief Fund, which helps house and care for aging film workers.

But he shared his energies with the public as well as his colleagues. He was a charter member of the National Council of the Arts in 1965 and helped raise its $4-million first federal subsidy for the arts. He stumped California as state chairman of the American Cancer Society in 1964, and the nation as its national chairman two years later.

Peck was so successful at turning his mellifluous basso voice in support of such Democratic politicians as former Gov. Pat Brown that many suggested he run for governor, U.S. senator or even president. He chose not to run for office but continued his political activities. He once made a series of TV commercials that helped thwart the U.S. Supreme Court nomination of conservative Judge Robert Bork.

“To Gregory Peck — an artist who has brought new dignity to the acting profession,” former President Lyndon B. Johnson said in awarding Peck the nation’s highest civilian award, the Medal of Freedom, in 1969.

“Gregory Peck has enriched the lives of millions,” said the Democratic president and Peck’s friend. “He has given his energies, his talents and his devotion to causes which have improved the lives of people. He is a humanitarian to whom Americans are deeply indebted.”

Even actor Charlton Heston, whose conservative political views were antithetical to Peck’s, publicly acknowledged Peck’s extraordinary personality.

“He has the rarest of all qualities in this town: He is truly a gentleman,” Heston once said. (Heston lost an on-screen fight to Peck in “The Big Country.”) “And I am honored to know him.”

One reason Peck was so well liked even by his competitors was his modesty. Or as nationally syndicated gossip columnist Hedda Hopper wrote in the 1950s when the actor was firmly established, “Peck, who stands top rung in Hollywood, is as humble and cooperative today as he was with his first picture. He has never allowed fame to lessen his natural quality of greatness.”

Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall in "Designing Woman."
(Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Peck offered this typically blunt self-assessment of his career in 1989 when he was 73:

“I have a handful of pictures that still play pretty well and that are worth keeping. I have a lot of pictures that were commercially successful and, you might say, artistically spotty. And then I have a handful of turkeys.”

Among those that continue to “play pretty well,” besides his Oscar-nominated films are: “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” “The Guns of Navarone,” “The Gunfighter,” “Spellbound,” “Beloved Infidel,” “How the West Was Won,” “Captain Newman, M.D.,” “MacArthur” and “Captain Horatio Hornblower.”

Of all his roles, he will be best remembered for Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Peck said in a 1997 interview with The Times that he had no idea it would become his signature part. “It felt good while we made it. It just seemed to fall into place without stress or strain.”

Early in his career, Peck appeared in a string of westerns, and his agent told him he could become a big star in the genre, “But I wanted to do a lot of different things,” Peck said in a 1999 interview. “Western actors don’t talk much. I wanted to do some talking. So I set out to do a whole variety of things.”

When he starred as a magazine writer posing as a Jew in the daring social drama “Gentleman’s Agreement,” his agent cautioned that moviegoers might resent a film about anti-Semitism. But Peck stuck with his instincts, and the film became a moneymaker and went on to win the Oscar for best picture.

His professional successes were augmented by a full family life — three sons from his first marriage, and a son and daughter from his second — and travel. His hobbies ranged from art collecting to gardening to horse racing. Unlike many stars, he never allowed Hollywood to consume him.

“Life is OK with me,” he said in another interview in 1989. “I’m not eaten with any frustrations or unfulfilled ambitions or disappointments.

“Maybe I should be, but I just don’t allow them to get in,” he said. “I realize very well now how short life is, because I’ve got to be considered to be in the home stretch. But I won’t waste time on recriminations or regrets.

“And the same goes for my own shortcomings and my own failures,” he continued. “I take those, too, as part of the whole business of living, and making a career and working at something you love to do.”

Eldred Gregory Peck was born on April 5, 1916, in La Jolla, the only child of a troubled marriage between an Irish-immigrant pharmacist, Gregory, and a St. Louis woman called Bunny.

“Eldred!” Peck would howl as an adult over his given name. “My mother found the name in a phone book and I was stuck with it!”

His parents divorced when he was 6, and he shuttled from his father to his mother’s home in Missouri and back to La Jolla to stay with his maternal grandmother. His parents put him in Los Angeles’ St. John’s Military Academy when he was 10 where he stayed until he was 14, when he entered public high school in San Diego.

“The upshot of all this,” he said, “was by the time I was 15, I realized that I was going to have to look after myself.”

Peck majored in medicine at UC Berkeley, influenced by his pharmacist father.

He was wooed to acting almost by accident during his senior year. The director of the campus theater saw him walking across campus and asked him to try out for a part because he needed a “tall” actor. Graced with his rich voice, Irish good looks and a 6-foot-3 frame, Peck took to acting as readily as audiences took to him.

“Bad as I was, and I was remarkably bad,” Peck said years later, “I could literally see doors opening before me. There was a new road to travel.”

He soon switched his major to English, and performed in five plays during his senior year.

Selling his Model A to finance the trip, the new graduate took the train to New York in 1939, armed only with a letter of introduction to a business friend of his stepfather’s. The letter did get him a job — as a barker at the New York World’s Fair.

He also worked as a tour guide at Radio City Music Hall and a model for the Montgomery Ward catalog. During his early days in New York, he was so poor that he often slept in Central Park.

But through an audition, Peck won a scholarship to the Neighborhood Playhouse, and the rest, as he often joked, was history.

It was during his acting studies that a fortuitous accident occurred.

Studios later credited his back injury to his rowing days at Berkeley, because that version made him sound more rugged. But Peck told a biographer that he actually suffered his ruptured disc during a movement class when the late Martha Graham put her knee in his back and pushed to help him bend his head between his knees.

That back injury made him 4-F, or physically ineligible to fight in World War II, a war that had denuded Hollywood and Broadway of its top leading men. Peck had a chance at instant fame.

His first stage break came in a phone call to the Neighborhood Playhouse’s receptionist from director Guthrie McClintic. Peck, who happened to be standing beside the receptionist, was asked if he were available for a job.

“I ran down four flights of stairs, along 46th Street to 6th Avenue, four blocks to 50th and 6th, took the elevator to [McClintic’s] office, ran in and found him still on the phone to the receptionist,” Peck said. “He saw me and started to laugh — he laughed so hard he literally slid off his chair onto the floor. ‘You’ve got the job,’ he said.”

The job was “The Doctor’s Dilemma” starring McClintic’s wife, Katharine Cornell, who became a mentor. A few months later, Peck made his Broadway debut in “The Morning Star.”

He also met and married Cornell’s Scandinavian hairstylist, Greta Konen Rice.

Although Peck flunked an initial screen test in 1941, the male-bereft Hollywood soon yanked him west. He made his film debut in 1944 in “Days of Glory.” The success of the wartime propaganda film set all major studios clamoring for his talents.

Leland Hayward, who had quickly been made Peck’s Hollywood agent, reported calls from 20th Century Fox, RKO, MGM and David O. Selznick.

“Mr. Peck will not take a screen test — Mr. Peck’s stage commitments make it impossible.... Mr. Peck will have to receive $1,500 — no, $2,000 a week as a starter.... And, of course, top billing.... Mr. Peck insists on choosing his own vehicles.... Mr. Peck is a very tough man....”

Then Hayward, in an often-told story, turned to his assistant and demanded: “Who in blazes is Gregory Peck?!”

Everyone soon found out. The heretofore unknown actor signed for three films with Selznick, four with Fox and three with MGM. All kept him glued to the studio system even as it was giving way to independent production.

Fueled by his ability, work ethic and the absence of competitors, Peck rocketed to stardom.

“Gregory Peck reaches the heights with the second assignment of his movie career,” the Hollywood Reporter said when “The Keys of the Kingdom” came out in 1944.

Peck’s pace and popularity did not slacken after the war.

Despite his outspoken liberal views, he remained unscathed by the McCarthy era blacklists that ruined many careers.

Although films kept Peck too busy to fulfill his desire to return to Broadway, he exercised his interest in live theater with his La Jolla Playhouse, which continues to produce high-quality plays. Along with co-founders Mel Ferrer, Dorothy McGuire and Selznick, Peck acted in some plays and produced more to get the theater established in his hometown.

Although his career was blossoming, his marriage was disintegrating. His divorce from Greta was final in December 1955, and on New Year’s Eve he married journalist Veronique Passani, whom he met when she interviewed him for Paris Soir. She soon abandoned her own career to join the film star 16 years her senior in what became an enduring marriage.

Despite the divorce, Peck’s older sons remained close to him. His bride soon gave birth to his fourth son, Anthony, and Peck’s only daughter, Cecilia.

For several years the veteran actor resisted television, finally making his debut on the small screen in 1982 in a cameo role in “The Blue and the Gray.” He quickly followed with a miniseries about a priest who saved Jews during World War II.

Although Peck continued to lend his talents wherever needed — such as the recorded voice of an off-stage Florenz Ziegfeld in the 1991 Broadway hit “Will Rogers Follies” — he considered himself semiretired in his later years as worthwhile roles dwindled. He took aging, as he had his career and his life, in graceful stride.

“I don’t resist change,” he said in 1989. “I love the seasons of life. I’m fascinated with the pageant of growing older.”

“Sometimes I’m creaky in the a.m.,” he said in another interview, “but I feel no different. I eat what I please and sprinkle hot peppers on almost everything. I’m not obsessed by age, and I don’t think about death.

“I’m aware it’s autumn. But I’m not bothered,” he continued. “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.’ ”

He is survived by his wife, three sons, a daughter and six grandchildren.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.