Peck worked with most of the mid-20th Century’s greatest directors, including Alfred Hitchcock
(SPELLBOUND, THE PARADINE CASE), Vincente Minelli (DESIGNING WOMAN), Raoul Walsh (CAPTAIN HORATIO
HORNBLOWER), King Vidor (DUEL IN THE SUN), John Huston (MOBY DICK) and William Wyler
(ROMAN HOLIDAY). He starred in most genres: westerns (THE BIG COUNTRY), romantic comedies (ARABESQUE), action adventures
(GUNS OF NAVARONE), social-themed pics (ON THE BEACH) and even occult horror flix (THE OMEN). He also produced a TV movie and three features, including the 1972 anti-Vietnam war film TRIAL OF THE CATONSVILLE NINE.
On April 5, 1916, Eldred Gregory Peck was born in La Jolla, California, to the town’s only pharmacist, Gregory “Doc” Peck (an Irish immigrant) and St. Louis native Bernice “Bunny” Ayers. Eldred’s parents divorced when he was six, and he was primarily raised in La Jolla by his grandmother, Kate Ayers. Although Doc worked nights, he visited every Tuesday, and Bunny and her traveling salesman second husband stopped by occasionally.
At age nine, the boy saw his first movie, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, and was so terrified that his grandma let him sleep in her bed that night. He spent ages 10-14 at a Los Angeles military academy; Peck later reflected, “I guess they decided I was too happy in my grandmother's bungalow with my bike and my dog.”
In 1930 he moved in with his father and attended San Diego High School, where he grew from 5’4” to 6’2,” excelled in rowing and sang in the glee club. Doc wanted Eldred to become a doctor, so the long, lean lad studied science at San Diego State. He worked as a truck driver for a while and then got into the University of California at Berkeley, where he started in pre-med but switched to English—and aspired to become a journalist or college
Peck loved the school’s more eccentric professors, such as Edwin
Duerr, who ran the campus theatre. One day Duerr saw the 6’3” student striding across the campus and told him he needed a tall, skinny guy to play Starbuck opposite the short, fat actor he’d cast as Ahab in MOBY DICK. Peck later recalled, “I was remarkably bad, but I could literally see doors opening before me. There was a new road to travel.”
In the spring of 1939, as he was graduating from Berkeley with a B.A., Peck sold his Model A, and, with $160 and a letter of introduction from his father-in-law, took a train to New York to seek his fortune as actor. On the three-day journey, he changed his name to Gregory Peck.
The letter got him work as a barker on a thrill ride at the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens, where he earned $25 per 72-hour week and made friends with lindy dancers and “the Pin-Headed Boy From Acapulco.” Later he waited tables, worked as a Rockefeller Center tour guide and was a model for the Montgomery Ward catalog. When times were hard, he ate at the automat or got the 9-cent breakfast at Nedick’s, and sometimes he had to sleep in Central Park.
A career turning point was when he tried out for Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse and was accepted on scholarship. There he studied alongside Eli Wallach and Tony Randall. Dance legend Martha Graham taught him movement there, and inadvertently caused the back injury that ultimately made him a movie star—in
a wartime Hollywood virtually devoid of leading men.
Although studio biographies claimed Peck missed World War II military service due to a rowing accident, he actually ruptured a disk in Graham’s class, when she put her knee against his back and pulled, trying to help him bend.
From 1940-1942, Peck won 20 acting roles and did summer stock in Virginia, Massachusetts and suburban New York. His big break came when he happened to be standing next to the Neighborhood Playhouse’s receptionist and top Broadway director Guthrie McClintock phoned in search of an actor for a small role—someone who could also work as assistant stage manager with the touring show. Peck ran down four flights, raced four blocks and made it into McClintock’s office while he was still speaking the receptionist. That resulted in his touring in George Bernard Shaw’s THE DOCTOR’S DILEMMA, which starred the legendary actress Katherine Cornell, McClintock’s wife. (Peck took a shine to Cornell’s Finnish hairstylist/makeup girl, Greta Konen Rice, whom he married in 1942. Over their 13-year marriage, they had three sons. The oldest, Jonathan, committed suicide at age 30.)
The second and third McClintock touring shows that Peck acted/staged managed in both flopped on the road. Then Peck got a 22-show run on Broadway in the wartime drama MORNING STAR; in it, N.Y. Times critic Brooks Atkinson wrote that young actor performed “with considerable skill.” Peck’s second Broadway vehicle ran for six shows longer. His third co-starred Karl Malden and was directed by the legendary Max Reinhardt.
Peck’s stage successes earned him a Hollywood screen test with director David O.
Selznick, who vetoed him, declaring, “We can’t use him. He photographs like Abraham Lincoln.”
Nonetheless, RKO cast Peck in the 1944 war propaganda film DAYS OF GLORY. Next, Daryl Zanuck at Fox had the 28-year-old play a priest who ages from 18 to 80, in KEYS TO THE KINGDOM. It earned Peck an Oscar nomination and made him a hot property.
According to a frequently told story, Peck’s brand-new movie agent, Leland Hayward, told one of several eagerly phoning studio heads, “Mr. Peck will not take a screen test… Mr. Peck will have to receive $2000 a week, and of course, top billing… Mr. Peck insists on choosing his own vehicles,” and then turned to his assistant and demanded: “Who in blazes is Gregory Peck?”
MGM and several other studios offered him seven-year contracts, but, Peck later explained: “I didn’t want to be owned by anybody. I was taken to the Great Man’s (Louis B. Mayer’s) office where my refusal to sign was portrayed as an offense to American motherhood, patriotism and family decency.” Reportedly, Mayer cajoled, wheedled and even wept, but Peck wouldn’t sign the long-term contract, agreeing only to do a single film. (At that point, Mayer stopped sobbing and called in his next appointment.)
Peck starred in VALLEY OF DECISION for Mayer at MGM, and then Selznick changed his opinion of the actor and cast him in Alfred Hitchcock’s
SPELLBOUND, which firmly established him as a star. (A year later, in 1946, Peck,
Selznick, Dorothy McGuire, Jennifer Jones and Mel Ferrer founded The La Jolla Playhouse, which brought classy theatre to Peck’s hometown for the next six years.)
Unlike most actors of the era, who were enslaved by studio contracts, Peck worked under non-exclusive contracts with four movie studios, until the demise of the studio system.
When the California State Un-American Activities Committee grilled Peck in 1947, he cheerfully listed every organization he had contributed or lent his name to, claiming he would do it again because they all promoted worthy causes. Surprisingly, they declared him “innocent of being a pro-Communist.”
Peck solidified his reputation as a man of principle (as well as an actor who played such men) when, despite great trepidation from others over his taking on such a touchy topic, he played the newspaperman who pretends to be Jewish so as to learn about anti-Semitism, in 1947’s GENTLEMEN’S AGREEMENT. The film won the Best Picture Oscar and earned the actor his third Best Actor nomination in three years.
Peck’s reputation for integrity was further enhanced in 1962, when he won the Best Actor Oscar for playing a role many warned him against: a Southern attorney who defends a black man (played by Brock Peters) falsely accused of raping a white woman—in
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. (Peters gave the eulogy at Peck’s star-stuffed funeral on June 16, 2003).
In the 50s and ‘60s, with a string of hits behind him, Peck decided only to work in films that interested him, and that decision led to a series of excellent performances in quality pictures, such as THE GUNFIGHTER, CAPTAIN HORATIO
HORNBLOWER, THE MAN IN THE GREY FLANNEL SUIT, THE
GUNS OF NAVARONE and TO KILL A
MOCKINGBIRD. He also helped Audrey Hepburn win an Oscar in the charming romantic comedy
In 1955, Peck married French journalist Veronique
Passani, 16 years his junior, and they had two children, Celia and Tony (who also became an actor). For the rest of Peck’s life, the Pecks were regarded as A-List celebrities by Hollywood’s elite. (I was once in a room with Billy Bob Thornton, Sidney
Poitier, Carl Reiner, Shelley and Jonathan Winters, Sid Caesar and dozens of other luminaries, and when the Pecks walked in, every eye was drawn to them.)
Although some thought of Peck as stiff, serious and the consummate professional, he knew how to have fun on the set. While Peck worked with Lauren Bacall and James Stewart on BATMAN: THE URBAN TERROR, “we use to play pranks on the sets and get each other in trouble with the director,” he later revealed, laughing at the memory. “Once Jimmy and Lauren accidentally set the director on fire! Fortunately, it was snowing at the time and we were outdoors.”
Peck seriously considered running for Governor of California against right-wing former actor Ronald Reagan, but decided against it at the last moment, despite tremendous pressure from the Democratic Party.
In the 70s and 80s he accepted fewer roles and spent more time enjoying his family, gardening, art collecting, horse racing and good works. A few years ago he told a Cannes news conference that his Hollywood “was a bit more glamorous and maybe a little bit more human than it is today.” Reflecting on $20 million-per-movie actor salaries, he quipped: “I was born too soon.”
In a 1989 interview, Peck mused, “I love the seasons of life, and I’m fascinated with the pageant of growing older. 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 just do the things I really enjoy. When I drive to the studio, I sing in the car. I love my work and my wife and my kids and my friends. And I think, ‘Gregory Peck, you’re a damn lucky man.’”
ALAN WALDMAN’S NINE FAVORITE
GREGORY PECK FILMS:
1. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
2. The Boys From Brazil (1978)
3. Spellbound (1945)
4. The Yearling (1946)
5. Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)
6. Arabesque (1966)
7. Roman Holiday (1953)
8. The Old Gringo (1989)
9. Mirage (1965)
© Alan Waldman (7/15/03)