Peck, (Eldred) Gregory
Peck, (Eldred) Gregory
(b. 5 April 1916 in La Jolla, California; d. 12 June 2003 in Beverly Hills, California), award-winning and versatile film and stage actor, humanitarian, and patron of the arts who is best remembered for his role as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.
For decades Hollywood’s heartthrob, Peck started life in modest style. Born to Gregory (“Doc”) Peck, a pharmacist, and Bernice (Ayres) Peck, a homemaker, he was baptized “Eldred.” Outside of school, friends called him “Gregory” or just “Greg.” In 1922 his parents divorced, and for a few years afterward he lived alternately with his mother (for a time, in St. Louis, where she worked as a telephone operator after remarrying), father, and maternal grandmother, Kate Ayres. To provide stability, his parents enrolled him at age ten in Saint John’s Military Academy, Los Angeles, California, where he lived until graduation. In childhood he was surrounded by cousins; through high school, with his father working at night, Peck was virtually alone. He graduated from San Diego High School in 1933 and entered San Diego State University, where he alternated attending classes with driving trucks. He then transferred to the University of California, Berkeley. Initially a premed major, he later switched to English. By this time Peck, an oarsman, was a rugged six feet, two inches tall, and he caught the attention of the university’s theater director, who persuaded him to play Starbuck in a production of Moby-Dick.
In 1939 Peck left school before graduation and moved to New York City—his sights were set on Broadway, his pockets were often empty, and his room was sometimes Central Park. After stints as a barker at the 1939 World’s Fair and as a Radio City Music Hall usher, he worked as a model. A scholarship provided acting lessons at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, where he learned method acting from Sanford Meisner and dancing from Martha Graham. He injured his back doing stretching exercises, thus making him ineligible for the military.
Aided by the Leland Hayward Agency, Peck played summer stock in Virginia, Massachusetts, and New York. In 1941 the producer Guthrie McClintock signed the Neighborhood Playhouse graduate to his first contract, a bit part in the road company of George Bernard Shaw’s play The Doctor’s Dilemma. In 1942 Peck made his Broadway debut as the lead in Emlyn Williams’s Morning Star and appeared in other Broadway showswithruns measured in days. Nevertheless, reviewers applauded the handsome actor with first-rate talent, and his agent successfully promoted him in Manhattan and Hollywood.
While performing and doing screen tests for studios, the rising star of Broadway proposed to Greta Konen Rice, a cosmetician he had met during the tour of The Doctor’s Dilemma. In a ceremony “unrecognized” by his church, Greg, a Catholic, married the divorced Greta in 1942. Having appeared as the lead in his first film, Days of Glory, released in 1944, he returned to Broadway in Sons and Soldiers (1943). Despite the lackluster first movie, he was determined to prove himself in Hollywood.
Peck’s early movie career was uniquely sensational. Bucking tradition, the unknown actor resisted long-term contracts, such as the seven-year deal Louis B. Mayer begged him to sign with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). In the bargaining, Peck, thanks to his back injury, held the advantage of being an available leading man. Unavailable were Henry Fonda, Victor Mature, Tyrone Power, Jimmy Stewart, and Clark Gable, all of them in the military. Peck negotiated commitments from Twentieth Century–Fox (four films), MGM (three films), and the producers David Selznick (three films) and Casey Robinson (two films). These dozen movies set him in the pantheon of movie stars and made him the hottest property in Hollywood.
A star from the start, Peck’s second performance, as a priest in The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), earned him the first of five Oscar nominations. In Valley of Decision (1945), he played opposite MGM’s “Queen of the Lot” Greer Garson, along with the stars Donald Crisp, Lionel Barrymore, and Jessica Tandy. Likewise in the early films, some of Hollywood’s best directors, among them, Tay Garnett, Alfred Hitchcock, Elia Kazan, and King Vidor, honed his performance skills. As an independent actor, Peck chose roles that demonstrated his versatility. On one occasion he performed as the tender father for the morning shooting of The Yearling (1946) and, in the afternoon, as a lusty cowboy in Duel in the Sun (1947). His sagacious script selection can also be attributed to his love of literature. Peck films drew on fiction by A. J. Cronin (The Keys of the Kingdom, 1944), Ernest Hemingway (The Macomber Affair, 1947, and The Snows of Kilimanjaro, 1952), Mark Twain (The Million Pound Note, 1953), and Herman Melville (Moby Dick, 1956). In the 1940s films were followed by abbreviated radio productions. With his signature baritone, Peck adapted readily to this medium, just as he would later do in providing narrations for television documentaries.
Peck’s acting innovations redefined heroes. In The Gunfighter (1950) the cowboy yearns to lay down his pistol and avoid the shootouts. In Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951) Peck’s swashbuckling commander, undaunted by pirates, succumbs to seasickness. Whether in westerns, such as The Big Country (1958), or war films, like Pork Chop Hill (1959), On the Beach (1959), The Guns of Navarone (1961), and Captain Newman, M.D. (1963), fighting proves futile, and quests go unrequited. Peck also introduced psychologically wounded heroes, such as Spellbound’s neurotic Dr. Ballantine (1945) and battle-scarred Captain Frank Savage of Twelve O’Clock High (1950). In 1946 he was offered the lead in Gentleman’s Agreement, as a writer posing as a Jew to calibrate anti-Semitism in America. After pondering warnings about professional risks, Peck took the part. At the time, the film’s social criticism stirred concerns about Peck’s patriotism, but he never regretted his decision.
These hit movies earned him critical applause and professional awards. He established his appeal to teenagers, their mothers, and the male audience, who admired his blend of good looks, stature, and human frailty. Not surprisingly, Valley of Decision, Spellbound, The Yearling, Duel in the Sun, Gentleman’s Agreement, and Twelve O’Clock High each ranked in the top five at the box office. For The Keys of the Kingdom, The Yearling, Gentleman’s Agreement, and Twelve O’Clock High, Peck received Oscar nominations and awards from various professional groups. By 1951 theater owners voted him “The Biggest Box Office Draw in the World.”
Offscreen Peck was founding, supporting, producing, and performing for the now renowned La Jolla Playhouse. These commitments and the constant commutes to San Diego culminated in a collapse from exhaustion. At home his three sons loved his attention, but career demands pulled him away from them and help explain his separation from Greta. The couple divorced in 1955.
In the 1950s Hollywood’s bottom line moved some filming to Europe. Overseas Peck completed five forgotten films and nearly was swept out to sea while portraying Ahab in Moby Dick (1956), “the most dangerous film I ever made.” Most memorable of the European productions was Roman Holiday (1953). He showed his flair for romantic comedy even while surrendering the screen to Audrey Hepburn. She earned an Oscar and a lifelong friend, while rumors abounded about an affair between them. However, with his divorce almost complete, Peck was courting Veronique Passani (a Roman Catholic). Of Russian, French, and Italian descent, she reported for the Paris Presse and interviewed the star in Rome. Declining a lunch with the Nobel Laureate Dr. Albert Schweitzer, she joined Peck for an afternoon at the racetrack. Their romance led to marriage on 31 December 1955 and, later, a Catholic wedding. Together for almost fifty years, the Pecks had two children, both of whom became actors.
Despite box-office success, Peck faced financial needs brought on by divorce settlements. Further, the government took 80 percent of his income from the supposedly tax-free earnings in Europe. After a try at raising cattle, he followed John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, and Bob Hope into the movie-production business. Organized in 1956, Melville Productions released The Big Country, Pork Chop Hill, and Cape Fear (1962). Captain Newman, M.D. and Behold a Pale Horse (1964) were from Brentwood Productions, as was Peck’s favorite film, To Kill a Mockingbird (1963), which incorporated his most famous role, Atticus Finch.
Opposite two charming child actors, Peck played the modest lawyer, good neighbor, and loving father while letting the movie focus on the children. In the closing scenes, however, the star stepped to the fore. In a nine-minute master shot, Atticus defends a southern black man accused of raping a white woman. Into that performance, Peck said, he put all his feelings, everything he had learned about acting, family life, fatherhood, and children and about equality, racial justice, and opportunity. At the end of the take, the crew burst into applause, anticipating the enduring admiration for Peck and the movie. At the Academy Awards, Harper Lee, Pulitzer Prize winner for To Kill a Mockingbird, gave Peck her father’s pocket watch for luck. The fifth-time nominee finally got his Oscar. Habitually he would say, “The lead line in my obituary is sure to be “Academy Award winner for To Kill a Mockingbird.’ I’ll settle for that. It’s my best film with the part that’s closest to me.” Just weeks before Peck’s death, the American Film Institute Poll designated Peck’s Atticus Finch America’s favorite film hero.
At the box office To Kill a Mockingbird placed eighth that year. In 1964 Variety ranked Peck second to John Wayne and Frank Sinatra in their lifetime number of hits, his fourteen to their seventeen, and Peck second at the box office only to Wayne. However, his only top-twenty film in the rest of the 1960s was the caper Arabesque (1966) with Sophia Loren. Ten years would elapse before his next hit and three years before any film at all.
Perhaps he lost his knack for role selection, but other obligations certainly distracted him. While he disliked the accolade “humanitarian,” Peck, the good citizen, worked for several causes. At home he championed the Motion Picture Relief Fund to aid retired professionals. After chairing California’s fund-raising campaign for the American Cancer Society in 1964, he served one term as its National Crusade Chairman, undertaking a cross-country tour and producing a documentary film that raised more than fifty million dollars. In 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Peck to what became the National Endowment for the Arts to dispense funding for regional theaters and the new American Film Institute, with Peck as first chair (1967–1969). Recognizing these credentials, his peers elected him president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (1967–1970). Three times he welcomed audiences to the Academy Awards, and in 1968 he postponed the awards ceremony for the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr. He was the voice for the documentary John F. Kennedy: Years of Lightning, Day of Drums (1965) and received the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom (1969). A Democrat, Peck boasted of being on Richard Nixon’s “enemies list,” partly a response to Peck’s anti–Vietnam War film The Trial of the Catonsville Nine (1972).
In Peck’s personal life there was no darker moment than that marked by the 1975 suicide of his eldest son, Jonathan, a loss the father could not have anticipated but pondered every day thereafter. Professionally, he found challenging roles on the large and small screens, including the lead in MacArthur (1977) and Abraham Lincoln in The Blue and the Gray (1982). He also recovered his stardom in The Omen (1976), a horror film that was his biggest moneymaker ever. Intermixed with these roles was the surprise casting of Peck as the evil Nazi scientist Dr. Josef Mengele in The Boys from Brazil (1978). The part allowed him to “tear up the scenery” and work with Laurence Olivier and James Mason. None of Peck’s remaining films was a hit. Old Gringo (1989) saw him opposite Jane Fonda in his last major role, as the American writer Ambrose Bierce. Owning rights to the novel, he allowed a Martin Scorsese Cape Fear remake, in which he played a sleazy lawyer. In 1993 he appeared in Turner Network’s The Portrait, with Lauren Bacall as his wife and his daughter, Cecelia, as an artist trying to accept her aging parents. He last appeared as Father Marple in the television version of Moby Dick (1998).
By 1990 the Peck family had moved to the fashionable Holmby Hills section of Beverly Hills, California. The former truck driver now had original artworks by Salvador Dali, Fernand Léger, Joan Miró, Henri Matisse, and Pierre Auguste Renoir lining the walls and two Oscars on the shelf, the second a Humanitarian Award. Peck was planning remakes of Dodsworth (1936) and the Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957), with a script by his son Anthony. Nothing came of either venture. Instead, the actor toured in “An Evening with Gregory Peck,” featuring clips from his movies with Peck recollecting the films and interacting with the audience. Between performances he did voice-overs for television, including Ken Burns’s Baseball (1994); appeared in Liberty Weekend (1986), a four-night celebration marking the landmark’s 100th birthday; and narrated such programs as Frederic Remington: The Truth of Other Days (1991) and Rafting Through the Grand Canyon (1997), a Nova episode for the Public Broadcasting System.
With Veronique he attended film retrospectives of his work around the world and accepted lifetime achievement awards from the American Film Institute, Museum of Modern Art, Film Society at Lincoln Center, and the Cannes, Saint Petersburg, and Berlin film festivals. He cherished his medal from the 1991 “Celebration of the Performing Arts” at the Kennedy Center. Various documentaries, including Barbara Koppel’s A Conversation with Gregory Peck (1998), celebrated his life. After a career spanning six decades, Peck died in his sleep and is interred at the mausoleum of Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral, Los Angeles. A pioneering and award-winning performer, an honored humanitarian, a patron of the arts, and a revered citizen, Peck was never less than a star. He brought a nobility to his roles and career that his fans rightly equated with the actor and the man.
Spanning the years 1939–1993, the Gregory Peck Collection is housed at the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Biographies of Peck include Tony Thomas, Gregory Peck (1977); Michael Freedland, Gregory Peck: A Biography (1980); John Griggs, The Films of Gregory Peck (1984); Gerard Molyneaux, Gregory Peck: A Bio-Bibliography (1995); Gary Fishgall, Gregory Peck: A Biography (2002); and Lynn Haney, Gregory Peck: A Charmed Life (2004). An obituary is in the New York Times (13 June 2003).
Nationality: American. Born: Eldred Gregory Peck in La Jolla, California, 5 April 1916. Education: Attended high school in San Diego; St. John's Military Academy, Los Angeles; San Diego State University; University of California, Berkeley, graduated 1939; Neighborhood Playhouse theater school, New York, under Sanford Meisner, two years. Family: Married: 1) Greta Konen, 1942 (divorced 1955), three children, one deceased; 2) Veronique Passani, 1955, son: the actor Tony Peck, daughter: the actress Cecilia Peck. Career: Worked as talker at World's Fair, New York, and guide at Radio City; 1940—acted at Barter Theatre, Abingdon, Virginia, and later at theaters in New York; 1943—film debut in Days of Glory; contract with David O. Selznick, and several other film companies; 1948—co-founder, La Jolla Playhouse; 1958—co-producer of film The Big Country; 1965—charter member of National Arts Council; 1967–69—chairman of the Board of Trustees, American Film Institute; 1982—in TV mini-series The Blue and the Gray, and as voice in Baseball, 1994; 1995—toured in one-man show A Conversation with Gregory Peck. Awards: Best Actor, New York Film Critics, for Twelve O'Clock High, 1949; Best Actor Academy Award, for To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962; Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, 1967; Life Achievement Award, American Film Institute, 1989. Agent: Mike Simpson, William Morris Agency, 151 El Camino Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90212, U.S.A.
Films as Actor:
Days of Glory (Jacques Tourneur) (as Vladimir)
Keys of the Kingdom (Stahl) (as Father Francis Chisholm)
Spellbound (Hitchcock) (as John "J. B." Ballantine); The Valley of Decision (Garnett) (as Paul Scott)
The Yearling (Brown) (as Pa Baxter); Duel in the Sun (King Vidor) (as Lewt McCanles)
The Macomber Affair (Korda) (as Robert Wilson); Gentleman's Agreement (Kazan) (as Phil Green); The Paradine Case (Hitchcock) (as Anthony Keane)
Yellow Sky (Wellman) (as Stretch)
The Great Sinner (Siodmak) (as Fedja); Twelve O'Clock High (Henry King) (as Gen. Frank Savage)
The Gunfighter (Henry King) (as Johnny Ringo)
Captain Horatio Hornblower (Walsh) (title role); Only the Valiant (Gordon Douglas) (as Capt. Richard Lance)
David and Bathsheba (Henry King) (as David); The World in His Arms (Walsh) (as Jonathan Clark); The Snows of Kilimanjaro (Henry King) (as Harry Street); Pictura (as narrator)
Roman Holiday (Wyler) (as Joe Bradley); Night People (Johnson) (as Col. Steve Van Dyke)
The Purple Plain (Parrish) (as Forrester); The Million Pound Note (Man with a Million) (Neame) (as Jerry Adams)
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (Johnson) (as Tom Rath); Moby Dick (Huston) (as Capt. Ahab)
Designing Woman (Minnelli) (as Mike Hagen)
The Bravados (Henry King) (as Jim Douglass)
Pork Chop Hill (Milestone) (as Lt. Joe Clemons); Beloved Infidel (Henry King) (as F. Scott Fitzgerald); On the Beach (Kramer) (as Dwight Towers)
The Guns of Navarone (J. Lee Thompson) (as Capt. Mallory)
Cape Fear (J. Lee Thompson) (as Sam Bowden); To Kill a Mockingbird (Mulligan) (as Atticus Finch)
"The Plains" ep. of How the West Was Won (Hathaway) (as Cleve Van Valen); Captain Newman, M.D. (Miller) (title role)
Behold a Pale Horse (Zinnemann) (as Manuel Artiguez)
Mirage (Dmytryk) (as David Stillwell)
Arabesque (Donen) (as David Pollock); John F. Kennedy: Years of Lightning, Day of Drums (Herschensohn) (as narrator)
The Stalking Moon (Mulligan) (as Sam Varner)
MacKenna's Gold (J. Lee Thompson) (as MacKenna); The Most Dangerous Man in the World (The Chairman) (J. Lee Thompson) (as Dr. John Hathaway); Marooned (John Sturges) (as Charles Keith)
I Walk the Line (Frankenheimer) (as Sheriff Henry Tawes)
Shootout (Hathaway) (as Clay Lomax)
Billy Two Hats (Kotcheff) (as Deans)
The Boys from Brazil (Schaffner) (as Dr. Josef Mengele)
The Sea Wolves (McLaglen) (as Col. Lewis Pugh)
The Scarlet and the Black (London—for TV) (as Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty)
Directed by William Wyler (Slesin—doc) (as himself)
Amazing Grace and Chuck (Silent Voice) (Newell) (as President)
Old Gringo (Puenzo) (as Ambrose Bierce)
Other People's Money (Jewison) (as Andrew Jorgenson); Cape Fear (Scorsese) (as Lee Heller)
The Portrait (Arthur Penn—for TV) (as Gardner Church, + exec pr)
Sinatra: 80 Years My Way (doc) (as himself)
Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick (Robinson—doc)
Moby Dick (Roddam—for TV) (as Father Mapple)
From Russia to Hollywood: The 100-Year Odyssey of Chekhov and Shdanoff (Keeve) (as Narrator)
Films as Producer:
The Big Country (Wyler) (+ ro as James McKay)
The Trial of the Catonsville Nine (Davidson)
The Dove (Jarrott)
The Omen (Richard Donner) (+ ro as Robert Thorn)
MacArthur (Sargent) (+ title role)
By PECK: book—
An Actor's Life, 1978.
By PECK: articles—
"Le Plus Beau Jour de notre vie," interview with Guy Braucourt, in Ecran (Paris), July-August 1972.
"Gregory Peck on The Trial of the Catonsville Nine," interview with G. Woodside, in Take One (Montreal), December 1972.
"Gregory Peck: He's the Man," interview with Ron Haver, in American Film (New York), March 1989.
On PECK: books—
Thomas, Tony, Gregory Peck, New York, 1977.
Freedland, Michael, Gregory Peck: A Biography, New York, 1980.
Griggs, John, The Films of Gregory Peck, Secaucus, New Jer-sey, 1984.
Molyneaux, Gerard, Gregory Peck: A Bio-Bibliography, Westport, Connecticut, 1995.
On PECK: articles—
Stein, J., "Gregory Peck," in Films in Review (New York), March 1967.
Films Illustrated (London), October 1980.
Haskell, Molly, "Gregory Peck," in The Movie Star, edited by Elisabeth Weis, New York, 1981.
Buckley, Michael, "Gregory Peck," in Films in Review (New York), April and May 1984.
Clark, John, filmography in Premiere (New York), October 1989.
Current Biography 1992, New York, 1992.
Murphy, Kathleen, "The World Is in His Arms," in Film Comment (New York), March-April 1992.
Campbell, V., "Gregory Peck in 'To Kill a Mockingbird,"' in Movieline (Escondido), November 1994.
Denerstein, Robert, "A Class Act," in Rocky Mountain News (Den-ver), 18 September 1995.
Norman, Barry, "Peck: More Statesman Than Superstar," in Radio Times (London), 23 August 1997.
Stars (Mariembourg), no. 28, 1997.
* * *
When Gregory Peck was designated an enemy of the conservative Nixon establishment, it was as much a recognition of his role within the social symbolism of Hollywood films, as a reaction to his personal involvement with liberal causes. If James Stewart, in his work for Frank Capra, nostalgically embodies the populist image of the smalltown good citizen, Peck creates the figure of the decent and fairminded reformer or the fundamentally good man who rises to the moral demands of the occasion. Only rarely have other qualities of Peck's persona been explored, particularly the resentment and anger which his intensity suggests. It is in these uncharacteristic roles that he has done some of his most interesting as well as some of his worst acting.
After some experience with New York City's Neighborhood Playhouse, Peck moved to Hollywood where, classified as 4-F, he worked steadily during the war. In his first role, as an Eastern front guerilla in Jacques Tourneur's Days of Glory, he demonstrated the requisite qualities of the versatile leading man. By the end of the 1940s Peck had established himself as both a commercial and critical success. He received Oscar nominations for Gentleman's Agreement—a perfect showcase for his intensity and aroused righteousness, The Yearling, and The Keys of the Kingdom. The acclaim however, was more for the likable persona Peck had created than for any demonstration of acting virtuosity.
In the 1950s and 1960s he played many similar roles, the apotheosis of his reformer character coming in To Kill a Mockingbird, a film in which Peck's humble and antiracist small-town lawyer is a successful mix of populist goodwill and political commitment. Less impressive versions of the same conscience-stricken character are to be found in Twelve O'Clock High, Captain Horatio Hornblower, and Pork Chop Hill.
Those roles that explore the dark side of his personality indicate both his virtues and limitations as an actor. In the Freudian Western Duel in the Sun he demonstrated early in his career that he could successfully evoke both sexual obsession and sociopathy. Performances in The Gunfighter, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, The Paradine Case, and The Snows of Kilimanjaro exhibited a very human frailty that was only glimpsed in his more optimistic roles. Peck's failure to portray adequately the complexities of a compulsive figure in such films as Moby Dick, MacArthur, and The Boys from Brazil indicates the limitations of his skill as an actor.
Peck, like many of the characters he played, has a social conscience. He has been involved in charitable, political, and film industry causes. In 1965, he became a member of the National Council on the Arts, then he was elected chairman of the American Cancer Society the following year. From 1967 to 1969, he was on the Board of Trustees of the American Film Institute. He served as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Peck also received the Medal of Freedom and the Academy's Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
—R. Barton Palmer, updated by Linda J. Stewart
Born Eldred Gregory Peck on April 5, 1916, in La Jolla, CA; died June 12, 2003, in Los Angeles, CA. Actor. Gregory Peck seemed to embody the soul of the principled, upright, all–American man in some of his most notable roles. He was an imposing figure with a smooth, deep voice—a perfect match for the silver screen. His skill and presence were rewarded early with several Academy Award nominations, but it was not until he played the role for which he is most remembered that he won the coveted award.
As Atticus Finch, the Southern lawyer defending the innocence of a wrongly accused man in To Kill a Mockingbird, actor and character seemed inseparable. For Peck it was a career–defining role. Not only did his character stand up against the entrenched racism of his small town, he was also charged with raising a child on his own. The tenderness and the empathy he showed as Finch earned him the Best Actor Academy Award in 1962. CNN.com reported that Peck said of the role, "I put everything I had into it everything I'd learned in 46 years of living, about family life and fathers and children. And my feelings about racial justice and inequality and opportunity."
Peck grew up in a broken home. His parents separated when he was three years old and later divorced. During his early childhood he split his time between his mother, his father, and his maternal grandmother. At the age of ten, he was sent to St. John's Military Academy in Los Angeles, California. From there he went on to attend the University of California at Berkeley where he studied English. Theater was never an interest of his until a director asked him to take a part in an adaptation of Moby Dick.CNN.com reported Peck said of the experience, "I don't know why I said yes. I guess I was fearless, and it seemed like it might be fun. I wasn't any good, but I ended up doing five plays my last year in college."
That brief experience with theater hooked Peck and after graduating from college he headed to New York to become an actor. He worked several odd jobs to support himself, including ushering at Radio City Music Hall, guiding tours at the NBC studios, and as a model. He was awarded a scholarship at the Neighborhood Playhouse and studied there for two years. His movement instructor was the innovative choreographer Martha Graham. During one of his classes with her she pushed on his back during a stretching exercise and caused an injury that eventually exempted Peck from military service. With some of Hollywood's most prestigious leading men serving in the war, Peck ably stepped into the role of leading man.
His star rose quickly. A year after leaving California he received the best actor award from the Barter Theater in Abingdon, Virginia. Two years later, in 1942, he debuted on Broadway in Morning Star. Soon afterward he was invited to Hollywood and made his film debut in 1944 in Days of Glory, playing a Russian fighting the Nazis. That same year, at age 28, he was nominated for an Academy Award for his role as a young priest in Keys of the Kingdom. By the end of the 1940s, he would collect nominations for three more films: The Yearling, Gentleman's Agreement, and Twelve O'Clock High.
Peck became one of the first stars to defy the studio system by refusing to sign with any single studio. He was also extremely careful in choosing his roles, trying to avoid typecasting himself. By the time he won his Oscar in 1962 he became one of the few actors with the power to command a million–dollar salary.
A committed activist, Peck dedicated himself to political causes throughout his career—supporting Democratic candidates, as well as social justice issues. At one point he was even being asked to run for office, but declined. President Lyndon Johnson named Peck to the National Council of the Arts and awarded him the Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honor. While he was a favorite of Johnson's, Peck earned a place on President Richard Nixon's infamous "enemies list" for his activities.
While the late 1960s were lean times for Peck's film career, he was incredibly involved behind the scenes by his membership in several entertainment industry associations. From 1967 to 1969 he served on the board of the American Film Institute, of which he was also a founding chairman. He was also president of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences from 1967 to 1970. In 1968, the Motion Picture Academy awarded him the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his contribution to causes such as civil rights.
The 1970s produced only one real hit for Peck. In 1976, he played the father in the horror film The Omen in which his son is the reincarnation of Satan. The film was one of the most popular movies of the decade. He continued to accept roles here and there into the 1980s and 1990s. In 1983, he played President Abraham Lincoln in a television miniseries about the civil war called The Blue and The Gray. In 1987, he played a president again in Amazing Grace and Chuck. In 1989 he appeared as writer Ambrose Bierce in the film Old Gringo. His last role in a television version of Moby Dick, for which he won critical raves. It was ironic that he performed in this adaptation, since his first acting role had been in a play based on the same novel.
Peck married for the first time in 1942. That marriage lasted 13 years and produced three sons. After his divorce, he married the French journalist Veronique Passani in 1955. His marriage to Passani lasted until his death and resulted in two children, a son and a daughter. In 1975, Peck's oldest son from his first marriage committed suicide.
Peck received numerous lifetime achievement awards including ones from the Screen Actors Guild, the American Film Institute, and the Kennedy Center. In 2003, just weeks before his death, Peck's character, Atticus Finch, was named the number–one film hero by the American Film Institute. Peck died on June 12, 2003, in his sleep at his home in Los Angeles, California; he was 87. He is survived by his wife, three sons, and a daughter.
CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2003/SHOWBIZ/Movies/06/12/obit.peck/index.html (June 13, 2003); E! Online, http://www.eonline.com/News/Items/0,1,11969,00.html?tnews (June 13, 2003); Entertainment Weekly, June 27/July 4, 2003, pp. 10-11;Los Angeles Times, June 13, 2003, p. A1, p. A2, p. A27; New York Times, June 13, 2003, p. A1, p. A27; People, June 30, 2003, pp. 46-49; Washington Post, June 13, 2003, p. A1, p. A10.