Gregory Peck: The American As Noble Man

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The movie studio wanted Rock Hudson to play Atticus Finch. Fate decreed otherwise. Gregory Peck got the role of the small-town Southern lawyer in the 1962 film version of To Kill a Mockingbird. The hero of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-prizewinning novel had been a man much like her father, and when the author met the actor on the first day of shooting, she noted, “Gregory, you’ve got a little potbelly just like my daddy.” The star replied, “Harper, that’s great acting.”

Actually, it was great inhabiting. “You never really understand a person …,” Atticus says, “until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Tolerance ripening into empathy: that was Peck’s gift in playing an elevated species of American, the man of strength and compassion. Today that species is more than endangered; it has nearly vanished. But it flourished for most of the actor’s half-century onscreen, when Americans prided themselves on their fellow feeling for the downtrodden and their ability to uplift the races. Peck was liberal when liberal was cool.

From his early days as the most gorgeous man in pictures (in Spellbound and Duel in the Sun) to his long prime with a Mount Rushmore visage and the voice of Yahweh on a good day, Peck was the sonorous pitchman for movie humanism. He showed how a strong man could also be a gentle man. He counseled ethnic tolerance: of Jews, in Gentleman’s Agreement, and blacks, in Mockingbird. As a crusading attorney who is also a gentle single dad to his two young kids, Peck made rectitude appear robust. That sanctity had staying power: this month the American Film Institute chose Atticus Finch as the top hero in U.S. movie history.

Peck wasn’t just an icon. He was an actor, a smart one. He picked hit properties in a wide variety of genres: romantic comedy (Roman Holiday), action (The Guns of Navarone), horror (The Omen). He was bold in taking roles–Ahab, General MacArthur–that twisted his noble-man image. He assayed his share of misanthropes (including Nazi monster Josef Mengele) and western hombres as craggy as a butte. But Peck will be best remembered as the movies’ exemplary father figure, who often, and surprisingly, revealed the pacifism at the heart of heroism.

Good example: Cape Fear, with Peck as the head of a family menaced by all-time cunning sicko Robert Mitchum. At the climax, Peck trains a gun on the villain. Shoot ‘im, Greg! But no. This time the good guy is not going to kill the bad guy; the rotter will be tried, convicted and imprisoned. A less confident actor might have let this verdict sound like weakness, but Peck sells the notion that life in jail is as unpleasant as a bullet in the gut.

Winners and losers are all too clearly defined in today’s movies. Peck’s best films always found thoughtful shades of gray. Atticus has taken on the case of a black man accused of raping a white woman–a perilous assignment in an Alabama town in the 1930s. He argues his case brilliantly, demolishes the opposition, convinces each member of the movie audience…and loses. But Atticus has shown courage in the fight. As he leaves the courtroom in defeat, a black preacher attending the trial whispers a command to Atticus’ 6-year-old daughter. “Miss Jean Louise, stand up,” he tells the girl. “Your father’s passin’.”

Later in the film, Peck embodies a kind of pacifist resistance. The white woman’s racist father sees Peck with some blacks and spits in his face. Peck, with ferocious dignity, takes out a handkerchief, wipes off the insult and walks away–the victor by not fighting back. Good man to lead; tough act to follow.

It’s dangerous to confuse an actor with his movie roles. But by all accounts the reel and the real Gregory Peck were close kin. He was a model of probity, a loyal friend to colleagues in distress, a father confessor to the Hollywood community. He chaired the National Society of This, the American Academy of That. He was laden with official honors: Lyndon Johnson gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom; Richard Nixon put him on his Enemies List. Peck received perhaps his sweetest laurel last week when the reclusive Lee, on hearing of his death, said, “Gregory Peck was a beautiful man. Atticus Finch gave him the opportunity to play himself.”

But who will play the Gregory Peck hero now that noble is for wimps and the best place to find integrity is in Webster’s? The masculine delicacy that Peck represented is gone from films; no star has filled his mold. Movie actors don’t have the voice or posture or temperament for it. Maybe America can’t believe in it.

To cherish Peck is to admit nostalgia for an era when popular and political culture could champion humanist ideals without smirking. If our time were not so facetious, so often corrupt, that time–and this man–would not seem so precious.

America, stand up. Gregory Peck has passed on.

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