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More Than Just Atticus

Goodbye to Hollywood legend Gregory Peck

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Maybe things would have turned out differently had I been weaned on a steady diet of The Partridge Family and Adam 12. But it was the early 70s, my family was living in Portugal, and the most common form of American programming on the country's sole television station was a constant stream of classic Hollywood movies.

Bogart, Gable, Cooper, Cagney -- they showed "em all. But for a spell, they aired a preponderance of films starring Gregory Peck, and it wasn't long before he became my favorite actor, a position he's continued to hold for approximately a quarter-century.

The full impact of Peck's death last week at the age of 87 didn't really hit me until I visited the International Movie Database and began reading all the messages posted by the site's visitors from across the globe. As a professional filmgoer who cringes whenever a graceless, modern atrocity opens with a gazillion dollar gross, it's easy to become cynical and assume that there's nobody else alive who appreciates the movies and movie stars of yesteryear. But reading the countless, heartfelt missives from Peck fans that were posted on the IMDb -- including one from somebody who claimed to be only 17 -- filled me with a mix of pride, sadness and hope. Gregory Peck was truly one of the greats, not only as an actor but, even more importantly, as a human being.

Not including TV projects, Peck appeared in 53 motion pictures during his lifetime, and he was the lead in all but a handful. His popularity was at its peak during the first two decades of his acting career. After making his film debut in 1944's WWII drama Days of Glory, he quickly earned four Oscar nominations before the decade was out, for 1945's The Keys of the Kingdom, 1946's The Yearling, 1947's Best Picture winner Gentleman's Agreement and 1949's Twelve O'Clock High. He didn't actually win the award until many years later; appropriately enough, it was for the role with which he will always be identified: compassionate lawyer and loving father Atticus Finch in the smashing 1962 adaptation of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. It's oddly fitting that just days before Peck's death, the American Film Institute released its list of the 50 Greatest Movie Heroes, and there, in the number one slot above Indiana Jones and James Bond, was quiet, dignified Atticus Finch. (The AFI earlier paid tribute to Peck by placing him #12 on its 1999 list of the top male screen legends in its "100 Years... 100 Stars" celebration.)

However, Peck was as much a movie star as an actor. According to the film manual Reel Facts, of the 34 pictures Peck made between his 1944 debut and his 1962 Mockingbird pinnacle, 19 of them were among their respective years' top 20 moneymakers, an enviable percentage that speaks well for his longevity in that cutthroat business.

Peck's career admittedly declined after Mockingbird, with only a few minor hits and one major one (1976's The Omen) strewn throughout his late-inning filmography. But he nevertheless kept busy, serving both as president of the Academy and as the first chairman of the American Film Institute. The dependably liberal actor also remained occupied with various political and humanitarian causes, and in 1969, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Lyndon B. Johnson -- doubtless one of the designations that ensured the actor's placement (alongside Paul Newman, Bill Cosby and Joe Namath) on Richard Nixon's legendary "Enemies List" in the early 70s.

As a performer, Peck had his detractors. The Harvard Lampoon's annual "Movie Worsts" honors cited him as Worst Actor twice, for his turn as a compulsive gambler in the forgotten The Great Sinner (1949) and as Captain Ahab in John Huston's much-debated production of Moby Dick (1956). Many filmgoers considered him too rigid, too boring an actor, lacking fire in his performances. Obviously, I couldn't disagree more. Peck's strength was always his understated acting style, the manner in which a viewer is drawn into his characters' inner workings by the quiet authority he displayed in most of his roles.

Yet despite a resume filled with upstanding characters, Peck was far from a one-trick pony: Among other triumphs, he was a charming killer in 1947's Duel In the Sun, exuding sly menace and untamed sexuality in equal measure (it's no wonder this film made a lifelong impression on Martin Scorsese); he was terrific as a stressed-out military officer in 1949's Twelve O'Clock High, leading Leonard Maltin to state, "Peck has never been better"; and he lent intriguing shadings to his portrayal of a philosophical gunslinger in 1950's The Gunfighter, a movie that over time has rightly developed a cult following among cineastes. Peck made his share of bad flicks, to be sure -- 1951's box office smash David and Bathsheba might be the dullest movie ever made, and I've yet to make it through the whole thing -- but when a career checklist includes such fantastic entertainment as Roman Holiday, The Guns of Navarone, Spellbound and the original Cape Fear, it's hard to remain focused on the flops.

One of the "tragedies" of my life occurred back in the late 70s, when my parents decided we should go to next- door Spain for a weekend. Upon returning, I learned that Gregory Peck had been in town that weekend to film some scenes for The Boys from Brazil, and that shooting had taken place a mere few blocks from my best friend's house. Naturally, I was heartbroken, but my friend managed to meet Peck (whom he described as super-nice) and was thoughtful enough to get me his autograph. Over the ensuing years, in my capacity as a film writer, I've interviewed plenty of movie stars, yet not once have I ever requested an autograph from any of them -- it's a personal choice I've made to never partake in such star-fawning. Yet I still have that autograph from Gregory Peck, and, like his films, it's something I'll continue to cherish.

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