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In the international threnody following the death of Gregory Peck, aged 87, on 12 June, tens of thousands of words have filled print columns and computer and TV screens. For aficionados of his work, however, the actor is rarely visible. Instead, a glossy screenshot appears, in which the borders between man, actor, and his more than 50 screen and television roles vanish almost entirely. Death inevitably cements iconography, but such cultural shorthand serves neither the actor it attempts to honor, nor the medium in which he excelled.
No, Gregory Peck was not Atticus Finch (however much his embodiment of Harper Lee’s courageous lawyer drives almost everyone who views the movie to believe the opposite). Neither was he Joe Bradley, the opportunistic journalist of Roman Holiday (1953). Or Frank Savage, the neurasthenic general training young airmen to sacrifice themselves in the skies over Berlin in Twelve O’Clock High (1949). Or F. Scott Fitzgerald or Sam Bowden or Cleve Van Valen.
From the moment he was roped into a college production of Moby Dick, because his height played well on stage against the shorter actor cast as Ahab to the detailed post-production notes he prepared on his last major movie, 1989’s The Old Gringo, he was, instead, a dedicated and craftful actor. Talking to Dennis Brown about his first stage role, he said, “I wasn’t a very good actor, but I loved doing it” (1). That pleasure in his profession, whether he was tackling high drama, all-out cinemascope entertainment, action, comedy or the intellectual, discomfiting movies like Pork Chop Hill (1959), is perhaps the trademark of his screen presence. He was enthralled with the process of becoming someone else, and worked at perfecting it until the very end of his motion picture career.
Of course, like most successful actors, Peck encountered lucky breaks. He possessed classic, leading-man looks and physique at a time when many of Hollywood’s male stars were fighting in World War II. He hooked up with a devil-may-care agent, Leland Hayward, who recognized Peck was a scarce commodity in a seller’s market, and parlayed his client’s potential into contracts for no less than 16 movies with four different studios, all before the opening of Peck’s first movie, Days of Glory (1944), a propaganda piece designed to persuade Americans that the Soviet Union was no longer an international pariah but instead a sturdy comrade in arms. He lit well, it emerged, in both black-and-white and color. And he worked with any actor’s dream rota of directors, including Alfred Hitchcock, Elia Kazan, Henry King, and William Wyler.
But young actors, however lucky, do not gain four Best Actor academy nominations—for The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), The Yearling (1946), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), and Twelve O’Clock High—in their first six years, for chiseled features and an agent’s hustle. Gregory Peck struggled to perfect his performances as a screen actor, a labor that began with his very first movie, when he had to make the difficult transition from stage to screen. Not only was his stage-trained voice initially too artificial for the naturalistic medium of film, but he also found the whole process disconcerting. He later recalled, “You feel like a bug under a microscope, and then to move freely and to speak freely and concentrate and forget all of that equipment, it takes a bit of practice… It’s a trade that has to be learned. And you get kind of frozen, most newcomers do” (2).
In his early pictures, he called himself an “in-and-outer,” capable of doing good work, but at the same time feeling ill at ease. Indeed, that discomfort with the medium still shows in those earlier pictures: at times of intensity in Twelve O’Clock High, he tends to tip into almost Olivier-style histrionics, while in Gentleman’s Agreement, his pensive stillness slips from time to time into a stony immobility.
To counter such problems, Peck developed a method of working with a script that he followed throughout his career, always ready to “work a little harder, dig a little deeper.” He learned the whole script before the first day of filming. “I have to immerse myself in it. Sometimes I’ll sit down with a yellow legal pad and write my lines over and over and over, and try to live through them as I write” (3). Peck also covered his scripts with notes on character and behavior. On Moby Dick, for example, he reminded himself that “every scene does not have to be a tirade” (advice his successors in the role might well take to heart) (4).
Dennis Brown, a young CBS publicist on the Civil War mini-series, The Blue and the Gray (1982), in which Peck played Abraham Lincoln, remembers standing in a field in Northern Arkansas and listening to Peck reciting the Gettysburg address over and over and over again. “With each repetition,” Brown recalls, “those familiar words assumed a new freshness and immediacy, and I began to hear them as if for the first time” (5). Peck called himself a “closet rehearser,” and perhaps that utter familiarity with his lines, and thus with his characters, allowed him to concentrate much more closely on the physicality of performance when the cameras rolled.
For, during the bulk of Peck’s career, it was a matter of survival for major stars to appear at ease in any fictional milieu. They had to be ready to slip into any genre, at any moment, at a time when the genres audiences would watch and studios would finance were more diverse than they are now. Actors could neither afford typecasting nor evince discomfort. In the 12 years between Peck’s Academy Award nomination for Twelve O’Clock High and his winning the Best Actor Award as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), his roles included a journalist, a gunslinger, an Old Testament king, three sea captains (one heroic, one obsessed, and one rich and dabbling in ranching), one airman, a junior officer in Korea, a senior officer in a post-apocalyptic world, an alcoholic writer, a far-from-competent lawyer, and a riverboat gambler. The sheer range of these roles is breathtaking, especially considering that decisions to shift from register to register and genre to genre came from Peck’s own desire not to repeat himself, or to inhabit for too long the same persona.
This willful mutability served Peck well into the ‘60s, especially as he also embodied a loose-limbed elegance and unaffected male grace in a period of filmmaking when the body as a whole was far more important to screen narratives than it is now. He could appear as debonair as Cary Grant and as world-weary as Robert Mitchum, as swashbuckling as Errol Flynn and as watchful as Bogart. The pore-baring close-up had not yet migrated from television to cinema, and directors still devised at least some dramatic tension through actions within shots, rather than through copious cutting between them.
One of Peck’s trademark qualities on screen was his ability to appear to listen with his whole body, and to wait, again with the whole body, almost too long before reacting, a skill he attributed to his pre-World War II Stanislavski-inflected training with Sanford Meisner. At the same time, he could move fluidly from mark to mark, using a stride or a turn of his torso to convey complicated emotions, complimenting a quizzical movement of his eyebrows, as in the prelude to the celebrated fight with Charlton Heston’s ranch foreman in The Big Country (which he also produced, in 1958), with an almost imperceptible but visually riveting gathering of physical strength.
By the late ‘60s, however, the body was losing out to the face. Once an element of aesthetic composition, the face on screen became increasingly a reflection of intellectual complexity and emotional struggle, even for major stars. At the same time, the teenage rebellion motifs of the ‘50s flowered into a full-fledged, highly profitable youth culture, fuelled by the last stages of the post-World War II boom. A mood of cynicism and outrage at contemporary society, last seen, perhaps, in the pre-Hayes Code movies of the infant studio industry, bristled onto celluloid.
Too rich, too well known, too identified with “the past,” and in his 50s, Peck’s career faltered. Choices narrowed and his attempts at production (he acknowledges he was probably not a very good producer) birthed only thoughtful failures. As aging actors are, he was wheeled out from time to time to occupy “elder statesman” roles: the diplomat father in The Omen (1976), Abraham Lincoln, and, in the facile irony so beloved by contemporary filmmakers, playing bit parts in productions he had once headlined, such as Cape Fear (1991) and the remade-for-tv Moby Dick (1998).
In 1994, tired of waiting for Tinseltown to find him fashionable again, he returned to the stage in a relaxed, one-man show entitled A Conversation with Gregory Peck (filmed in 1999), in which he followed a program of anecdotes about his long career with impromptu question-and-answer sessions with the audience. As he said, after his first performance on stage, he loved to act. Loved it so much, in fact, that he became one of the landmark actors of 20th-century film history. Against this, the fact that he was an apparently nice guy, who divorced only once, was good to his children, gracious and thoughtful towards his costars and crews, and involved himself with little fanfare in social action within and outside the artistic world, is just so much gossip column trivia.
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(1) Dennis Brown, Actors Talk: Profiles and Stories from the Acting Trade, New York: Limelight Editions 1999, p.84.
(2) Gary Fishgall, Gregory Peck: A Biography, New York: Scribner 2002, p.87.
(3) Brown, p. 76.
(4) Fishgall, p. 183.
(5) Brown, p. 70.