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"It's customary for the boy to have his father's watch": Gregory Peck 1916-2003

Scott Thill

Gregory Peck's Oscar-winning turn as Atticus was that powerful; it overwhelmed cinema, literature, reality itself.

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I put everything I had into it -- all my feelings and 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.
-- Gregory Peck on the role of Atticus Finch

Gregory Peck was my father.

We might not have been bound by the strictures of biology -- my biological father more closely resembles Clint Eastwood -- but we were knit together by a persistent ideology, one that pursued benevolence and fairness, domestic calm, a feeling that one person could make a difference even as s/he was trampled beneath the steamroller of oppression and violence. In an image industry obsessed with making everything larger-than-life, Gregory Peck was a comforting departure: a humble, quiet giant who never abused his cultural capital.

Peck fulfilled a similar function for countless Americans who watched the weary, principled Atticus Finch fight for the rights of the poor, the marginalized, and the voiceless -- and black, at that time and place -- in Robert Mulligan's timeless adaptation of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Everyone knew that the trial of Tom Robinson would end, as This Mortal Coil sang, in tears. And yet, Peck's Oscar-winning turn as Atticus was that powerful; it overwhelmed cinema, literature, reality itself. And whether it was fair or not -- and life, as that brilliant movie so capably illustrated, is anything but -- every father in the world had to stand toe to toe with the six-foot-plus actor to see if he measured up.

My own father knew the value of a preemptive strike. He brought my sisters and I to the film before we could discover it on our own. He knew he had nothing to worry about -- he served time in Vietnam, broke his forebears' cycle of racism (his own father was a guard at Manzanar, a Japanese internment camp in the U.S.), and helped undocumented immigrants achieve their rights in a bitter Los Angeles labor strike -- but he figured we would be measuring him eventually, so it might as well happen sooner rather than later. It worked like a charm: the entire family would soon watch Mockingbird ritually, annually, in consensual comprehension of the continuing dangers of ignorance, hate, and violence. Atticus Finch was the man we all hung our hopes on, even though we knew those hopes were not rewarded with results.

Without Peck's stalwart, intelligent calm, To Kill a Mockingbird might not have ever carried such gravitas; other actors of the time would probably have turned the role into a reason to grandstand, right before they went home to their black maids and butlers. But Peck was different, mostly because he walked the walk.

In 1947, his agent cautioned him against accepting the controversial role of Philip Schuyler -- who, in a meta-fictional moment, played the role of a Jew in order to research anti-Semitism -- in Elia Kazan's Gentleman's Agreement, but Peck went ahead anyway. Although its issue-heavy dialogue seems dated today -- especially considering Kazan's notorious sellout to Joe McCarty and HUAC -- Gentleman's Agreement nevertheless fulfilled Peck's modest rationale for almost everything he did. "I'm not a do-gooder," he explained after receiving the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1967. "I simply take part in activities that I believe in."

He believed in kindness, fairness, and justice -- for everyone, regardless of race, color or creed. When he learned of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, he used his power as President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to postpone the Oscar ceremony. Realizing, in 1980, that 600,000 jobs could be saved at Chrysler if the troubled corporation's profile could be upgraded, he agreed to become their unpaid pitchman. Besides winning the Hersholt Humanitarian Award, Peck was also given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor a civilian can receive, by Lyndon Johnson. Up until his death, he was championing that most unfortunate casualty of the New Economy, libraries, as energetically as he had opposed the Vietnam War in the '60s.

After growing up on a steady diet of Atticus Finch, I turned to Peck himself when it came time to go to college, and chose Berkeley and an English major, as he once had done. My biological father never had the opportunity to go to college, but one thing he wanted for me was a chance to use education against the ignorance and hatred that killed innocents like Mockingbird's Tom Robinson. Peck's accidental role as America's paternal figure was skewered in his role of Nazi Germany's most infamous figure, Dr. Josef Mengele, in the underrated Boys From Brazil (1978).

Peck knew well enough that fathers could easily become monsters -- see his turn in The Omen (1976) for more on that -- and that the line between good and evil (he matched up superbly with Sir Laurence Olivier in Brazil) shifted all the time. That is the cost of personal responsibility, after all, the core theme at the center of Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945) and J. Lee Thompson's Cape Fear (1962), both starring Peck as the maligned innocent at the mercy of powerful forces arrayed against him (Hitchcock signed on Salvador Dali to help provide Peck's character with his surreal revelation).

Gregory Peck, in what may have been divine justice (if you believe in that sort of thing -- I don't) died comfortably in his sleep, old age finally having caught up with him. His soul, like his formidable legacy, was one of peace, so it is poetic that he left this world in such a manner. But this world resembles the dystopia of Boys From Brazil more each day. War and paranoia, demons and demonization, racism and prejudice -- none have convincingly waned since Mockingbird, Boys or Gentleman's Agreement, making the question I used to ask myself when I was a kid -- "What would Atticus do?" -- harder than ever to answer.

Still, "It is customary for the son to have his father's watch," as Atticus explained to Scout in Mockingbird. He was speaking of a material item, but I prefer to think he meant the noun that describes the act of vigilance, protection, observation, the same Atticus exercised as he sat outside Tom Robinson's cell, in hopes of derailing the lynch mob marshalling against the collective rule of law, or by young Jem's bedside, all night. Vigilance and observation takes courage, time and, most importantly, a selflessness that is far too alien in today's so-called reality-driven mediascape.

Which is why Gregory Peck will be sorely missed. Who among his sons or daughters will execute that watch so capably, so persistently, so quietly?

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