Gregory Peck biography:
Gregory Peck (April 5, 1916 – June 12, 2003) was an Oscar-winning American film actor. He was one of the most popular film stars from the 1940s to the 1970s, and played important roles well into the 1990s. He is perhaps best known for his portrayal of Atticus Finch in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, for which he won an Academy Award. He was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his lifetime humanitarian efforts.
In 1999, the American Film Institute named Peck among the Greatest Male Stars of All Time, ranking at No. 12.
Born Eldred Gregory Peck in La Jolla, California, Peck was the son of Bernice Ayres (a Missouri-born convert to Catholicism) and Gregory Peck (a chemist/pharmacist of Irish-Catholic maternal descent and English paternal ancestry). Gregory’s paternal grandmother, Catherine Ashe, was related to the Irish patriot Thomas Ashe, who took part in the Easter Rising less than three weeks after Peck’s birth and died while on a hunger strike in 1917. Despite their strict Catholic religion, Peck’s parents divorced when he was five and he was reared by his grandmother.
Peck was sent to a Roman Catholic military school in Los Angeles at the age of 10 and then attended San Diego High School. When he graduated, he enrolled at San Diego State University to improve his grades so that he could earn admission to his first-choice college, the University of California, Berkeley. For a short time, he took a job driving a truck for an oil company. In 1936, he enrolled as a pre-med student at UC Berkeley, majoring in English.
Since he was 6’3″ and very strong, he also decided to row on the university crew. He developed an interest in acting and was recruited by Edwin Duerr, director of the school’s Little Theater. He went on to appear in five plays during his senior year. Although his tuition fee was only $26 a year, Peck still struggled to pay, and had to work as a “hasher” (kitchen helper) for the Alpha Gamma Delta sorority in exchange for meals. Peck would later say about Berkeley that, “it was a very special experience for me and three of the greatest years of my life. It woke me up and made me a human being.” In 1997 he donated $25,000 to the Berkeley crew team in honor of his coach, Ky Ebright.
After graduating in 1939 from Berkeley with a BA degree in English, Peck dropped the name “Eldred” and headed to New York City to study at the Neighborhood Playhouse. He was often broke and sometimes slept in Central Park. He worked at the World’s Fair, as a Radio City Music Hall tour guide, and as a catalog model for Montgomery Ward.
He made his Broadway debut as the lead in Emlyn Williams’ The Morning Star in 1942. His second Broadway performance that year was in The Willow and I with Edward Pawley. Peck’s acting abilities were in high demand during World War II, since he was exempt from military service owing to a back injury suffered while receiving dance and movement lessons from Martha Graham as part of his acting training. Twentieth Century Fox claimed he had injured his back while rowing at university, but in Peck’s words, “In Hollywood, they didn’t think a dance class was macho enough, I guess. I’ve been trying to straighten out that story for years.”
Peck’s first film was Days of Glory, released in 1944. Though many critics initially dismissed Peck’s acting as wooden, he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor five times, four of which came in his first five years of film acting: for The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), The Yearling (1946), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), and Twelve O’Clock High (1949).
Each of these early films introduced an aspect of Peck’s persona, establishing him, by the end of the 1940s, as the quintessential leading man. The Keys of the Kingdom emphasized his stately presence. As Penny Barker in The Yearling, he beamed good-humored warmth and affection toward the characters playing his son and wife, confounding critics who had been insisting he was a lifeless performer. Duel in the Sun (1946) showed his range as an actor in his first “against type” role as a cruel, libidinous gunslinger. Gentleman’s Agreement established his power in the “social conscience” genre in a film that took on the deep-seated but subtle anti-Semitism of mid-century corporate America. Twelve O’Clock High was the first of many successful war films in which Peck embodied the brave, effective, yet human fighting man.
His three biggest films of the 1950s were Roman Holiday (1953), in which he all but defined the tall, dark and handsome romantic lead, Moby Dick (1956), in which he tied the strong knot between classic American literature and film, and On the Beach (1959), a film that brought to life the potential terrors of global nuclear war. However, it was not until the early 1960s that Peck’s mastery of his craft would intersect with an equally masterful script.
Peck won the Academy Award for his fifth nomination, playing the role of Atticus Finch, a Depression-era lawyer and widowed father, in the film adaptation of the Harper Lee novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Released in 1962 during the height of the US civil rights movement in the South, this movie and his role were Peck’s favorite. In 2003, Atticus Finch was named the top film hero of the past 100 years by the American Film Institute. His other popular films include The Guns of Navarone, the war film where he starred with David Niven and Anthony Quinn, and Roman Holiday, in which he appeared as a reporter alongside Audrey Hepburn in her Oscar-winning film debut. Peck and Hepburn were close friends until her death, and Peck even introduced her to her first husband, Mel Ferrer.
In 1947, while many Hollywood figures were being blacklisted for similar activities, he signed a letter deploring a House Un-American Activities Committee investigation of alleged communists in the film industry.
In 1949, Peck, Mel Ferrer and Dorothy McGuire founded The La Jolla Playhouse at his birthplace. This local community theater and landmark (now in a new home at the University of California, San Diego) still thrives today. It has attracted Hollywood film stars on hiatus both as performers and enthusiastic supporters since its inception.
He served as the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1967, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the American Film Institute from 1967 to 1969, Chairman of the Motion Picture and Television Relief Fund in 1971, and National Chairman of the American Cancer Society in 1966. He was a member of the National Council on the Arts from 1964 to 1966. President Richard Nixon placed Peck on his enemies list due to his liberal activism.
A lifelong supporter of the Democratic Party, Peck was suggested in 1970 as a possible Democratic candidate to run against Ronald Reagan for the office of Governor of California. Gregory Peck encouraged one of his sons, Carey Peck, to run for political office. Carey was defeated both times he tried for Congress, in 1978 and in 1980, by Republican Congressman Robert K. Dornan, both times by slim margins.
In an interview with the Irish media, Peck revealed that former President Lyndon Johnson had told him that, had he sought re-election, he intended to offer Peck the post of US ambassador to Ireland — a post Peck, due to his Irish ancestry, said he might well have taken, saying, “it would have been a great adventure.”
He was outspoken against the Vietnam War, while remaining supportive of his son, Stephen, who was fighting there. In 1972, Peck produced the film version of Daniel Berrigan’s play The Trial of the Catonsville Nine about the prosecution of a group of Vietnam protesters for civil disobedience. Despite his initial reluctance to portray the controversial General Douglas MacArthur on screen, he did so in 1977 and ended up with a great admiration for the man.
Though so well known and loved, he was not above all criticism. Pauline Kael described him as “competent but always a little boring.” Even those greatly admiring him would admit to a touch of stiffness in certain roles. Yet these qualities may have been a necessary trade-off for the iconic status he reached, and he may have known it.
A physically powerful man, he was known to do a majority of his own fight scenes, rarely using body or stunt doubles. In fact, Robert Mitchum, his on screen opponent in Cape Fear, often said that Peck once accidentally punched him for real during their final fight scene in the movie. He said that he felt the impact of the punch for days afterwards and said, “I don’t feel sorry for anyone dumb enough who picks a fight with him.”
Gregory Peck was married twice and had five children. He had three sons by his first wife, Greta Kukkonen, and a son and daughter by his second wife, Veronique Passani. Children with Kukkonen: Jonathan (b. 1944 – d. 1975), Stephen (b. 1945) and Carey Paul (b. 1949). Children with Veronique Passani: Tony (b. 1956) and Cecilia (b. 1958). In 1975, Peck’s 30 year-old son Jonathan, a television news reporter, committed suicide by gunshot.
Peck owned the thoroughbred steeplechase racehorse Different Class which raced in England. The horse was the favorite for the 1968 Grand National but finished third.
Gregory Peck was close friend with French president Chirac, who stated on his death, “Depuis de nombreuses années, il était pour moi un ami très cher.” meaning “For numerous years, he was a very dear friend of mine.”
He was of Armenian, British, Scottish, and Irish heritage.
In the 1980s Peck moved to television, where he starred in the mini-series The Blue and the Gray, playing Abraham Lincoln. He also starred in the TV film The Scarlet and The Black about a real-life Roman Catholic priest in the Vatican who smuggled Jews and other refugees away from the Nazis during World War II.
Peck retired from active film-making in 1991, having received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in 1989, and Crystal Globe award for outstanding artistic contribution to world cinema in 1996.
In 2000, Peck was made a Doctor of Letters by the National University of Ireland. He was a founding patron of the University College Dublin School of Film, where he persuaded Martin Scorsese to become an honorary patron.
Like Cary Grant before him, Peck spent the last few years of his life touring the world doing speaking engagements in which he would show clips from his movies, reminisce, and answer questions from the audience.
In early 2003, Gregory Peck was offered the role of Grandpa Joe in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He said he’d seriously consider it. He was looking forward to playing Grandpa Joe which he considered “the greatest swan song of them all,” but he died before he could accept.
On June 12, 2003, Peck died in his sleep from cardiorespiratory arrest and bronchial pneumonia at the age of 87 in Los Angeles. His wife of 48 years was at his side. Peck is buried in the mausoleum of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, California.
For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Gregory Peck has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6100 Hollywood Blvd. In November 2005, the star was stolen. It has been replaced with a new one.
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