Gregory Peck’s most famous movies are probably Roman Holiday (1953), Moby Dick (1956) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). While his persona throughout the majority of his career was that of a decent man, he increasingly stretched his range in the 1950s and 1960s with mixed results.
Eldred Peck was born on April 5, 1916. Shortly after his birth, Peck’s father lost his drugstore and was forced to sell the house, as well as accept a job as a night-shift pharmacist for a company. The situation did not make for a stable marriage and his parents separated when Peck was two. They divorced in 1921 and his mother won custody but she moved to Los Angeles to work, so he ended up living with his grandmother in La Jolla, California.
Peck missed having parents like everyone else and chose not to get too close to anyone, so he did not stand out academically or socially during elementary school. Sent away for junior high school to a military academy run by Catholic nuns and retired soldiers, he quickly grew to hate the regimented life but he also acquired a sense of duty that taught him to finish what he started. Although Peck continued to be a bit of a loner during senior high school, he was one of the few graduates to continue on to college. However, he was not especially interested in his studies, so he dropped out of San Diego State Teachers College.
Driving a gas truck for a few months made Peck realize that his future was limited, so he went back to school and earned a transfer to the University of California. After switching from pre-med to literature, he threw himself into his studies and began acting in student productions. He joined the university’s rowing team and while it lacked the glory of football, it kept him in great shape and further honed his character. Although he still mainly kept to himself, he had caught the acting bug and moved to New York to study acting. At the same time, he decided to drop Eldred and go by his middle name, Gregory.
After working a couple of dead end jobs, Peck began studying at the Neighborhood Playhouse, which was gaining a reputation as a leading acting school. Modeling paid the bills, and he won a scholarship for a summer internship at a theater, where he not only acted but helped set up the stage. The experience was clearly beneficial since he immediately landed a small part in a play right after graduation in 1941. His career continued to improve and while his finances were not always stable since the plays never seemed to pull in steady audiences, he had gradually worked his way up to leading man within a few months.
America’s entry into WWII in December 1941 would give his career a huge boost. A ruptured disk caused by an over-exuberant teacher at the Neighborhood Playhouse during a physical exercise ensured that he was classified 4F when the draft was introduced. Since almost all of the able-bodied men had enlisted, the studios had lost the vast majority of their stars, so agents were scouring New York theaters for promising actors. Hollywood had little attraction for Peck and he turned down the first offers but he now had the confidence to marry his girlfriend, Greta Kukkonen, on October 4. Three months later, the failure of two plays in a row and a growing pile of unpaid bills convinced him to go to Hollywood and meet with several studios, but he eventually settled for a four-year-long contract with producer Casey Robinson at $1,000 a week for two pictures a year, basically ten weeks of work per year. He viewed his time in Hollywood as a way to accumulate enough savings to let him concentrate on his true career, the theater.
Peck’s first film was Days of Glory (1944), where he played the leader of a band of Russian guerillas fighting the Nazi invaders. Accustomed to having to ensure that his performance reached the last row in the theater, he found it difficult to adapt to film and its fixation on close ups. Unfortunately, the film was a talky melodrama, so while his performance was praised, the movie did not last long in theaters. However, his agent Leland Hayward skillfully created a bidding war among the studios, and Peck had signed three more contracts before the movie had even opened. MGM accepted a three-picture deal, David O. Selznick bought out RKO’s half of his contract with Robinson, and 20th Century Fox arranged a four-picture deal. His second film, The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), for Fox, earned him his first Academy Award nomination, thus winning him entry to Hollywood’s elite.
The success of Spellbound (1945) confirmed that he was a hot actor and proved that he had adapted to working in film. At the same time, unlike many young actors, he avoided being typecast because he had played an impressive range of roles from noble Russian freedom fighter to kind-hearted but determined priest in China and finally a charismatic villain in Duel in the Sun (1946). By the summer of 1946, he had fulfilled enough of his assorted contracts that he was able to return to the theater but he now considered himself to be a screen actor who dabbled in the theater.
Although Peck had become one of Hollywood’s leading actors, he was not a serial cheater like many of his peers and he had little interest in the social scene, so he preferred to have a few friends over for dinner or simply read a book. He became fascinated by Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, and would eventually own a thousand books on the two subjects.
In between The Paradine Case (1947) and Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), Perk formed a theater group with Mel Ferrer and Dorothy McGuire in his hometown that would be called the La Jolla Playhouse. The theater group was eagerly embraced by the local community and he took part in an eight-week-long tour in the fall to give the company a solid financial foundation.
Gentleman’s Agreement, which examined the widespread but hidden anti-Semitism in American society, was part of the wave of dark, socially challenging films that appeared following WWII. Sam Goldwyn and Louis Mayer, the head of MGM, were both Jewish immigrants and felt that it would attract too much negative attention. However, they failed to persuade Darryl F. Zanuck, president of 20th Century Fox, to drop the film, and it was a critical and financial success, while Peck received his third Oscar nomination.
When the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) announced that it planned to hold hearings in Hollywood in 1947, he joined the Committee for the First Amendment, which was led by Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Huston and William Wyler, to protest the hearings. Despite Peck’s growing box-office clout, he was investigated by the local version of HUAC after he was named as a Communist sympathizer. However, a private meeting with the chairman of the committee ensured that he was not sub-poened to testify and did not have to name names.
At the same time, he was caught up in the changeover from traditional leading men like Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power to more gritty actors like Burt Lancaster and Robert Mitchum. Moreover, he was well aware that he was not suited for roles as villains or very flawed characters, since his natural decency prevented him from relating to characters that lacked integrity of some kind, which limited the range of roles he could play. The obvious choice were Westerns but despite his success in Westerns like the Yellow Sky (1948) and the Gunfighter (1950), Peck had no desire to spend the rest of his career riding a horse.
Since he was always away on the set, dealing with his theater company or researching another role, it should not come as a surprise that his marriage began to break up. Greta had trouble mixing with the elite of Hollywood and she proved unable to hold her alcohol as well as he did. However, the whole family packed up and moved to London for five months as Peck filmed Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. (1951), so everything still appeared to be fine on the surface.
Peck had signed with David O. Selznick because he was attracted by the creative freedom he was given but Selznick’s limited financial resources became a drag on his career. Although Peck’s movies continued to be hits, as an independent producer Selznick was having trouble adapting to the shrinking audience for movies as people stayed home to watch television, so he frequently loaned Peck out to other studios for a considerable profit. Projects like Hornblower were more than acceptable, but by-the-numbers westerns like Only the Valiant (1951), which lacked originality, a good cast, a decent director and a proper budget, were not. Peck’s dissatisfaction with his assignment did not affect his professionalism but it motivated his decision to not renew with Selznick when his contract finished. In fact, he became so unhappy that he took Seconal to combat insomnia and started an affair with his co-star, Barbara Payton.
Unlike many stars who viewed on-set affairs as part of the business, Peck was deeply unhappy with his marriage and suffered the early symptoms of a nervous breakdown in October 1950. A month-long vacation by himself gave him the strength to return to work but it was clear that his marriage was over. He also resigned from the management of the La Jolla Playhouse.
On a happier note, free of his contract, he was paid $100,000, twice his previous salary, for David and Bathsheba (1951). Peck only agreed when he learned that it would be character driven rather than an epic in the manner of a Cecil B. DeMille film. The role gave Peck the opportunity to move away from his traditional persona of a decent man to someone who struggles with his desires and responsibilities.
He first met Veronique Passani when she interviewed him for a French newspaper in 1952 and the relationship blossomed after Roman Holiday (1953), which was Peck’s first comedy and the start of a close friendship with director William Wyler. Like many of his peers, he took advantage of a loophole in American tax law that allowed people to pay no tax if they were living abroad seventeen out of eighteen months. He made three relatively small-scale foreign films that were not particularly successful, except they paid well and enabled him to develop his relationship with Veronique. She was sixteen years younger than him and he was still married. It is unknown whether his wife returned to America because she learned of the affair or if it became stronger after she was gone. It is known that both parties had agreed to a divorce by that stage. When he and Greta announced on July 3, 1954 that they were getting a divorce, he had already been seeing Veronique for almost two years.
With his personal life sorted out, Peck was ready for one of the most demanding roles of his career, Captain Ahab in Moby Dick (1956), which ended up taking nine months of his life. In fact, he almost died when the rubber whale slipped its cable with him tied to it during the filming of the climax and he was lost in the fog for ten minutes. Fortunately, Peck was found, although the rubber whale disappeared.
The divorce was granted on December 29, 1954 but even though the breakup had been relatively amicable, California law still required them to wait a year. Greta received custody of the children and Peck agreed to pay a generous alimony. The divorce became final on December 30, 1955 and he married Veronique the next day. Unlike his previous marriage, his relationship with Veronique proved to be a good match that provided him with a stable home life. At the same time, she was very involved in his career and he came to depend on her opinion.
Even though his European pictures had only been moderate successes, Peck signed a five picture contract with Fox that gave him $250,000 per picture. In addition, he formed a production company with Sy Bartlett, Melville Productions, in May 1958. Their first film was Pork Chop Hill (1959) but cooperation between Peck and director Lewis Milestone was not smooth. In fact, Peck, Bartlett and the scriptwriter fiddled with the final cut, which was not appreciated by Milestone. In the end, the film was a critical success but barely made enough to cover its budget.
While he had explored his range in the 1950s, he took even riskier roles in the 1960s, although his choices were not always appreciated by his fans. Cape Fear (1962) was a box office failure that forced Peck and Bartlett to end their production company.
Peck greatly slowed down his already relaxed acting style in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), which is probably his most famous role. More important, the role was the evolution of the persona that he had been developing throughout his career during films like The Yearling, Gentleman’s Agreement, and The Big Country (1958). It also earned him his first academy award in his fifth nomination.
Although his career had always been his primary focus, in 1964 Peck accepted the position of fund-raising chairman of the California branch of the American Cancer Society (ACS) because he knew a number of people suffering from throat cancer. He was also a member of the 1965 National Council on the Arts, which decided how to spend the admittedly modest endowment provided by the government for the year. Peck traveled to twenty-six cities to determine which non-profit theaters were the most deserving of financial support, as well as helped decide that the primary role of the newly founded American Film Institute should be the preservation of American films. That same year, he agreed to donate two percent of all of his annual earnings to the Motion Picture Relief Fund, which offered medical care for members of the industry. In 1966, he was elected National Crusade Chairman of the ACS and he researched the subject carefully to ensure that he was well-prepared when he addressed rallies and dinners.
After he helped Democratic governor of California Edmund “Pat” Brown win re-election in 1966, Brown recommended that he run for the Senate in 1968 but Peck made it clear that he preferred to serve rather than run for office. True to his word, he became president of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences, and chairman of the Board of the American Film Institute, both in 1967. Peck focused on forcing the Academy to accept younger members who better represented the actual movie-watching public, while taking away the right to vote for the Oscars from senior members who had not worked in the industry for decades. The mid-to-late sixties were spent working for society and this dedication was recognized in 1969 when President Lyndon Baines Johnson awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In fact, Peck was so dedicated that he only made two movies during the four years between 1963 and 1967, and they were not his best. Neither Mackenna’s Gold (1969) nor The Stalking Moon (1968) attracted a big audience, while his two movies in 1969, The Chairman and Marooned, also failed at the box office, mainly because they could not compete with the fresh, risk-taking movies like Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Easy Rider (1969) that were starting to emerge from the younger generation of filmmakers. Peck had little interest in taking part in these films, which bordered on vulgar in his opinion. All stars had to cope with becoming older but the change was so dramatic and fast that it was hard to deal with. Worse, he seemed unable to pick the right scripts. He was miscast in I Walk the Line (1970), and Shoot Out (1971), an attempt to follow in the footsteps of True Grit (1969) with the same director and similar story, proved unsuccessful. Eventually, he realized that he had to be very patient and very picky.
Although his son Stephen served as a Lieutenant in the Marine Corps in Vietnam, his belief that the war was a disaster grew over the years. Therefore, he financed the production of a film based on the trial of nine men who admitted to burning hundreds of draft cards of men classified 1-A. Unfortunately, it did not do well although it was well received at Cannes. When his next film, Billy Two Hats (1974), also failed, he began to wonder if he even had a future as a character actor. Worse, his son Jon killed himself in June because of work-related stress, relationship issues and health problems.
The Omen (1976) was the third highest grossing film that year, so it was a much needed hit that jump-started his career. His next movie was MacArthur (1977), and was intended to mimic the success of Patton (1970). Peck, in particular, hoped for an Oscar. Although his politics were almost the exact opposite of his model, he came to respect the real MacArthur so much that he fought to ensure that he gave a balanced performance. In fact, he later admitted that he had immersed himself in the subject so deeply that he lost his sense of perspective and basically looked at the story from MacArthur’s point of view, rather than his own. After playing a megalomaniac, it was not such a leap to play his first real villain, Josef Mengele, the Nazi guilty of conducting experiments at Auschwitz, in The Boys from Brazil (1978).
Many of Peck’s films failed to make much of a mark because he often seemed to be following the lead of more adventurous actors. Shoot Out followed True Grit, Guns of Navarone (1961) came after Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), MacArthur was made in reaction to Patton, and The Sea Wolves (1980) was meant to replicate the success of The Wild Geese (1978). When Sea Wolves did not do well, Peck realized it was time to take a break and wait for a worthwhile role.
Surprisingly, that role would be Abraham Lincoln in the miniseries The Blue and the Gray (1982). For the first time, he agreed to use a fake nose and contacts, as well as makeup to resemble Lincoln as closely as possible.
Although he was basically retired, he kept busy, recording an audio version of the King James Bible, attending a forum on nuclear disarmament in Moscow and a friendship visit to China, both of the latter in 1987.
However, Peck missed acting so he jumped at the chance to play Ambrose Bierce in Old Gringo (1989). While the film did not live up to his expectations, he did receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in 1989. Other awards, honors and festivals would follow in the next few years.
In 1995, feeling that he was only being offered character roles, Peck concentrated his energy on raising money for the Los Angeles Public Library and performing a series of lectures called A Conversation with Gregory Peck.
Peck passed away in his sleep on June 12, 2003.
Days of Glory (1944)
Directed by Jacques Tourneur, starring Tamara Toumanova and Gregory Peck
A band of guerrillas fights the Nazis following the German advance deep into the country in 1941, knowing that their chances of survival are small.
The Keys of the Kingdom (1944)
Directed by John M. Stahl, starring Gregory Peck and Thomas Mitchell
A Catholic priest spends forty years as a missionary in China, from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century.
Duel in the Sun (1946)
Directed by King Vidor, starring Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotton
A woman of mixed Indian and white heritage ends up living with distant relatives in Texas where she is pursued by the two sons of a senator, which threatens to tear the family apart.
Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)
Directed by Elia Kazan, starring Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire
A young reporter pretends to be Jewish to explore the unspoken anti-Semitism in America following WWII.
Twelve O’Clock High (1949)
Directed by Henry King, starring Gregory Peck and Hugh Marlowe
A tough general takes over command of an American bomber group suffering from low morale during the beginning of daylight bombing of Germany in 1942 during WWII. While his methods are eventually successful, he begins to suffer the same problem as his predecessor and begins to care too much for the pilots under his command.
The Gunfighter (1950)
Directed by Henry King, starring Gregory Peck and Helen Westcott
A gunslinger rides into a town to see his ex-girlfriend and hopefully re-enter civilized society but finds that people are not as forgiving as he had expected.
Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. (1951)
Directed by Raoul Walsh, starring Gregory Peck and Virginia Mayo
In 1807, a British naval captain is sent to Central America to supply arms to rebels in the hope that it will distract Napoleon’s Spanish allies.
Only the Valiant (1951)
Directed by Gordon Douglas, starring Gregory Peck and Barbara Payton
Held responsible for the death of a popular lieutenant during an Apache ambush, a cavalry captain leads a small group of soldiers to hold a mountain pass against a powerful force of Indians, while waiting for reinforcements. Unfortunately, the men hate him as much as they do the Apache.
David and Bathsheba (1951)
Directed by Henry King, starring Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward
When King David of Israel falls in love with the wife of one of his soldiers and arranges for the man to die in battle, he brings God’s wrath on to the kingdom.
Night People (1954)
Directed by Nunnally Johnson, starring Gregory Peck and Broderick Crawford
An American colonel based in post-WWII Berlin struggles to arrange the return of an American soldier who was kidnapped by East Germany’s secret police.
The Purple Plain (1954)
Directed by Robert Parrish, starring Gregory Peck and Win Min Than
A Canadian pilot in the RAF who still mourns his wife who died in the Blitz is shot down behind enemy lines in Burma and has to make it back with two injured crewmates.
The Bravados (1958)
Directed by Henry King, starring Gregory Peck and Joan Collins
A farmer tracks down the four outlaws who murdered his wife and is enlisted to help capture them after they escape from the town’s jail.
The Big Country (1958)
Directed by William Wyler, starring Gregory Peck and Jean Simmons
A wealthy sea-captain arrives in the vast West to meet his fiancé’s father and finds himself in the middle of a war over water rights between two rival clans.
Pork Chop Hill (1959)
Directed by Lewis Milestone, starring Gregory Peck and Harry Gaurdino
As peace talks near the end of the Korean War hit an impasse, the Chinese capture a strategically unimportant hilltop, so an American company is sent to retake the hill, which soon becomes a key symbol during the on-going peace talks. (full review)
The Guns of Navarone (1961)
Directed by J. Lee Thompson, starring Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn
2,000 British soldiers are trapped on a Greek island in 1943 but can not be evacuated because two powerful German anti-ship batteries control access to the island, so a force of British commandoes are sent to link up with Greek partisans and destroy the batteries.
How the West Was Won (1962)
Directed by John Ford, Henry Hathaway and George Marshal; starring Gregory Peck and James Stewart
An epic that examines lives of several generations of the same family through the crossing of the plains, the Civil War and the Gold Rush.
Behold a Pale Horse (1964)
Directed by Fred Zinnemann, starring Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn
A former guerrilla during the Spanish Civil War has been living in France for twenty years but risks capture when he returns to Spain to visit his dying mother.
The Stalking Moon (1968)
Directed by Robert Mulligan, starring Gregory Peck and Eva Marie Saint
A retired Indian scout allows a woman recently freed from the Apache and her half-breed son to live with him, not knowing that the boy’s father is a feared warrior and is coming to reclaim them.
Billy Two-Hats (1974)
Directed by Ted Kotcheff, starring Gregory Peck and Desi Arnez, Jr
Two outlaws on the run from a marshal end up hiding with a farmer and his young wife.
Directed by Joseph Sargent, starring Gregory Peck and Marj Dusay
It presents General Douglas MacArthur’s life from the American defeat in the Philippines in 1942 through WWII, his service as consul in Japan, the Korean War and his final confrontation with President Harry Truman. (full review)
The Sea Wolves (1980)
Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, starring Gregory Peck and David Niven
Retired British soldiers are sent to destroy a German ship in neutral Goa that is feeding information to U-boats during WWII.
Old Gringo (1989)
Directed by Luis Puenzo, starring Jane Fonda and Gregory Peck
An American school teacher is kidnapped by a rebel general and becomes involved in the Mexican Revolution. (full review)
Gregory Peck: A Biography-Gary Fishgall, New York: Scribner, 2002.
Since Peck was still alive when this book was writer and provided the author with written answers to written questions, as well as approved the final draft, any dirty laundry is ignored or mentioned briefly. The first quarter of the book relates the story of Peck’s life before coming to Hollywood but from that point on his life is framed movie by movie. Although his personal life at the time of each movie is discussed, the focus is predominantly on his career. While there is nothing wrong with the biography, it is limited by the author’s determination to not offend Peck, and perhaps by Peck’s reluctance to really open up as Henry Fonda did with his biographer Howard Teichmann.