Peck a real-life hero and true class act

Whether he was playing an American WWII general in “MacArthur,” Dr. Josef Mengele in “The Boys From Brazil” or a Jewish newsman reporting on anti-Semitism in “Gentleman’s Agreement,” Gregory Peck was always the man for all reasons. It was a joy to be on those sets when Gregory Peck was working — and more of a pleasure to be in his company offstage at his home in Holmby Hills, in the Pecks’ Paris apartment and guesting with them in Pamela Harriman’s Paris residence when she was ambassador to France. Or at the White House, when he received a Kennedy Center Honor. There was never anything phony about Greg — or his performances. One of his humorous mottos was, “Always give your best performance — and always fly first class!” And he was first-class. When asked his favorite role, he had always believed his Atticus Finch, the hero of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “will probably be on my tombstone.” And coincidentally, that role was the top vote-getting hero of the AFI’s “100 Years: 100 Heroes and Villains,” which aired June 3. On Wednesday, Veronique Peck phoned the AFI’s Jean Firstenberg and asked her assistant Travis Harrison to get a tape of that show to the Peck house — immediately — to show it to Greg. A messenger was conveniently in the AFI office and quickly delivered it. Thursday morning at 4 ayem, Greg died. Veronique tearfully said, “He led an extraordinary life and we loved him deeply. He was our hero and our role model, and we were blessed to have him as a husband, a father and a grandfather.” Also on hand at home as arrangements were being made at Holy Cross were his children, Stephen, Carey, Anthony and Cecilia; grandchildren, Marisa, Ethan, Christopher, Zack, Ondine and Harper, the last named for Lee; and half-brother Donald. Cecilia, an AFI board member, produced a documentary, “Conversation With Gregory Peck,” which showed at Cannes in 2000 and on PBS and Turner Classics. Greg was the first chairman of the board of AFI Trustees in 1967 and the board learned of his death during its meeting Thursday morning. A tribute was immediately planned for Thursday night’s AFI Life Achievement Award honoring Robert De Niro … A private interment will be held at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City Monday, and a Mass will be held at 2 p.m. Monday at Our Lady of the Angels. An industry tribute is being planned for August at the Academy, where he was once president and a longtime officer.

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PECK’S WONDERFUL SENSE OF HUMOR was well-known to his group of poker-playing friends, who met regularly at Frank Sinatra’s house. Frank and Greg were lifelong friends — even though their politics differed in later years. The celeb group of card players said that Greg, very much like the heroes he played in Westerns, played poker like one of those cowboys — he knew when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em … Kirk Douglas, one of Peck’s pals, said they always talked movies but never did one. He was deeply saddened by the news of Peck’s passing. “All my colleagues are gone — Burt (Lancaster), Jack (Lemmon), Walter (Matthau). I will try to hang in,” said Douglas, 86. When I told Peck’s fellow poker-playing pal Larry Gelbart of the death of his friend, he noted, “You did not have to be in a forest this morning to hear the sound of a sequoia falling. When the news came that Gregory Peck had made his exit from this world, we learned that that sound is your own heartbeat growing heavier and heavier as it tries to deal with the enormity of the loss. Greg never had to do any research to play a hero. All he ever had to do was be himself.” You said it, pardner.