Durable star Peck dies at 87

Thesp beloved as 'Mockingbird's' Atticus Finch

When Hollywood needed to cast a hero, it often looked no farther than Academy Award-winning actor Gregory Peck, one of the most popular and durable leading men of the post-WWII era and, in recent years, one of the more well-respected senior industry spokesmen. The venerated, deep-voiced thesp died Thursday of natural causes at his home in Los Angeles. He was 87.

Peck burst onto the Hollywood scene in leading roles and remained a star throughout his career, culminating in his best actor Oscar for his role as a small-town Southern lawyer in the 1962 pic “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Last week, his character in that pic, Atticus Finch, was named the American Film Institute’s leading cinematic hero of the last 100 years.

“Atticus Finch embodies what (Peck) was all about — taking on risky projects because it was right to do so,” MPAA topper Jack Valenti said in a statement.

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Peck’s vehicles were A-studio projects all the way. His lanky good looks and laconic delivery were up to the task in such diverse films as Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound,” Henry King’s “The Gunfighter” and “Twelve O’Clock High” and William Wyler’s “Roman Holiday.”

Last of a breed

Though Peck was never actually allied with any one studio, he was one of the last of a breed of glamorous matinee idols emblematic of the major studios’ star system, among them Clark Gable (MGM), Gary Cooper (Paramount) and Humphrey Bogart (Warner Bros.). After him came Marlon Brando, James Dean, Paul Newman and Robert De Niro, products of the Method school. Peck studied and advocated the Stanislavsky style, but by comparison with their “hot” emoting, Peck was stoic (some critics contended he was wooden).

What he possessed was a solid, self-effacing, quintessentially American quality — equal parts Grant Wood and the Arrow Collar Man. Those qualities improved with age, and long after the leading roles stopped coming on a regular basis, Peck was an ambassador for Hollywood in political and charitable endeavors.

A native of La Jolla, Calif., Eldred Gregory Peck was born April 5, 1916, the only child of a pharmacist. After his parents divorced, he was moved to St. Louis and San Francisco for a time before returning to La Jolla. He attended a Catholic military academy, San Diego High School and then UC Berkeley. He was going to study medicine according to his father’s wishes, but proved to have no facility for it and switched to the humanities, joining the drama club along the way.

At Neighborhood Playhouse

After school, he headed for New York, where he worked as a barker at the 1939 World’s Fair. On scholarship, he studied for two years at the Neighborhood Playhouse alongside Tony Randall and Eli Wallach, doing occasional modeling on the side. An exercise accident resulted in a spinal injury (he wore a back brace for six years) that disqualified him from the armed forces. This proved an advantage for the actor, since most other able-bodied young men were off fighting.

Peck’s first professional work was with the Cornell-McClintic company, and his first Broadway appearance was a notable one in Emlyn Williams’ “Morning Star.” It was through his champion, actress Katharine Cornell, that he met his first wife, the Finnish-born Greta Konen, who was Cornell’s hairdresser and cosmetician. They were married in 1942.

He co-starred opposite Tamara Toumanova in his first film, the 1944 “Days of Glory,” which was poorly received but brought him to the attention of the major studios. Darryl Zanuck signed him to play the role of a priest who ages from 18 to 80 (he was then 28) in an adaptation of A.J. Cronin’s “The Keys of the Kingdom.”

Mayer comes knocking

The part earned him an Academy Award nomination and the interest of MGM’s Louis B. Mayer. When Peck refused to sign the then-standard seven-year contract, he said, Mayer wheedled, cajoled and even cried. After Peck agreed to work at MGM (but not under contract), Mayer stopped crying and ushered in his next appointment.

At MGM, he starred in “Valley of Decision,” “The Yearling” (which brought him a second Oscar nominations) and “The Great Sinner.”

In between, he had the lead opposite Ingrid Bergman in Hitchcock’s “Spellbound,” which made him a major star. That 1945 pic was produced by David O. Selznick, who also starred Peck in the lust-in-the-dust Western “Duel in the Sun” as the curiously passive object of Jennifer Jones’ obsession. Another Hitchcock/Selznick production followed, “The Paradine Case,” in which he was so miscast as an English barrister (the director wanted Laurence Olivier) that Hitchcock had a major falling out with the producer and severed their fruitful relationship.

Peck’s left-leaning political sentiments were stirred by the 1947 pic “Gentleman’s Agreement,” which addressed the problem of anti-Semitism in the U.S.. He agreed to do the film despite reservations about director Elia Kazan’s suitability and the relatively tame handling of the subject matter (which, even so, was considered too touchy by the other major studios). It brought him a third Oscar nom and was named best picture.

Along with co-star Dorothy McGuire, Selznick, Jennifer Jones and Mel Ferrer, Peck established the La Jolla Playhouse, which was in existence for the next six years. Peck appeared there in “The Male Animal,” “Light Up the Sky” and “Angel Street.

Check list

In 1947, Peck appeared before the California State Un-American Activities Committee and listed every organization to which he’d ever sent a check or allowed the use of his name, saying he’d do it again for the same reason he had helped them in the first place — because each had promoted a worthy cause. He was presented with an “official” document from the committee saying he was innocent of being pro-Communist.

Over the next several years, he copped yet another Oscar nom, this time for “Twelve O’Clock High,” and gave what many consider his finest performance, in 1950’s “The Gunfighter” (which led him to turn down “High Noon” because the subject matter was too similar). “Roman Holiday” was his first romantic comedy. He always claimed that good comedies rarely came his way, as they were offered to Cary Grant first.

Throughout the rest of the ’50s, even the failures (including John Huston’s innovative “Moby Dick,” in which Peck played the obsessed Captain Ahab) were valiant ones, and his successes, like “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit,” “The Big Country” and “Designing Woman,” were respectable enough to make him a major box office presence.

Risk taker

Peck was not averse to risk-taking, as he showed with “Moby Dick” and 1959’s “On the Beach,” Nevil Shute’s nuclear doomsday saga. He also lent his talents to big studio projects that he co-produced, like “The Guns of Navarone” and the less successful 1962 thriller “Cape Fear,” which was remade by Martin Scorsese in 1991 (with Peck in a small role).

He finally won his Oscar for “To Kill a Mockingbird” as a single father and lawyer who defends a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Horton Foote, who wrote the screenplay with novelist Harper Lee, said that when they were making the film he said to Peck, ” ‘I wish you’d been my father.’ He had that quality of solidity and grace.”

End of an era

Although he continued as a popular star in such films as “Arabesque” (1966), “The Omen” (a huge hit in 1976), “MacArthur” and “The Boys From Brazil” (1978, in a rare appearance as a villain), Peck’s era largely ended with the demise of the studio system.

The actor worked only occasionally after that, such as in “Old Gringo” (he replaced Burt Lancaster in the ’89 pic) and “Other People’s Money” (1991). He ventured occasionally into TV, in 1982 mini “The Blue and the Gray” (as Abraham Lincoln) and 1993’s “The Portrait,” in which his daughter Cecilia Peck played his onscreen offspring.

Norman Jewison, who directed Peck in “Money” and 1973’s “Billy Two Hats,” got the news of Peck’s death in Paris where he’s filming “The Statement.” “I always felt safe when he was on the screen,” Jewison said.

Peck served as a SAG board member from 1945-47. In 1989, he received AFI’s lifetime achievement award — he was the first chairman of the AFI’s board of trustees in 1967 — and in 1991 was honored by the American Civil Liberties Union of California with the Bill of Rights Award. He was also feted by the Lincoln Center Film Society and the Kennedy Center.

AFI remembers

Peck’s death came the same day the American Film Institute presented its lifetime achievement award to Robert De Niro.

“He helped establish the AFI,” said institute CEO Jean Picker Firstenberg. “He built it, believed in it, and 35 years later it represents his legacy.”

Peck also had a significant relationship with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. He was AMPAS president from 1967-70, and in 1967 he received the Academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

“The Academy in particular has lost a past president who, more than any other, is responsible for forging the Academy as we know it today,” AMPAS president Frank Pierson said in a statement.

Peck was instrumental in revitalizing the Academy in the ’70s and starting it on the vigorous agenda of programming, grant support and preservation work that characterize it today.

In the mid-1950s, he divorced his first wife and married Veronique Passani, the daughter of a French architect. They had two children, Anthony and Cecilia, both actors. He also has two surviving children from his first marriage, Carey and Stephen. Another son, Jonathan, predeceased him.