Category: Archive

The unpretentious star

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

It’s impossible to know, whether Gregory Peck ever encountered this Shavian anecdote, but it’s an almost perfect expression of the way that this Irish-American actor lived his life and conducted his career.
Peck, who died last Thursday at age 87, was clearly the last man standing of the great post-World War II American screen idols.
The actor was born on April 5, 1916, the son of a La Jolla, Calif., pharmacist. His full name was Eldred Gregory Peck, his mother, Bernice, having selected his first name after a search through the telephone directory.
His background was decidedly Irish, but he never made much of a point of it until late in his life, when he made several trips to Ireland and became interested in the nation’s film industry, eventually endowing the Gregory Peck Scholarships at the film school at University College Dublin.
Of all his films, the one that meant the most to him was “To Kill a Mockingbird,” an adaptation of Harper Lee’s prize-winning novel. Peck was Atticus Finch, a trial lawyer raising his two motherless children in a small Alabama town.
The 1962 film dealt with Finch’s struggles to obtain the freedom of a black man who had been wrongly accused of rape.
Not only was the black-and-white film, directed by Robert Mulligan, a vast success, but it won Peck his first and only Academy Award, after four nominations.
So much did “Mockingbird” mean to the actor that when he formed his own production company, he named it Atticus Films.
Actress Rosemary Murphy worked with Peck in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and remembers the experience with great warmth.
Reached by phone at her home in Fenwick, Conn., she recalled her initial meeting with the film’s star. “I was a bit intimidated, but he turned out to be among the least pretentious men I’d ever met,” she said.
In addition to being down-to-earth, Peck was also well over 6 feet tall, which came as a relief to the statuesque actress. “I’d worked with a lot of actors who were shorter than I was, but even when I was wearing platform shoes, which were popular at the time, and heels, he was tall enough for me,” she remembered.
Murphy recalled Peck’s relationship with the two young actors who played his children in the film. “He took Mary Badham, who played Scout, home almost every weekend, because her mother couldn’t stay in California for the whole shooting schedule,” Murphy said. “He wanted her to have a sense of home life, rather than just being alone in a hotel when we had days off.”
Certainly, Peck’s closeness to the child actress paid on-camera dividends in terms of their work in the film.
Rosemary Murphy played a character named “Miss Maudie” in the film, a neighbor who lived across the street from Atticus Finch and who, among other things, looked after the children on a night when angry townspeople were attempting to lynch the accused man, played by Brock Peters.
The actress recalled Peck’s dealings with a younger child who played his son in the film. “The little boy was probably 8 or 9, but he looked about 4,” she said. “He played chess with Peck, and often beat him, which Greg absolutely loved!”
As a pre-med student at the University of California at Berkeley, Peck acted in a few drama club productions, including a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “Anna Christie,” in which he played Matt Burke, the shipwrecked stoker saved from drowning by the vessel captained by the prostitute heroine’s Swedish-born father, Chris Christoferson.
Having been advised to study theater in the East, he came to New York in 1939, at age 23, and secured a job as a barker at the World’s Fair.
Having enrolled at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater, Peck soon began attracting the attention of stage and film professionals, including David O. Selznick, who gave him a screen test but not a contract.
Actress Marian Seldes, a later graduate of the Neighborhood Playhouse, taught the actor’s son, Tony, at the Juilliard School and appeared with his daughter, Cecilia, in “Happy Ending,” a comedy written by the actress’ late husband, Garson Kanin.
“Greg always honored the Neighborhood Playhouse whenever he got the chance and unfailingly gave credit to the teachers who had taught him there, including Sanford Meisner and Martha Graham, ” she recalled.
After a national tour of G.B. Shaw’s “The Doctor’s Dilemma,” in which he supported Katharine Cornell, Peck married his first wife, Greta Rice, who had been the star’s hairdresser. Over the years, when publicists and journalists tried to describe the actor’s wife as “Cornell’s secretary,” he unfailingly corrected them, saying “She was a hairdresser, and a good one, too!”
After three quick Broadway flops, in the last of which, Irwin Shaw’s “Sons and Soldiers,” he played opposite Geraldine Fitzgerald, Peck was called to Hollywood.
His first film, 1944’s “Days of Glory,” didn’t make much of a stir, but his second outing, playing a priest, Father Francis Chisholm, in the screen adaptation of A.J. Cronin’s “The Keys of the Kingdom,” was a success, earning him the first of his five Academy Award nominations.
Peck’s strong, solid presence and his heroic appearance influenced the roles he played through his career of more than films. He was seldom cast as a villain, and when he was, he wasn’t at his best. He seemed formed by nature to represent a certain kind of steadfast American virtue.
Peck never traded on his father’s family’s strong Irish roots. Like Tyrone Power, he never really was part of what became known as Hollywood’s famously raucous “Irish mafia,” composed of names such as James Gleason, Frank McHugh, Pat O’Brien and, to an extent, even the great James Cagney.
His awareness of his family’s heritage, however, was always with him. “My paternal grandmother, Katherine Ashe, was a relative of Thomas Ashe, who died in a British prison the year after the 1916 Rising,” he said. “He’s a family hero. I’ve got a picture of him, passed on to me by my father, in my study in California.”
Peck’s Irishness played a role in his life and in his career, early and late. In 1946, with five films already to his credit, including “The Valley of Decision” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound,” he came East and played Christy Mahon in J.M. Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World” at the Cape Cod Playhouse in Dennis, Maas., a theater where he’d worked during at least one summer when he was a hopeful actor recently arrived in New York.
A photograph from the Synge production 57 summers back, with Beatrice Straight as Pegeen Mike, shows a tall, lanky, somewhat uncomfortable-looking Peck standing rigidly, with his hands dangling at his sides.
Half a century later, urged on by producer Noel Pearson, he founded the film scholarships that bear his name, and became more actively involved in Irish affairs.
On March 14, 1999, he took part in “Both Sides Now: An Evening of Music and Spoken Word Celebrating the People of Northern Ireland.”
In the program, held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and hosted by the Irish Echo, the actor appeared twice, first reminding the audience that Herman Melville’s 1849 novella, “Redburn,” based on a voyage to Liverpool the author, then 18, had made in 1837, dealt with 500 Irish men, women and children embarking on a journey to America.
Later in the evening, Peck returned to the podium and read a brief extract from Seamus Heaney’s “The Cure at Troy,” the Nobel laureate’s version of Sophocles’s “Philoctetes.”
The actor’s second wife, former journalist Veronique Passani, whom he first met when she interviewed him in Paris for her paper, France Soir, survives him, as do four of his five children, Stephen and Carey from his first marriage, and Tony and Cecilia, from his second.
Another son, Jonathan, a television reporter whose mother was Peck’s first wife, committed suicide at age 30.
The closest Gregory Peck came in his later years to appearing live on a New York Stage came in 1999, when, touring with his wife and performing his informal one-man show, “An Evening with Gregory Peck,” he played the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J., with a packed house which included then-Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.
The event consisted of 25 minutes of film clips followed by a question-and-answer period with the audience. Peck said he did the tour partly because his friend Cary Grant had had a success with a similar venture and partly because he wanted to show his French wife as much of America as possible.
Though he himself never returned to a Manhattan stage, Peck’s recorded voice had a run of longer than a year in composer Cy Coleman’s hit musical “The Will Rogers Follies” in the mid-1990s.
In 1989, Peck starred opposite Jane Fonda and Jimmy Smits in the film version of Mexican novelist Carols Fuentes’s “The Old Gringo,” playing the American writer Ambrose Bierce, who went to Vera Cruz in 1914 and vanished, his disappearance never to be explained.
The actor had faith in the film, and when it failed at the box office, his interest in working diminished, and he appeared on the big screen only twice more, first in the movie version of Jerry Sterner’s off-Broadway play, “Other People’s Money,” in 1991. Later in the same year, he did a cameo in Martin Scorsese’s remake of “Cape Fear,” in which he had starred in 1962, the same year he won his Oscar for “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Gregory Peck’s last work before the cameras came a little later when he played Father Maple in a made-for-TV version of Melville’s “Moby Dick.” In 1956, he had filmed the great novel for director John Huston, playing Captain Ahab, with Orson Welles as Father Maple.
Of his 1956 performance, with which Peck and most of the critics were less than fully satisfied, the actor said: “I wasn’t mean enough. I wasn’t angry enough. I wasn’t crazy enough.”
It didn’t come naturally to Gregory Peck to be mean or angry. He will, to put it very mildly, be deeply missed and richly remembered.

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