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February 07, 1993|ANN GREEN | Ann Green is a free-lance writer based in North Carolina

RALEIGH, N.C. — When Gregory Peck teams up with Lauren Bacall for a new TV movie, they don't have any trouble fitting together as a family.

To add to the family dynamics, Peck's daughter Cecilia co-stars as their daughter.

Peck co-starred with Bacall 36 years ago in "Designing Woman," and has remained friends with her over the years. Last month he presented her the Golden Globe's Cecil B. DeMille Award for career achievement.

"I first became acquainted with Betty when she was 17," Peck said. "I was a leading man on Broadway. We were acquainted in a glancing way at a producer's cocktail party. She was a sometime usherette. She has known Cecilia since she was a pup. She is a very good friend of my wife. The personal relationships help."

Bacall agreed.

"We like one another," Bacall said. "There is good chemistry between us. Greg is a loving human being. He is not like most actors. He is interesting and intelligent."

"The Portrait," adapted by Lynn Roth from the Tina Howe play "Painting Churches," also gave both Peck and Bacall their first opportunity to work with Arthur Penn ("The Miracle Worker," "Bonnie & Clyde," "Little Big Man").

"I was attracted to the fact that it was a centrally located family story," said Penn. "A family story with a young person with aging parents is often not treated."

Peck, who grew a scraggly white beard for the part, plays Gardner Church, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Ivy League professor in failing health.

The 76-year-old Peck said he didn't mind playing an aging character.

"No, it doesn't bother the character either," said Peck, who is executive producer of the film. "He takes it all in good humor. I take it the same way. I am getting a little creaky and moving a little slower. I get more tired by 4 o'clock. But there is nothing to do but laugh and go along with it."

Bacall, 68, plays Gardner's eccentric wife, Fanny.

"It's the best part I've had in a number of years," she said, sitting in a cotton blue-striped bathrobe in her trailer. "It gave me an opportunity to work with Greg again. It is a real character part; I do a lot of talking."

Bacall, who made her film debut at 19 with Humphrey Bogart in "To Have and Have Not," has received acclaim on Broadway, winning Tonys for her performances in "Applause" and "Woman of the Year."

"I have a sense of knowing how to do it better than before," she said. "I'm not saying that I have all the answers--far from it. The theater has given me more confidence."

Cecilia Peck, a Princeton graduate who has appeared in the movies "Ambition" and "Torn Apart," plays the Churches' daughter Mags. The character is an aspiring artist who is having trouble getting her parents to accept her career and comes home to finish a portrait of them.

"The Portrait" marks the first time Peck and his daughter have played opposite each other. He gets a gleam in his brown eyes when talking about her. They embrace often on the set.

"It is total, unmitigated joy," said Peck. "She is absolutely wonderful and totally natural. It is a perfect part for her."

Cecilia Peck, 34, a striking actress with reddish-brown hair, said she's had the time of her life working with her father. "It is a treat spending time together," said the publicity-shy Peck. "Even though we are close and stay in the same city (in the Los Angeles area), we never get to spend so much time together. He is great fun on the set. Between him and Ms. Bacall, I have not stopped laughing."

Are there any similarities between the father and daughter's strained relationship on screen and off?

"No," he said. "It would make good copy, but we are absolutely good friends and see each other a lot. We don't have alienation problems. We have seen (family problems) and heard of it a lot. It doesn't take a lot of imagination."

Penn said he admired Peck for being "willing to play a man in a lesser physical state than he is. Somebody with dementia and failing powers. He plays it with grace and subtlety."

As Fanny Church, Bacall plays a woman so devoted to her husband that she refuses to acknowledge his memory lapses.

"Fanny is a nightmare in a way," Bacall said. "Her entire identity is wrapped around her husband. They have a marriage of love, passion, fun and mutual admiration. I have never had a marriage that lasted 30 years and never will," said Bacall, who was married to Bogart for 11 1/2 years until his death in 1957, and then to Jason Robards for eight years. "So I can live vicariously through the part."

Bacall says she's taken chances and played scenes in an open, relaxed way that she might not with another director.

"Arthur has been very helpful. I have not felt that I have had to protect myself. When actors don't trust a director, they pull in and give safe performances because they are afraid of making fools of themselves. With this, I have gone for broke. To hell with it. So I do too much. It's been great fun."

The project was born out of Peck's effort. He had seen "Painting Churches" several years before at the Off Broadway Lambs Theatre and loved it.

"I thought it would make an excellent piece," Peck said, "a part suitable for me. A very amusing, outspoken, eccentric piece for my friend, Betty Bacall, and a lovely part for my daughter, Cecilia."

When Peck got Penn to direct the movie, he did a little dance.

"It is very much an actor's piece," Peck said. "It is not a story of density. It is exactly what blockbuster movie types would disparagingly call 'a picture with relationships.' It is kind of a dirty word for them. For that reason, TV is the right medium."

"The Portrait" premieres Saturday at 5, 7 and 9 p.m. on TNT; it repeats Feb. 14 at 1 p.m., Feb. 15 at 7 p.m. and Feb. 18 at 8 p.m..

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