You hear it time and again: After a lifetime as a movie star, Gregory Peck is a remarkably regular guy. Yes, he clearly enjoys the trappings of success, but he is seemingly unaffected by fame. Now 84, he is polite, engaging and full of humor.
These days, Peck describes himself as retired and focuses much of his energy on his role as honorary chair of the Los Angeles Library Foundation, which supports the L.A. Public Library through a variety of programs, including an innovative project to encourage reading among teens. For the past five years, Peck has produced a series of readings at the library featuring well-known actors; next month, he's putting on a benefit dinner to raise funds for the foundation.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 10, 2000 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 3 Opinion Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Interview--In the Gregory Peck interview, published Nov. 5 in the Opinion section, the names Sidney Poitier and Eugene O'Neill were misspelled.
Peck describes his childhood as somewhat lonely and full of self-doubt. His parents divorced when he was 6, and he was raised, in part, by his grandmother. Still, he developed an early love for books. As soon as he graduated from UC Berkeley, he headed for New York to pursue an acting career, where he was an almost instant success.
Peck was quickly courted by Hollywood, but demurred because he was more interested in the stage. He claims he made Louis B. Mayer cry when the mogul begged him to sign a contract and Peck refused. Eventually. Peck did succumb to the siren's call of Hollywood, but he did so without signing the then-standard seven-year contract.
It was his role as a small-town lawyer, Atticus Finch, in the film version of Harper Lee's novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" that crystallized his image in the public mind as a powerful voice of decency and humanity. In line with that role, Peck has garnered a reputation as one of Hollywood's leading liberals. He was a vocal anti-nuclear activist and remains a strong proponent of gun control. His political views landed him on Richard M. Nixon's enemies list, and Ronald Reagan once referred to him as "my former friend."
Peck is married to former French journalist Veronique Passani. They have a son and daughter; Peck has three sons from a previous marriage. Sitting in an overstuffed chair in his living room, surrounded by paintings and prints by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Raoul Dufy, Peck talked about his long film career, the development of his political views and his love of books and reading.
Question: When you were young, you studied medicine, but after seeing a Broadway play, you dropped your medical ambitions and became an actor. Is that true?
Answer: That's not at all true. I took premed courses for a couple of years, but I graduated as an English major. I just wasn't that good at math or science, so I . . . went over to what I really liked, which is literature, reading and writing. I got my library card at the age of 6. I hauled out several books at a time, such fare as "Tom Swift and His Electric Flying Machine." I was very fond of a series of books about a family of cave dwellers. Then I moved onto "Kidnapped" and books like that. I always read two or three books at the same time, hopping, skipping and jumping from one to another. Right now, I'm reading one called "Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist." It's very entertaining, very readable and very revealing. I'm also reading Sidney Portier's autobiography. . . . Finally, I've just started a book about globalization, called "The Lexus and the Olive Tree."
Q: Do you mostly read nonfiction?
A: Yes, I haven't read any novels lately. I suppose these days I'm interested more in facts than in fiction.
Q: You've had everyone from Norman Lloyd to Billy Bob Thornton reading in your series. How do you go about selecting these people?
A: I just get on the phone and organize it. I always let the actors choose their own material. I hope that people will come, experience these fine actors reading great literature and, in turn, go home and read something. I'm told by many people that is exactly what happens. We rehearse and prepare the material carefully. At the fund-raising dinner [on Nov. 14], Anjelica Huston is reading "You Were Perfectly Fine," by Dorothy Parker; Jack Lemmon will read monologues from Eugene O'Neil's "Long Day's Journey Into Night"; and Patrick Stewart is going to read from Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward. This will be followed by a series of six evenings of readings at the library.
Q: How were you able, fairly early on as a screen actor, to become independent and work outside of what was then a very rigid contract system?