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GREGORY PECK 1916-2003

Peck Was 'Last Aristocrat' of Hollywood Golden Era

June 13, 2003|Myrna Oliver, Robert W. Welkos and Susan King | Times Staff Writers

Academy Award winner Gregory Peck, one of Hollywood's best-loved actors, whose characters embodied a gentle dignity, heroism and compassion for the underdog in such films as "To Kill a Mockingbird," died early Thursday at his home in Los Angeles.

Peck, who was 87, died about 4 a.m., with his wife, Veronique, at his bedside, according to family spokesman Monroe Friedman.

"He wasn't feeling well," Friedman said. "She told me she went to him and held his hand and he looked at her and closed his eyes and was gone."

Friedman denied reports that Peck had been in ill health or had suffered a stroke. "He had not been gravely ill," Friedman said. "He was certainly getting older and showing his years."

Over the course of nearly six decades, Peck had been a major star and top box office draw. He was classically handsome -- tall, lean and chiseled -- his voice a sonorous mix of strength and tenderness.

Last week, the American Film Institute named Atticus Finch of "To Kill a Mockingbird" -- the performance for which Peck won an Oscar in 1962 -- the top screen hero in Hollywood history.

"He was the last of the true aristocrats of the old Hollywood," said Frank Pierson, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an organization Peck once led. "We all miss that time."

Although a young, beginning actor, Peck was nominated for a best actor Oscar four times early in his career -- as a missionary in China in "The Keys of the Kingdom" (1944), a taciturn father in "The Yearling" (1946), a reporter battling anti-Semitism in "Gentleman's Agreement" (1947), and as a psychologically tormented aviator in "Twelve O'Clock High" (1949). But it wasn't until he portrayed an older, white Southern lawyer defending a black man accused of rape in "To Kill a Mockingbird" that he took home an Oscar.

"I've often joked that my obituary would read 'Academy Award-winner for [ ... "Mockingbird"],' " Peck told an interviewer in 1989 on the release of his 53rd film, the unsuccessful "Old Gringo."

And, he added, "I'll settle for that."

In 1967, he received the academy's Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and in 1989, the life achievement award of the American Film Institute, which he helped create. The same year, he won a special prize honoring his career from the Cannes Film Festival. And as late as four years ago, he won a Golden Globe for best supporting actor as a fire-and-brimstone preacher in a cable remake of "Moby Dick."

His characters were mostly charming but occasionally chilling. He played a penniless freelance reporter in the Eternal City who sweeps a princess, played by Audrey Hepburn, off her feet in "Roman Holiday" (1953). But he also relished playing the bad guy, like the hot-tempered rancher's son in "Duel in the Sun" (1946), the obsessed Captain Ahab in "Moby Dick" (1956) and Nazi war criminal Dr. Josef Mengele in "The Boys From Brazil" (1978).

"He was a towering figure in the history of the movie industry," said Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America. "He made a series of films which illuminated great truths of character." One of those films, Valenti noted, was "Gentleman's Agreement," where "he took on a role that for the first time on the screen confronted anti-Semitism."

"Gregory Peck will be missed greatly," said Jean Picker Firstenberg, director and chief executive of the American Film Institute. "AFI is here to see that his movies will live on forever."

Director Steven Spielberg said Peck's "legacy not only lies in his films but in the dignified, decent and moral way in which he worked and lived."

As one of the last giants from the Golden Era of Hollywood, Peck was known for his charitable and political fund-raising and other humanitarian efforts off-camera. He served as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences three times (1967-70), and in 1971 headed the Motion Picture and Television Relief Fund, which helps house and care for aging film workers.

But he shared his energies with the public as well as his colleagues. He was a charter member of the National Council of the Arts in 1965 and helped raise its $4-million first federal subsidy for the arts. He stumped California as state chairman of the American Cancer Society in 1964, and the nation as its national chairman two years later.

Peck was so successful at turning his mellifluous basso voice in support of such Democratic politicians as former Gov. Pat Brown that many suggested he run for governor, U.S. senator or even president. He chose not to run for office but continued his political activities. He once made a series of TV commercials that helped thwart the U.S. Supreme Court nomination of conservative Judge Robert Bork.

"To Gregory Peck -- an artist who has brought new dignity to the acting profession," former President Lyndon B. Johnson said in awarding Peck the nation's highest civilian award, the Medal of Freedom, in 1969.

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