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Decency always set Peck apart

The actor gave his characters a moral gravity, but they weren't straightforward heroes.

June 14, 2003|David Thomson | Special to The Times

Gregory Peck was loved -- it's the proper word here -- and in part that affection came from his association with good causes.

In turn, his prominence was a result of how upright and handsome he was -- and the modesty or the shyness with which he bore up under such looks. There are actors who flash their beauty in your eyes, and then there are others -- Gary Cooper was one -- who seem humbled by it. Peck, who died this week at the age of 87, looked nearly too good to be true. So he worked harder to be true.

In truth, "handsome" is not quite enough. In the early 1940s, when he broke into pictures, he was utterly beautiful in a way that hardly seems possible now. What I mean is that he came just ahead of such icons as Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, James Dean and Elvis Presley (in all of whom there was some hint of bisexuality, as well as modernity) and at pretty much the same time as Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas and Robert Mitchum (all of whom were adept at being rough and nasty).

It was nearly impossible to cast Peck outside the scope of decency, although the one great exception to that, his rascal cowboy and rapist, Lewt, in "Duel in the Sun," is still glorious for his liberated swagger and Technicolor sexiness.

So Peck played reliable heroes in an age when Hollywood still honored those figures. But the reason people loved him had everything to do with the good fortune, which he regularly acknowledged, of being cast as Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird." Taken from Harper Lee's bestselling novel, that film came out in 1962, at the moment when John F. Kennedy's America was most soulfully attuned to civil rights. Finch is a country lawyer in the South who is defending a black man on rape charges, against a current of prejudice. He is also the single father, easing his children's way into the real world. He is an American ideal: teacher at home and advocate in public.

That makes "To Kill a Mockingbird" sound packaged-to-order for a liberal conscience in a time of crisis. Peck is at the same time an ideal father and a Lincoln-like lawyer, his looks nicely offset by untidiness and spectacles, his somber, baritone voice warmed by the South. He won an Oscar for the role not just because everything was so tidy, but because he gave himself to it heart and soul. Only a week ago, in a poll organized by the American Film Institute, Atticus Finch was voted the most admired hero in U.S. cinema. It's a welcome kindness of fate that Peck was alive to hear that news, just as it was a hint that America no longer sees itself in so noble or potent a light.

He was born in 1916 in La Jolla, with a real first name of Eldred, a sign of how close he was to Victorian heroes or the paragons of silent cinema. He had a good education and was briefly a premed student at UC Berkeley when acting won him away.

He had early success in "The Keys of the Kingdom," in which he played a priest. In the years ahead, he would be the father in "The Yearling"; C.S. Forester's "Captain Horatio Hornblower," a notably anxious commander; David opposite Susan Hayward in "David and Bathsheba"; the journalist who pretends to be Jewish in "Gentleman's Agreement"; and the amnesiac psychiatrist in Alfred Hitchcock's "Spellbound."

But he was always more interesting than just a straightforward hero -- after all, David with Bathsheba is hardly a simple hero. In "Spellbound" there is a great scene where he appears with a razor in his hand, looking like an angel of death, and we are not quite sure what he intends. He was the lawyer who is seduced by his client (Valli) in Hitchcock's "The Paradine Case"; he was superb as "The Gunfighter," the story of a man who longs for domesticity, but who is dogged by his own dangerous reputation; and he was never better than in Henry King's "Twelve O'Clock High," in which he plays the commanding officer ordered to take over a demoralized U.S. Air Force squadron in Britain during the war. If you want to see the depth of acting he could manage in depicting the natural loneliness of authority, that is the film.

In the '50s, he was a huge star, helping Audrey Hepburn to an Oscar for "Roman Holiday" while being the perfect gentleman with her. He was a Hemingway hero in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro"; the personification of middle America and truly anguished in "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit"; and even Ahab in John Huston's "Moby Dick." That last film may be overly ambitious, but Peck is always serious and respectable in it -- there was a hardness in his acting soul, and it's better in "Moby Dick," I think, than in such later ventures as his Josef Mengele in "The Boys from Brazil" or his impersonation of MacArthur.

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