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The dignity and sensitivity? Not acting; it was all Peck

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 13, 2003

I'm happy that Gregory Peck lived long enough to see his most famous role acclaimed as the greatest movie hero in Hollywood history.

In 1962's To Kill a Mockingbird, Peck played Atticus Finch, an Alabama lawyer and single parent facing crises on both fronts with sublime dignity, sensitivity and composure. He was the father everyone wished they had.

That is who the American Film Institute recently chose to honor as the most exemplary hero American cinema ever offered. Not Indiana Jones or James Bond for their fantastic adventures. Not Jefferson Smith or George Bailey for their underdog decency against greed. But Atticus Finch, for his fairness, compassion and courage in matters of social equality and personal responsibility.

People thought Peck was acting. Even gave him an Academy Award for the portrayal. As years passed, however, it became apparent that in real life Peck shared Finch's finest qualities. Like his acting contemporary James Stewart and more recently Tom Hanks, Peck was a symbol of integrity in films (even when he wasn't making them anymore), facing down injustice and, in that rich, deep voice, calmly conveying the most treasured American ideals.

"Somewhere within that man we know is the best of us, in fact or aspiration," wrote the late film critic Judith Crist.

Peck could play a U.S. president in a trifle like Amazing Grace and Chuck and make everyone wish he would run for office. Finch and the crusading journalist in Gentleman's Agreement became role models of tolerance. Peck could play a Western hero or Douglas MacArthur as we wish they really were, especially in these revisionist times. Even when his characters were flawed, like the conflicted sheriff in I Walk the Line, they carried hope for redemption. Peck lent gravity to such farfetched projects as The Omen, Marooned and The Chairman, yet could still romance Audrey Hepburn during a whimsical Roman Holiday.

Only when Peck accepted an irretrievably evil role - Nazi war criminal Dr. Josef Mengele in The Boys from Brazil - did his fans ever feel betrayed.

Peck joked about that when he came to Ruth Eckerd Hall in 1996 for a stage remembrance of his career. But he defended choosing that role, not for the modern actor's rationale of wanting to stretch his dramatic range, but for the notion that showing such evil might be helpful to humanity. For everyone, not just himself. That was Gregory Peck.

Without scandal or greed, Peck remained the gold standard for Hollywood celebrity. Without blowing his own horn, Peck was a compassionate star, lending his voice without payment to commercials promoting the Chrysler Corp. in 1980 when over a half-million jobs hung in the balance. He used his celebrity to assist anything from the American Cancer Society to Los Angeles libraries. When the Academy Awards were postponed after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1968 assassination, Peck was the Academy president who made the tough call.

Yet, even with his regal Hollywood stature, Peck's friends called him Greg, and it probably didn't take long to get to that stage of the relationship. I had the pleasure of speaking with him twice, in a telephone interview before his Ruth Eckerd Hall appearance, and then, in person, after the show. One-on-one or before an audience, Peck was a gentleman, never dishing on his colleagues nor showing a trace of bitterness that Hollywood had passed him by.

"Over the last 15 years, I got accustomed to not working much. Now I'm accustomed to not working at all," said Peck, then 79. "In my mind, it's over, and I'm not the least unhappy about it. I always knew I'd get old."

Propped up next to my computer as I write this column is a laser disc copy of To Kill a Mockingbird autographed by Peck that evening in 1996. He mistakenly thought it was a soundtrack album of the film's musical score. Peck wasn't racing to keep up with then-modern movie technology, yet his graceful, friendly presence left me wondering if being left behind is such a bad idea.

I had my final contact with Peck later that year. Times editors decided it would be fun to ask celebrities about their first voting experiences on the eve of the 1996 presidential election. I tried for Peck, leaving a request with his housekeeper, then going to lunch, not really expecting a response.

When I returned, a phone message awaited. That unmistakable baritone rang in the receiver: "Hello, Steve. This is Greg Peck."

Not Gregory. Greg.

Peck said he would like to add his voting memory. "I'll send you a response on the (typical Peck pregnant pause) fax machine," saying the word "fax" as if he had never used it before. Out of time, perhaps, but never out of place. That, too, was Gregory Peck.

Death has a way of enhancing celebrity, but that isn't necessary for Peck. As long as schools use To Kill a Mockingbird as a video supplement to lessons in literature and tolerance, Peck will remain the quintessential father figure and a true figure of American heroism against bigotry and fear.

I'm reminded of the film's concluding narration by Atticus' daughter, Scout, as her father kept watch over her injured brother: "He would be there all night. And he would be there when Jem woke in the morning."

So will Gregory Peck, for each of us. Always.

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