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By Gautaman Bhaskaran
Actor Gregory Peck in a scene from the 1962 film "To Kill a Mockingbird." Reuters
Peck, who died early on Thursday, continued to be lauded till the end for the great part he played as an upright lawyer, Atticus Finch, in Harper Lee's monumental literary masterpiece, "To Kill a Mockingbird.''
In fact, during an early interview, Peck said that his fans had often told him that it was this character which was their most favourite. Some had become advocates, encouraged by Finch's defence of a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. The small town lawyer in Alabama, a paragon of virtue and sensitivity and steely determination, Finch/Peck became a hero to thousands in the early 1960s, when the release of the film coincided with a civil rights movement in the South.
But, although Finch won Peck an Oscar for acting, his career, which spanned half a century, had many other greats. With his chiselled, slightly sad good looks and a baritone voice, the American actor made an unforgettable impression most of the time.
His first effort in 1943, "Days of Glory'' is significant because it helped him catch the eye of Hollywood. However, he chose to remain an independent, freelancer in an era when stars were virtually chattels of the big studios. This infuriated one of the most powerful men of those times, Louis Mayer of the MGM.
Yet, Peck sailed along unscathed. Born in 1916 in southern California to parents who split up soon after, Gregory sold newspapers and drove trucks as he schooled and majored in English literature from a university at Berkeley. It was there that he first looked at theatre, appearing in plays. His next step was Broadway, where he was spotted by a screenwriter who offered Peck his first celluloid assignment.
It was the 1945 "The Keys of the Kingdom'' that made him a heartthrob, but Alfred Hitchcock's "Spellbound'' (with fascinating Ingrid Bergman) where he plays an amnesiac and falls in love with his psychologist gave him a certain aura that was hard to resist, especially as it came in a cocktail of dashing good looks and impeccable behaviour.
Widely regarded as the most decent man in Hollywood, who became an icon of dignity and quiet strength, he remained free of angst.
Peck's screen image was not very different either. Well, most of the time. "Gentleman's Agreement'' (1947), directed by no less a legend than Elia Kazan, has the actor starring as a writer, who, in the course of collecting material for an article against anti-Semitism, realises to his horror and disbelief that his own friends, apparently polished and cultured, hate Jews.
``Roman Holiday'' that came in 1953 charmed audiences all over the world. As a newspaper reporter, Peck finds a runaway princess in Rome and helps her feel the freshness of freedom and joy, away from her "captive'' existence.
Throwing aside a scoop and terrific story, he is gracious enough to let love lead the way. If the Lion's Mouth of Truth in the Italian capital is till this day remembered as the spot where the young Audrey Hepburn loses her heart to Peck, his understanding and nobility at letting her go, when she has to, and with her a professional dream endure in the history of cinema as a high point.
(It was during this picture that Peck met Veronique, a cub reporter then, who not only shot questions at him, but also arrows. A little later, they married. This was Peck's second marriage, and Veronique remained with him till the end.)
In the 1946 "Duel in the Sun,'' he decided to play a bad man. Though he, as the murderous son of a cattle baron, and his co-star, Jennifer Jones, provided a lot of sizzle on the screen, these scenes had to be excised, and the film failed at the box-office.
Other roles included the button-down, harried advertising executive in "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit'' (1956), the obsessed Captain Ahab in "Moby Dick'' (1956), the conscience-stricken military officer in the Korean War film "Pork Chop Hill'' (1959) and the idealistic officer in "The Guns of Navarone'' (1961).
In some ways, Peck entertained through all these characters. He always felt that an actor's most important duty was to entertain (not bore). Gregory Peck did just that, but some of his smiles and laughs hid profound messages that became hard to ignore or forget.
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