AMONG THE mega stars of Hollywood, not many are as affectionately respected and universally adored as Gregory Peck. For five decades and more since his Hollywood debut in 1943 with "Day of Glory" and his first hit, "The Keys of the Kingdom" (1944) for which he received an Oscar nomination, he rose to be a major and majestic presence in theatre, television, and of course, Hollywood cinema. For the average American, Gregory Peck shone brightly as a symbol of the American Man at his best, an icon of moral courage and a faithful defender of traditional values of his native land. The roles he played during his long and successful career, like General MacArthur ... Captain Ahab (in "Moby Dick")... and Atticus Finch, (in "To Kill A Mocking Bird") gave moviegoers not only in America but also elsewhere values of dignity, strength, character and masculinity and the will and talent to face any crises and their consequences.
Influenced by his father's desires for him to be a doctor, Peck began to study medicine but his interests lay elsewhere acting and writing. After graduating in 1939, he changed his name by deleting Eldred to Gregory Peck and relocated to New York. Here his abilities came in for quick recognition.
Soon He began to play small roles in travelling shows and in 1942, he made his bow on Broadway with "The Morning Star."
In 1943 he went west to Hollywood. His role as Scottish priest, Father Francis Chisholm in "Keys to the Kingdom" (1944) brought him his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
It opened the doors wide to work with great filmmakers.
The golden hour of his career came when he was cast in the lead role in his best-known film, "To Kill A Mocking bird." Talking about the film, Peck said later, "Many young men came up to me to say that they chose to become lawyers after they saw the film." (Not many are aware that Gregory Peck was not the first choice to play the lawyer. The studio (Universal) thought of Rock Hudson for the role! Hollywood history is full of such incredible events!)
Another favourite film of Gregory Peck's was the famed filmmaker William Wyler's "Roman Holiday'' (1953). In the famous scene at the `Mouth of Truth' sculpture, Gregory Peck actually came up with his own idea to hide his hand and convinced the director to let him do it with no rehearsal and spring a surprise on the new actress, Audrey Hepburn. The shock and surprise and her squeal for the shot was not acting, but her natural reaction! (According to superstition in Italy, if a man who has told a lie slips his hand inside the mouth he will lose it!) While shooting a scene on a Rome City street, Wyler was setting up the camera angle for a shot. Smiling at the director Gregory Peck remarked, "Willie, this new girl is stealing the movie right under our noses. Don't bother about camera angles. Just shoot the picture fast!" Later, he graciously agreed to have Hepburn's name appear along with his, above the title of the film. Few Hollywood heroes would extend such gesture to newcomers and unknowns. That was the Gentleman Gregory Peck.
Later, he described the shoot of "Roman Holiday" as "probably the happiest experience I ever had making movies".
A highly socially conscious person, he involved himself in public life in charities and politics and contributed his best to the society and country that gave him so much. He was an active member of the National Council on the Arts, chairman of the Board of Trustees of the American Film Institute, and president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Also, the Chairman of the American Cancer Society.
Many were the awards bestowed on him, the Medal of Freedom Award, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and a Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in 1989, as well as awards from the Museum of Modern Art (1990), the John F. Kennedy Center and the Film Society of Lincoln Center (1991).
He recently appeared as a presenter at the Media Awards for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (G.L.A.A.D.) and said, "It just seems silly to me that something so right and simple has to be fought for at all." And most recently the American Film Institute chose him as the best hero of American Cinema for his role in the film "To Kill A Mocking Bird".
A happily married man, (he met his wife Veronique, a Paris-based journalist who came to interview him during the making of "Roman Holiday"), a fond parent and grandparent, his private life was admirably free from scandals normally associated with Hollywood stars. Americans looked up to him as an idol, icon and the personification of all that was best in American values.
Talking of movies today, he said, "We're in the age of the antihero... . It's the fashion of the day. But I always say, if you want brain surgery, you don't want an antihero to do it."
The best compliment to the departed Hollywood legend came from a colleague, another Hollywood legend Orson Welles.
When Ronald Reagan was elected to the White House, Welles remarked that instead of Reagan, Gregory Peck should have been sent there for he was the better and right choice.
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