Analysis: A Hollywood 'Gentleman'

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter   |   June 12, 2003 at 5:06 PM
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LOS ANGELES, June 12 (UPI) -- Gregory Peck, the Oscar-winning actor who died at 87 on Thursday, may have played a bad guy a few times, but he was a quintessential Hollywood good guy.

His signature role, of course, was that of Atticus Finch -- the courtly lawyer fighting a futile battle against racism in a Southern small town in "To Kill a Mockingbird." The character finished at No. 1 on the American Film Institute's recent list of the greatest movie heroes of all time.

Peck brought a combination of personal qualities to Atticus Finch -- dignity, conviction and fundamental human decency -- that served also him well in many other roles.

In his Oscar-nominated performance in "Gentleman's Agreement" (1947), Peck established a screen image grounded in social consciousness, as a writer who pretends to be Jewish to write an expose of anti-Semitism. In "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" (1956), he played a Madison Avenue ad executive struggling with ethical issues while trying to balance his professional and family life.

One of his five Oscar nominations came for "Twelve O'Clock High" (1949), in which he played a World War II Air Force officer who invites trouble by getting too close to his men. In 1959, he starred in director Stanley Kramer's "On the Beach," a cautionary tale about the risks involved in the nuclear arms race.

But it wasn't just decency that accounted for Peck's success as an international star. He also had the advantage of athletic good looks, making him a sex symbol as well.

Without the admirable personal qualities, Peck might easily have succeeded as what Hollywood used to call a "physique actor." But combine the personal attributes with the physical and you got a combination that millions of American women saw as the ideal mate.

He succeeded in romantic comedy, co-starring with Audrey Hepburn in "Roman Holiday" (1953). He showed a vulnerability uncommon among leading men of the time as a neurotic being examined by psychiatrist Ingrid Bergman in "Spellbound" (1945).

As he matured into roles for "older men," Peck scored some of his biggest hits.

As the father of the Antichrist in "The Omen" (1976), Peck delivered a memorable performance that included a chilling scene of him carrying his son toward an altar, intent on killing the boy and saving the world. In "The Boys from Brazil" (1978), he played the despicable Nazi war criminal Dr. Josef Mengele.

Although Peck always insisted that his objective was to entertain, he nevertheless used his craft on occasion to promote a political viewpoint.

In 1971, he produced the political drama "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine," an account of a raid by antiwar activists on a Selective Service office during the Vietnam War. The film -- based on the play of the same name by Roman Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan -- was not widely seen, but it earned Peck a place on Richard Nixon's "enemies list."

Peck insisted he was no "do-gooder," but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences saw fit to honor him in 1967 with its Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

He rose to the top of his profession in more ways than one. Peck was not simply an Oscar-winning actor with an international following -- he also served as president of the Screen Actors Guild. In 1970, SAG honored him with its Lifetime Achievement award.

Most of all, Peck will be remembered as one of the great movie stars of his time. In 1999, the same year that he won a Golden Globe for his last movie, a TV version of "Moby Dick," Peck was ranked No. 12 on the AFI list of the greatest American male screen legends.

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