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Peck, Gregory
Written by Diana Saenger   

Gregory Peck was a major screen idol in feature films from 1944 to 1998 including Moby Dick (1956), The Guns of Navarone (1961) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). But he was also known for many other endeavors. He was the national chairman of the American Cancer Society (1966), president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (1967-1970), charter member of the National Council on the Arts (1968-1974), recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award in 1969 by Lyndon Johnson and he marched with Martin Luther King.  

 Peck's Early Interest in Films

Born Eldred Gregory Peck in the sunny and posh seaside of La Jolla, California, Peck's father, from Armenian roots, was a pharmacist in San Diego. After his parents divorced when Peck was five, he went to live with his grandmother, Kate Ayres. It was she who sparked his early interest in films by taking him to the movies every week. It's surprising that he wanted to be in movies, as when he saw The Phantom of the Opera (1925) at age nine, he was so scared he asked his grandmother if he could sleep in the bed that night.

Peck attended grammar school in La Jolla, graduated from San Diego High in 1933, and then headed north. While enrolled in a pre-med program at Berkeley, Peck reconnected with his childhood enjoyment of films and began taking acting classes. So bitten by the acting bug, he ducked out on graduation at UC Berkeley in 1939 and took a train to New York to enroll in the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. While honing his craft, Peck worked at Radio City Music Hall as a tour guide and as a catalog model for Montgomery Ward. After graduating he made his stage debut in 1942 in The Morning Star . That same year Peck married Greta Kukkonen.  

Instant Stardom

Only one year later the handsome actor found himself in Hollywood working for RKO pictures. Days of Glory (1944) was his film debut; Peck played Vladimir in a film about the Nazi invasion of Russia.  

It's rare for an actor to be nominated for an Academy Award on their second film, but Peck earned that distinction in The Keys of the Kingdom (1944). He portrayed Father Francis Chisholm, a young priest, sent to China to establish a Catholic parish among the non-Christian Chinese. Next came the films Spellbound (1945), Duel in the Sun (1946), and The Yearling (1946), which garnered Peck another Academy Award nomination.  

Still feeling a draw to the stage, Peck returned to La Jolla in 1947 accompanied by Mel Ferrer and Dorothy McGuire. The trio of actors founded the La Jolla Playhouse, today a world renowned playhouse responsible for many World premieres and Broadway-bound long running shows.  Their hope to create a theatre where film actors could hone their craft on stage away from Hollywood became a reality. The La Jolla Playhouse hosted a myriad of stars from Vivian Vance to Dennis Hopper, and Peck would return often to add his support to the fundraising for the theatre.  

"As our founder, Gregory Peck's contribution to the Playhouse and theatre in San Diego, as well as American film, leaves a lasting legacy," said Playhouse Artistic Director Des McAnuff in an interview. "We want to honor that legacy by celebrating his life. He is our artistic soul and will be in our hearts and minds as the Playhouse moves forward into the future."

Fast becoming an extremely fruitful actor, that same year in 1947 Peck earned two more Academy Award nomination for his roles in Gentleman's Agreement (1947) and Twelve O'Clock High (1949). Other films would follow - Yellow Sky (1949), The Great Sinner (1949) and The Gunfighter (1950) among them.    

With his impressive resume, Peck could now call the shots. He chose scripts that appealed to him, ones with noble and ethical undertones such as Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. (1951), The Purple Plain (1954), Moby Dick (1956), Pork Chop Hill (1959) and The Guns of Navarone (1961).    

"They say the bad guys are more interesting to play but there is more to it than that," Peck once said. "Playing the good guys is more challenging because it's harder to make them interesting."  

In 1955 Peck divorced Greta Kukkonen. The couple had three children - Jonathan, Stephen and Carey. That same year he married Veronique Passani, who remained his wife until his death and gave Peck two more children - Tony and Cecilia.  

With his tall statue and heroic looks, it was only natural that studios also wanted him for romantic leads. Peck chose these roles based on stars he admired and wanted to work with, such as Susan Hayward in David and Basthsheba (1951), Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday (1953), Lauren Bacall in Designing Women (1957) and Deborah Kerr Beloved Infidel (1959).

Peck lost the adage, "Always a bridegroom, never a bride," when he won his first Oscar for his performance as Lawyer Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). So heartfelt was his performance, the film still ranks among many classic fans' favorite films. Atticus Finch was voted the greatest screen hero of all time by the American Film Institute in May 2003.  

By the late 1970s, Peck was losing his A-list star status. He tried his hand at producing in The Trial of the Catonsville Nine (1972) and The Dove (1974), the 57th Annual Academy Awards (1985). He did return to his native San Diego to film scenes for MacAuthur, in which he played Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Peck appeared in some roles in TV mini series during these years. His last role was as Father Mapple in the 1998 TV movie Moby Dick.  

His peers, coworkers, and fans all hailed Peck as a generous, talented and kind man, who gave Hollywood some excellent films reels and deeply cared about the world around him.

"He was exactly what I expected," said La Playhouse's artistic director Des McAnuff when he met Peck in person at the Playhouse. "A giant of a man with wonderful dignity, a great sense of humanity and humor."

Gregory Peck died at age 87 in Los Angeles of cardiorespiratory arrest and bronchial pneumonia. But his name and memory lives on.

 



                       

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