He earned his iconic status as a national father figure after portraying the noble and taciturn Atticus Finch in 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
Days of Glory
The Keys of the Kingdom
The Valley of Decision
Duel in the Sun
The Macomber Affair
The Great Sinner
Captain Horatio Hornblower
Only the Valiant
The World in His Arms
The Million Pound Note
The Purple Plain
Pork Chop Hill
On the Beach
Captain Newman, M.D.
Behold a Pale Horse
The Stalking Moon
I Walk the Line
Billy Two Hats
The Boys from Brazil
The Sea Wolves
The Scarlet and the Black
Amazing Grace and Chuck
Other People’s Money
Gregory Peck was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning once. He was nominated for The Keys of the Kingdom (1945), The Yearling (1946), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), and Twelve O’Clock High (1949). He won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Atticus Finch in the 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird. In 1968, he received the Academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
I can honestly say that in twenty years of making movies I never had a part that came close to being the real me until Atticus Finch. ~ Gregory Peck
Eldred Gregory Peck was born on April 5, 1916, in La Jolla, San Diego, California, the son of Gregory Pearl Peck, a New York-born chemist and pharmacist, and his Missouri-born wife Bernice Mary “Bunny” (née Ayres).
Peck’s parents divorced when he was five and he was brought up by his maternal grandmother, who took him to the movies every week. At the age of 10 he was sent to a Catholic military school, St. John’s Military Academy in Los Angeles. While he was a student there, his grandmother died. At 14, he moved back to San Diego to live with his father, attended San Diego High School, and after graduating enrolled for one year at San Diego State Teacher’s College, (now known as San Diego State University). While there he joined the track team, took his first theatre and public-speaking courses, and pledged the Epsilon Eta fraternity. Peck however had ambitions to be a doctor and the following year gained admission to the University of California, Berkeley, as an English major and pre-medical student. Standing 6 ft 3 in, he rowed on the university crew. Although his tuition fee was only $26 per year, Peck still struggled to pay, and took a job as a “hasher” (kitchen helper) for the Gamma Phi Beta sorority in exchange for meals.
At Berkeley, encouraged by the acting coach, who saw in him perfect material for university theatre, Peck became more and more interested in acting. He was recruited by Edwin Duerr, director of the university’s Little Theater, and appeared in five plays during his senior year. In 1997, Peck donated $25,000 to the Berkeley rowing crew in honor of his coach, the renowned Ky Ebright.
After graduating from Berkeley with a BA degree in English, Peck dropped the name “Eldred” and headed to New York City to study at the Neighborhood Playhouse with the legendary acting teacher Sanford Meisner. He was often broke and sometimes slept in Central Park. He worked at the 1939 World’s Fair and as a tour guide for NBC’s television broadcasting. In 1940, Peck learned more of the acting craft, working in exchange for food, at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia, appearing in five plays including Family Portrait and On Earth As It Is.
His stage career began in 1941 when he played the secretary in a Katharine Cornell production of George Bernard Shaw’s play The Doctor’s Dilemma. Unfortunately, the play opened in San Francisco just one week before the attack on Pearl Harbor. He made his Broadway debut as the lead in Emlyn Williams’ The Morning Star in 1942. His second Broadway performance that year was in The Willow and I with Edward Pawley. Peck’s acting abilities were in high demand during World War II because he was exempt from military service owing to a back injury suffered while receiving dance and movement lessons from Martha Graham as part of his acting training. Twentieth Century Fox claimed he had injured his back while rowing at university.
In 1947, Peck co-founded The La Jolla Playhouse, at his birthplace, with Mel Ferrer and Dorothy McGuire. This local community theater and landmark (now in a new home at the University of California, San Diego) still thrives today. It has attracted Hollywood film stars on hiatus both as performers and enthusiastic supporters since its inception.
Peck’s first film, Days of Glory, was released in 1944. The Keys of the Kingdom emphasized his stately presence. As the farmer Ezra “Penny” Baxter in The Yearling, his good-humored warmth and affection toward the characters playing his son and wife confounded critics who had been insisting he was a lifeless performer. Duel in the Sun (1946) showed his range as an actor in his first “against type” role as a cruel, libidinous gunslinger. Gentleman’s Agreement established his power in the “social conscience” genre in a film that took on the deep-seated but subtle antisemitism of mid-century corporate America. Twelve O’Clock High was the first of many successful war films in which Peck embodied the brave, effective, yet human fighting man.
Among his other films were Spellbound (1945), The Paradine Case (1947), The Gunfighter (1950), Moby Dick (1956), The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), On the Beach (1959), which brought to life the terrors of global nuclear war, The Guns of Navarone (1961), and Roman Holiday (1953), with Audrey Hepburn in her Oscar-winning role. Peck and Hepburn were close friends until her death; Peck even introduced her to her first husband, Mel Ferrer. Peck once again teamed up with director William Wyler in the epic Western The Big Country (1958), which he co-produced.
Peck won the Academy Award with his fifth nomination, playing Atticus Finch, a Depression-era lawyer and widowed father, in a film adaptation of the Harper Lee novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Released in 1962 during the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the Southern United States, this film and his role were Peck’s favorites.
Peck served as the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1967, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the American Film Institute from 1967 to 1969, Chairman of the Motion Picture and Television Relief Fund in 1971, and National Chairman of the American Cancer Society in 1966. He was a member of the National Council on the Arts from 1964 to 1966.
A physically powerful man, he was known to do a majority of his own fight scenes, rarely using body or stunt doubles. In fact, Robert Mitchum, his on-screen opponent in Cape Fear, told about the time Peck accidentally punched him for real during their final fight scene in the movie. He felt the impact for days afterward. Peck’s rare attempts at villainous roles were not acclaimed. Early on, he played the renegade son in the Western Duel in the Sun and, later in his career, the infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele in The Boys from Brazil co-starring Laurence Olivier.
In the 1980s, Peck moved to television, where he starred in the mini-series The Blue and the Gray, playing Abraham Lincoln. He also starred with Christopher Plummer, John Gielgud, and Barbara Bouchet in the television film The Scarlet and The Black, about Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, a real-life Catholic priest in the Vatican who smuggled Jews and other refugees away from the Nazis during World War II.
Peck, Mitchum, and Martin Balsam all had roles in the 1991 remake of Cape Fear directed by Martin Scorsese. All three were in the original 1962 version. In the remake, Peck played Max Cady’s lawyer.
His last prominent film role also came in 1991, in Other People’s Money, directed by Norman Jewison and based on the stage play of that name. Peck played a business owner trying to save his company against a hostile takeover bid by a Wall Street liquidator played by Danny DeVito.
Peck retired from active film-making at that point. Peck spent the last few years of his life touring the world doing speaking engagements in which he would show clips from his movies, reminisce, and take questions from the audience. He did come out of retirement for a 1998 miniseries version of one of his most famous films, Moby Dick, portraying Father Mapple (played by Orson Welles in the 1956 version), with Patrick Stewart as Captain Ahab, the role Peck played in the earlier film. It would be his final performance, and it won him the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor in a Series, Miniseries or Television Film.
Peck had been offered the role of Grandpa Joe in the 2005 film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but died before he could accept it.
On June 12, 2003, Peck died in his sleep at home from bronchopneumonia at the age of 87. His wife, Veronique, was by his side.
Gregory Peck is entombed in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels mausoleum in Los Angeles. His eulogy was read by Brock Peters, whose character, Tom Robinson, was defended by Peck’s Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. The celebrities who attended Peck’s funeral included Lauren Bacall, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Shari Belafonte, Harrison Ford, Calista Flockhart, Mike Farrell, Shelley Fabares, Jimmy Smits, Louis Jourdan, Dyan Cannon, Stephanie Zimbalist, Michael York, Angie Dickinson, Larry Gelbart, Michael Jackson, Anjelica Huston, Lionel Richie, Louise Fletcher, Tony Danza, and Piper Laurie.