Gregory Peck is proof that nice guys actually do win

Remembering the Hollywood star who turned 100 this year.

My parents were fans of Gregory Peck long before I became one. They had seen him in classic films of the 1950s, such as Roman Holiday, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and The Snows of Kilamanjaro. One of the highlights of their youth was the time they once spotted him having lunch incognito at Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Hotel (my mother never forgave my father for being too embarrassed to go up and ask him for his autograph).

Many years later I saw Peck in The Guns of Navarone and To Kill a Mockingbird and was immediately smitten by his laidback charm, baritone drawl and, most of all, the trademark sweep of hair that fell so casually over his forehead – which, as an adolescent, I confess, I worked hard to cultivate.

‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’.

Peck was one of the most durable Hollywood stars of all time, with a career that spanned nearly 60 years, from the 1940s to 2000. In fact, he was working on making yet another film – his 75th – based based on Sinclair Lewis’s novel Dodsworth, when he died in his sleep on June 12, 2003, aged 87.

Peck’s first screen test was a disaster, because his features were apparently “too big”, apart from which “his left ear was much bigger than his right ear”. And yet he went on to make one of Hollywood’s most spectacular debuts, getting four Oscar nominations in his first five years. The role that ultimately did win him an Oscar, in 1963, was that of the upright, courageous small-time lawyer, Atticus Finch, in To Kill a Mockingbird, adapted from Harper Lee’s novel of the same name. Atticus Finch was named the “Greatest Film Hero of the Past 100 Years” by the American Film Institute (#2 and #3, incidentally, being Indiana Jones and James Bond).

Peck typically played the decent human being in his movies, idealistic and courageous: an embodiment of the best of American values of his times. He demonstrated, through his roles, that a strong man could also be a gentle man. For example, in the 1962 version of Cape Fear, he and his family are terrorised by the creepy Robert Mitchum. At the climax of the film, he corners Mitchum and aims a gun at him, point blank. But just when you think he’s going to pull the trigger – like you or I would – he slowly puts the gun down, in favour of having Mitchum legally arrested, tried and sentenced to prison. That, after all, is the decent, Gregory Peck way of doing things.

‘Cape Fear’.

So which was his own favourite film? Peck always said that it was To Kill a Mockingbird. Ironically, he almost didn’t get that role: in a variation of the old familiar story, Universal Pictures originally wanted Rock Hudson to play the part of Atticus Finch (hard to believe today). But when Hudson couldn’t do it for some reason, the studio reluctantly gave it to Peck. He was an absolute natural for the role. As he put it, “It was easy for me to do. It was just like putting on a comfortable, well-worn suit of clothes. I identified with everything that happened in that story.” The result was that Peck became Atticus, and Atticus became Peck. As Harper Lee, a good friend of his, said, “Atticus Finch gave Gregory the opportunity to play himself.”

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.

In real life, Peck was very much the Mr Nice Guy he typically played in the movies. There are many anecdotes to illustrate this. My favourite is perhaps the one about the time he acted in Roman Holiday, with Audrey Hepburn. It was her first film; he was already a big, established star. But seeing Hepburn’s dazzling, natural performance in the film, Peck insisted that she get top billing, with her name actually appearing above his in the cast. How many stars would have the grace, and the goodness, to do something like that?

‘Roman Holiday’.

In The Boys from Brazil, Peck plays the evil Nazi scientist, Josef Mengele, who is trying to clone a generation of little Hitlers. It was, undoubtedly, his worst role. Gregory Peck and evil? Who the heck would ever believe such a thing?

‘The Boys from Brazil’.
‘The Boys from Brazil’.
Peck was listed among the world’s best-looking man, as well as the best-dressed. And he was reputed to be a ladies’ man, both on screen and off. His name was sometimes linked with some of the world’s most beautiful women (whom he happened to have co-starred with), such as Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, Ava Gardner, Ingrid Bergman and Lauren Bacall. But, gentleman that he was, he never talked about it. When an interviewer once tried to grill him about his supposed affair with Ingrid Bergman, his co-star in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, Peck quietly closed the subject with, “Now we get into an area where I can't answer.”

As Hollywood changed over the years, Peck began to dislike what he saw. In the 1980s, for example, he complained about “the vest-pocket executives now running the store in this town”. He said, “The old boys – Louis Mayer, Darryl Zanuck, the Warner brothers – were dragons, but they had passion and creativity. Today the business is run by cold fish who love to make money, not movies.” Then, taking a swipe at the Star Wars genre of block-busters, he added drily, “I'm not excited by cartoon violence in outer space."

Peck was a lifelong liberal, a member of the Democratic Party, and an outspoken supporter of causes like gun control and a ban on nuclear weapons. In fact, in 1970, his admirers suggested him as the Democratic candidate to run against Ronald Reagan for the Governorship of California. What if he had, in fact, run … and won? The question makes for a fascinating alternative history.

Interestingly, Peck happened to be a role model for our own Dev Anand. It apparently happened like this: The famous 1950s actress, Suraiya, once told the young Dev Anand (her boyfriend at the time) that he resembled Gregory Peck. Dev Anand saw some truth in this and, as he later admitted, began to copy some of Peck’s mannerisms, including the sweep of hair that fell casually over his forehead.

Anand met Peck briefly during his visit to Mumbai in the 1950s, and Peck obviously didn’t forget him. A couple of years later, for example, Anand happened to be in Rome at the time when Roman Holiday was being shot. Peck spotted him among the crowd of onlookers and beckoned him over to say hello in between takes. It was a story Anand used to tell with great pleasure. In later years, when Anand made Jewel Thief, there was even a rumour that his iconic Jewel Thief cap was copied from a trilby hat that he once saw Peck wearing – an allegation that he angrily denied.

The last time Peck was in India was in the late 1970s, when he came for the shooting of The Sea Wolves, a WWII thriller set in Goa. I happened to be in Goa at the time, and when I heard that Peck was in town (along with David Niven and Roger Moore), I, like any self-respecting movie buff, tried to gate-crash the shooting, telling the security guys – truthfully, as it happens – that one of my friends was part of the production team. No dice. I went back the next day, saying I wanted to interview Mr Peck. Again, no dice. All I managed was to do was to see the great man from across the street, wearing a khaki safari jacket and a drooping mustache that really didn’t suit him. He was, I noticed, much taller than I had realised, towering over everybody else with his 6’ 3” height.

I later met up with my friend in the film’s production team, and repeated my request to interview Gregory Peck. He said he would see what he could do.

He got back to me the next day saying, sorry, Peck wasn’t giving any interviews, but would I like to interview Roger Moore instead? I said no thanks. There are some things that a self-respecting movie buff would never ever do.

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