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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson





Building façade in Cannes, France

Twelve o’clock high for Atticus and Ahab (1916-2003)

Often it isn’t until someone dies that you start learning interesting things about them. For example, it wasn’t until I heard a news item about Gregory Peck’s passing, on Irish television, that I found out that his grandmother hailed from Dingle, County Kerry. That practically made him a neighbor of mine. Sort of.

The Dingle connection makes sense. That Atlantic peninsula is rugged and windswept, and Peck was a rugged and windswept kind of man. Yet he was quintessentially American. The tall, quiet, serious, principled persona he projected was of a type that was a staple in Hollywood movies of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Along with John Wayne and Gary Cooper, Peck defined American masculinity. Next to these men, the pretty boy movie stars of recent years, like Brad Pitt and Leonardo Dicaprio, are hard to take seriously as leading men. Compared with the likes of Peck, their voices sound tinny and whiny and hopelessly immature. If you’re having trouble getting what I mean, just try to imagine what Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones would be like if it had Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy in it.

I also learned that Peck’s great-uncle was an Irish hunger striker. This also fits. Peck was a bit of a political rebel himself. He was a Hollywood liberal back when being a Hollywood liberal was principled and thoughtful way to be, and not just a pose to strike because that’s what everyone else who is cool is doing.

Of course, not all of Peck’s movie roles were great ones, but his classic films overshadowed the embarrassing ones. The role he will always be identified with, naturally, is that of the southern lawyer Atticus Finch in the 1962 classic To Kill a Mockingbird. For all time, no one will be able to think of Peck or Finch without thinking of the other. But he had plenty of other memorable parts. He had the (literal) dream job of working with Alfred Hitchcock, Salvador Dali and Ingrid Bergman in 1945’s Spellbound. He was “Pa” in The Yearling. In 1949’s Twelve O’Clock High Peck, who never served in the war because of spinal injury, was the Air Force general who learns about military camaraderie and morale. In 1952’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro, he was a thinly veiled version of Ernest Hemingway, trying to make sense of his life and the women in it, which included Susan Hayward, Ava Gardner and Hildegard Neff. In 1953 he got to play tour guide to an eastern European princess, played by Audrey Hepburn, in the film that made her a star, Roman Holiday. In 1956, he was a Madison Avenue executive trying to find meaning in his home life in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. The same year he returned to his ethnic roots, after a fashion, playing Capt. Ahab in Moby Dick, which was filmed partially in County Cork. In 1959, he was a military commander again and reunited with Ava Gardner, as the world ended in On the Beach. He became a real action star in 1961 in The Guns of Navarone, one of the best adventure movies of the era.

In the 1970s, however, Peck’s choice in film roles veered toward the outlandish. In 1976, he was the father of the anti-Christ in The Omen. In 1978 he was Nazi madman Josef Mengele plotting to clone Adolf Hitler in The Boys from Brazil. In 1991, he played a cameo in Martin Scorsese’s version of the thriller Cape Fear, in which Nick Nolte played the lawyer role that Peck had originally played the 1962 version. If Peck had a latter-day role that exemplified the best of his persona, it was his turn as the president of the United States in the 1987 feel-good pro-disarmament film Amazing Grace and Chuck. In that fantasy, he was the president we always wanted to have but have never seemed to get—except in the movies.

That was the gift of Gregory Peck. He exuded authority and he exuded good character. He was someone you could follow with confidence, whether you were flying airplanes in World War II, going behind enemy lines to destroy German guns, defending an accused rapist in Alabama, or trying to kill a white whale. It is a cliché to say that we won’t see his like again or that an era has ended. But it sure feels that way.

-S.L., 12 June 2003


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