On Netflix there was a very good documentary about Gregory Peck. It was a film by his daughter, through the lens of his family, as it followed him on a tour where he talked with audiences about his films and life.
What you saw was a man loved by audiences who seemed in awe of this love and who saw himself as just a very fortunate actor.
Atticus Finch was how many of us saw him. As he talked with fans there was a reverence for this character and a sense that even Peck looked up to this idyllic folk hero. He said it was an easy role to play as he thought of his father, and of the father of Harper Lee, who wrote the book.
Peck was age 46 when To Kill a Mockingbird was released. He would continue to make films for more than 30 years but nothing came close to matching the power or impact as his role of Atticus Finch. It was not only a career role, it was a legendary role in American film.
I consider the period from 1953 to 1962 to be Peck’s golden decade. Few actors during that time-frame can match that body of critically and financial successful work.
You’re probably thinking, what films did he make during this period. Drum roll, let’s take a look.
Roman Holiday (1953) Audrey Hepburn’s Hollywood debut, she plays a princess who is discovered by journalist Peck, who at first wants an exclusive interview by engaging in deception. Then he falls for her and decides against the article. Since it was her first film, Hepburn was slated for smaller screen credit but Peck insisted her name be along side his. He knew she would capture heart in this role, she did, along with the Best Actress Oscar. Peck was a gentleman and a realist.
Boum Sur Paris (1953) A French film that contains a few cameo appearance by American stars like Peck. More of a curiosity than a part of Peck’s filmography.
Man With a Million (1954) A stranded American is presented with an envelope containing a million pound note, which is the result of a bet between two British brothers. The money instantly changes the luck and perception of Peck’s character. A satire on British class and society. The film has more than a passing similarity to Trading Places, an American 1980’s film. Peck could play light comedy even though he didn’t very often.
Night People (1954) Cold War thriller with Peck as an Army officer negotiating the release of an American soldier seized in Berlin. Big screen, big color film that probably wanted to be a more ominous thriller. Written and directed by Nunnally Johnson, a veteran, award-winning screenwriter. Peck would make more of these Cold War stories.
The Purple Plain (1954) Peck plays a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot focusing on the last months of the WWII in Burma, Peck’s plane is shot down and his self-destructive attitude changes as his crew fights for survival. Peck’s character has lost his young wife and it led to risky, but heroic behavior in what was deeper than just a war film.
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) Based on a best-selling novel of discrimination, Peck’s newspaper character poses as a Jew to investigate antisemitism in the New York area. The film, through Peck’s investigation and his personal experience, looks at direct and subtle discrimination. A controversial film at the time, it was financially successful and nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning three.
Moby Dick (1956) As Captain Ahab, Peck disappears into the character in an adaption by Ray Bradbury and directed by John Huston. Moby Dick is one of the epic allegorical works that is hard, and often impossible, to translate to the screen. Peck is an actor capable of going to the center of Ahab and is fun to watch in this film.
Designing Women (1957) A very successful romantic comedy starring Peck and Lauren Bacall about a two-career marriage that causes complications and comedy. Said to be one of Peck’s favorite films. Bacall was dealing with Humphrey Bogart’s looming death from cancer during filming.
The Bravados (1958) A big color Western where Peck plays a rancher tracking the four men he believes killed his wife. He discovers they are set to be hung for a different crime, but manage to escape. Peck trails them and kills three of them, then discovers they did not kill his wife. Peck must deal with the guilt and find a way to restart his life with his young mother. Peck played numerous men who had lost their wives and struggled to make sense of life.
The Big Country (1959) One of those late 1950’s Technicolor, big screen, sweeping epics. Peck plays a newcomer to the West, who becomes embroiled in a battle between his fiancée’s family and another rancher over water rights. Peck co-produced the film. Peck is earnest in the film, pushed in his beliefs, as he works to fit in this environment of conflict and destiny.
Pork Chop Hill (1959) Korean War film about an insignificant, but politically important, hill in cease-fire negotiations. Peck is the officer in charge of the American troops. A grim and realistic view of war, based on a book by a military historian. A first-rate production with a very strong supporting cast.
Beloved Infidel (1959) An interesting choice, but playing F. Scott Fitzgerald must have had great lure for Peck. Peck plays Fitzgerald in Hollywood, writing whatever he can to finance his wife’s asylum cost, but falls in love with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham. A sudsy romance, a big studio production, but not a memorable film.
On the Beach (1959) Based on the post-apocalyptic story of nuclear fallout moving from the Northern Hemisphere toward Australia where the people there hold out hope of a miracle or the resolve of their fate. Peck plays a submarine captain who is ordered there, where he meets the Ava Gardner character with who he falls in love. She is broken in spirit, he is broken in his duty. The story shows the eventuality of the fallout, which is quite downbeat but done so with style. Peck is stoic but not perfect, a measured but powerful performance.
The Guns of Navarone (1961) Based on Alistair MacLean’s novel of a commando raid against a Nazi gun battery in the Aegean Sea. Peck is Captain Mallory who lead the commandos through capture by the Nazis, a traitor, a shipwreck, an injured team member, and a mountain climb. Another of Peck’s epic films, where the story and spectacle help carry the film. Peck is solid, he has his moments but he lets the film unfold, and it make a lot of money and stands the test of time.
Cape Fear (1962) – Peck and Robert Mitchum match up as lawyer and convict. Mitchum’s Cady, stalks Peck’s Sam Bowden and family in a psychological thriller. A film that terrorized audiences with it’s realistic brutality. A highly successful film that was remade in 1991. Peck is very effective playing refined men who must deal with unsavory characters, sometimes on their level.
How the West Was Won (1962) An all-star cast for the big studio film encompassing several stories of the Westward movement. Peck and Debbie Reynolds star in “The Plains” section of the film about going West by wagon train and surviving Indian attacks. The film takes the epic structure, rich in production value, a good but not great Peck film.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) What can you say about this classic that hasn’t been said? The film resonates as powerfully today as it did nearly 60 years ago. If there are 10 American films to see in your lifetime, this one is on the list. Peck won his only Academy Award for this film. Is this film about love, honor, dignity, right, justice? Yes, all of them.
This is great set of films, but the previous decade contained some very fine films too.
His best films from 1944 to 1952: The Keys to the Kingdom, Spellbound, The Yearling, Duel in the Sun, Gentleman’s Agreement, Twelve O’Clock High and The Snows of Kilimanjaro.
There is no doubt that Peck became a major movie star by the end of the 1940’s. If you look carefully, you’ll also see his growth as an actor. Peck had a commanding screen presence that he learned to modulate. He didn’t need to chew on the scenery to be the focal point in the scene. He had a rich, deep voice that did more than deliver his lines, it punctuated scenes like musical notes. As an actor, Peck had many gifts, and in my selected decade of films, he used them to full affect.
In interviews, Peck seemed always understated and humble. Proud of his work, he also spread around the credit, and realized what a lucky man he was.
“In the long term, family is all that counts. The fame and the awards and the nonsense that goes with them fades away. You’re left with a good family and maybe some good works.”