It is late afternoon. The audience seems lunch-struck. They are reporters and the sort of dignitaries not really needed at the office. They have come here to Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. to hear Gregory Peck talk about playing President Lincoln in CBS’ miniseries called The Blue and The Gray, which is based on the works of the late historian Bruce Catton. Peck’s role is only a cameo—23 minutes of screen time scattered through six and a half hours of edited film—and he has suggested reasonably that the stars of the show, Stacy Keach and John Hammond, stand up and take the credit. No one will have this; everyone wants Peck, and Lincoln.
Well and good, but Peck is no amateur at assessing the mood of a house, and he knows that his listeners need waking up. He hints that he may, perhaps, tell them an off-color story that was part of Lincoln’s repertoire. This is Peck’s style; he is a gentleman, and what is more, at 66, a gentleman of the old school. It is not in him to tell a naughty story, even one that is a certified antique, without giving maidenly souls an opportunity to retreat. As it happens, there is no rush for the door. So Peck tells Lincoln’s yarn. A 10-year-old farm boy, it seems, rushes to his father and says that he has just seen his big sister and the hired man in the hayloft, taking off their clothes. He isn’t sure what they’re up to, but he is afraid that they are going to spoil the hay by doing what should only be done in an outhouse. The father says, ruefully—this is a country lawyer’s joke, used when the evidence can’t be denied—”Son, you’ve got the facts right, but you’ve come to the wrong conclusion.” As the press and the hooky-playing bureaucrats chuckle, Peck sneaks a look up at the presidential box where Lincoln was shot and from which John Wilkes Booth jumped after yelling “Sic semper tyrannis!” He grins, apparently on receipt of a spectral message that Abe still likes his story.
Peck’s father, he goes on to say, was the town druggist in La Jolla, Calif., and he played the bass drum in Fourth of July parades that young Eldred Gregory Peck (the first name was found in a phone book by his mother, he says, and dropped by him as soon as he had a choice in the matter) used to watch. Civil War veterans, ancient then but proud and spry and much honored, marched in those parades. Peck, still several years and a good many false starts short of even thinking about being an actor, became fascinated with the Civil War and with Lincoln. He began reading, and he read everything he could find. Years later he met another of his heroes, Adlai Stevenson, who was campaigning for the Presidency against Dwight Eisenhower. He discovered that he and Stevenson had the same insomnia cure: They read about Lincoln. “I still do that,” says Peck. “It’s always absorbing.”
Peck is still an extraordinarily handsome man, and it is not hard to see how he has managed to play firm-jawed heroes through half of the history of films. Some phrasemaker will go back to the office from today’s press conference and describe him as “Lincolnesque.” Certainly he is more Lincolnesque than Millard Fillmoreesque, but without makeup and wearing a fine blue pinstripe suit, he really doesn’t look much like Abraham Lincoln. The fact is that the tall, lean man he most sharply resembles is himself. He is emphatically Peckian, and his elegant and unmistakable mug can be a problem. He hasn’t stuck to Gregory Peck roles, as Clark Gable stuck to Gable roles, and as Burt Reynolds seems fated to play out his days as Burt Reynolds. If there is such a thing as a Peck role, it is that of the embattled smalltown lawyer, Atticus Finch, in 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird, for which he won the Academy Award. But a good man is hard to find, in real life or in films, and Peck has pieced out his career interestingly with character parts. The complication here—as in his admirable portrayals of Ahab in Moby Dick and the evil Dr. Mengele in The Boys From Brazil—has been that there is a lot of Peck for the makeup man to subdue. Alec Guinness and Dustin Hoffman, for instance, have sketch pads for faces. Draw anything you like on them, male or female. Not Peck. Draw Ahab on him, and every so often, at odd moments, you see Peck peeking through the shrubbery.
That won’t do for Lincoln, whose face is the most familiar in American history. Lincoln’s rough-boned, bearded countenance travels about in the pockets of every child old enough to have a few pennies, and his sorrowing figure stares out across our governmental turmoil from the Lincoln Memorial. Lincoln photos are everywhere, and we study them for clues to lost nobility. Playing Lincoln is no joke. The face must be right, and what is projected through the face must satisfy not only historical accuracy but our natural inclination to stare at Lincoln and to brood. This is a lot of pressure for a rubber nose to endure. Raymond Massey, whose face was more gaunt and less grand than Peck’s, played a good Abe in the 1940 film Abe Lincoln in Illinois. But Massey’s Lincoln was young and not so familiar to us. Peck’s is the presidential Lincoln, from his inauguration to his death.
The role, he felt, called for the state of the art in makeup. “I said, ‘Let’s go. Get the death mask, get all the photos, measure the nose. Let’s see what you can do.’ ” Bits of latex were glued to Peck. He began to disappear, and Lincoln began to replace him. “I was not entirely satisfied with the nose. By the time we had got through the first scene, we had gone through about three of them. I thought it was a little too long and not quite blunt enough. I looked in the mirror and I wished it were better. I wished I could have looked exactly like him.”
The house lights dim at Ford’s Theatre. Scenes from The Blue and The Gray, a vast, broad-brushed TV mural, begin to appear, and farm folk and townspeople in Virginia and Pennsylvania slide toward war. There are two remarkable performances. One is Sterling Hayden’s fierce and fiery John Brown. The other is Peck’s Lincoln. The President’s figure is gaunt and angular. His face is worn, rough, grave, alive with intelligence. One scene sticks in the mind, because it is fresh and imaginative, and the viewer thinks, “Yes, it might have happened that way.” Lincoln is on the White House lawn (and Peck is nowhere in sight) with Stacy Keach, who plays a Union agent, and another man who has invented a repeating rifle. Lincoln and the Keach character test the rifle by shooting at a scrap of board propped against a tree. There is a short discussion, and then Lincoln, a tall, knobby, awkward countryman in a black frock coat and a high silk hat, walks alone away from the camera, toward the White House. Peck is 6’3″ tall and graceful. Lincoln was 6’4″, a clownish height in those days, and skinny. Peck’s Lincoln cants as he moves and seems to creak. His deep voice has a backwoods twang to it (Lincoln’s voice is said to have been high, but Peck decided that audiences wouldn’t accept a high voice, realistic or not). He feels his years and appears tired, weighed down by the bloody necessities of the war. He fills the screen and sets off reverberations that hang in the mind after the house lights return.
Peck carries his own years lightly, and it is startling to realize that he is 10 years older than Lincoln was when he died. He is an actor, of course, in the business of appearing to be something that he is not, but what he seems to be is a serene and happy man. There was a period at the beginning of the 1970s, he says, “when I had made one dud film after another, and my career was in the doldrums.” And there was the time of horror in 1975, when his oldest son, Jonathan (by his first wife, Greta), a 30-year-old TV news reporter, committed suicide. Now life seems more tranquil and fruitful for Peck and his French-born wife, Veronique, 50 (they have two children, Anthony, 26, a drama student at Juilliard, and Cecilia, 24, a story analyst for ABC; and Peck has two living sons from his first marriage, Stephen, 36, and Carey Paul, 33). Veronique shows up at the end of the Ford’s Theatre talk, and he gives her a friendly hug—not an on-camera, let’s-get-it-together-for-the-damned-press hug, but an off-camera, hey-glad-to-see-you hug.
Later, in New York, Peck amplifies a remark he made at Ford’s Theatre. We are used to thinking of films as more sophisticated than television, he had said. But most films these days are aimed straight at teenagers, and it is television that turns out, occasionally, a long, serious drama about the Civil War. The Blue and The Gray was his first TV project, and, he says, he had to learn to adjust, to prepare very thoroughly for scenes that are shot very fast. (Without in the least boasting, he says that he practiced the Gettysburg Address “about 500 times.”) There’s not much time for experimentation, and not enough reshooting, he says. True enough, thinks an observer; although The Blue and The Gray cost an impressive $17 million, CBS cut some visible corners. The producers stinted to the point of using amateur actors in some minor parts. Some of their lines—notably Secretary of War Stanton’s “Now he belongs to the ages” after Lincoln’s death—hang in the air surrounded by neon quotation marks.
Peck intends to do more TV. He spent the summer in Italy shooting another CBS television drama, The Scarlet and the Black, the true story of an Irish priest who ran an escape organization in Rome during World War II. The role will be his second as a priest, his visitor notes—the first was in The Keys of the Kingdom in 1944. Is he Catholic? Yes, says Peck. In fact, his paternal grandmother came from County Kerry. In the U.S., she married an American of English descent named Peck and had a son by him. When Grandfather Peck died, poverty forced her back to Ireland. But things were even worse there, so she returned to the U.S., and finally, Peck says, laughing in delight at his feisty grandma, made a success as a traveling saleswoman of corsets and lingerie. He talks of his father—”He was a great fellow, I loved him”—and of dropping out of college at 19 to take a job driving oil tankers. The superintendent liked his work, and said that he too might get to be a superintendent some day. This prospect so chilled Peck that he dropped back into college. And somebody from the student theater at Berkeley told him they needed a tall actor…
Veronique lets herself in through the door of the hotel suite. It is time to leave. New projects? A remake of Sinclair Lewis’ Dodsworth, says Peck. It’s about an American auto manufacturer in the 1920s, a bright, energetic, unsophisticated fellow, who sells his factory and travels to Europe to please his pretty and ambitious wife. Peck speaks French, dresses like a duke and knows his way around Europe. He is no Dodsworth. But he likes the chances of his new project. “If there’s such a thing as a middle-aged love story”—he laughs a self-amused laugh—”then this is it.”
What about Abraham Lincoln? Peck’s face lights up. His only regret about The Blue and The Gray is that it wasn’t a full-length study of the President. He is eager to dust off the plug hat and glue on the rubber nose again, possibly in a TV version of Norman Corwin’s play The Rivalry, about the Lincoln-Douglas debates. “You can’t get to the bottom of Lincoln. He’s unfathomable. It’s not a bad thing to have one hero who never lets you down.”