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Gregory Peck

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Along gray limo rolled up to a movie theater in suburban Denver, and out stepped a big-shouldered, theatrically handsome man with the head of a tousled Jehovah and a rich, bronze basso voice that challenged comparison to the one in the Burning Bush. The crowd gasped as if they had seen a ghost and then burst into startled cheers. Gregory Peck, one of the last of the great male stars of Hollywood’s studio era, was back in the limelight. As he waded through massed humanity, the famous smile whisking like a beacon from face to face, eager hands reached out to touch him. “Oh my God, it’s really him!” squealed a white-haired woman. “I’ve loved him all my life!” And a teenage girl, loading up on the swirling black eyebrows and the virile jaw, exclaimed, “Wow, he’s really beautiful! Dumb me, I thought he was dead!”

Resolutely undefunct at 71, Gregory Peck has just hit the marquees with a new movie, his first since 1980’s The Sea Wolves. It’s called Amazing Grace and Chuck, and it has whipped up a teacup tempest. Made for a piddling $5 million, it’s a feet-off-the-ground political fable about a 12-year-old Little Leaguer who forces the superpowers to destroy all their nuclear weapons. “It’s about how one lone, powerless individual can make a difference,” says Peck. “It’s straight Norman Rockwell, a Frank Capra picture for the nuclear age—and I love it. I had no intention to make a movie now, but this story touched my heart, and I had to do it.”

Some top critics loved the picture, too. Today’s Gene Shalit promised it would bring “a tear to your cheek [and] and a lift to your heart,” and most reviewers thought Peck played the U.S. President with dignity and force. But other reviewers slammed the movie, and since Amazing Grace is a small picture, easily lost among such summer blockbusters as Beverly Hills Cop II and The Untouchables, Peck has hit the road to fight for its life.

In L.A., when a theater owner was shipped a defective print, Peck jumped in his ’63 Bentley, picked up a copy of the film he had lent his good friend Michael Jackson, and delivered it personally to the amazed exhibitor. In Denver and Seattle he blitzed the media with radio and TV interviews. And last week on The Tonight Show he got a roaring ovation. “It’s like being with a rock star,” said one bemused reporter. “What has this old jasper got?”

Onscreen and off, Gregory Peck has still got enormous personal magnetism. “When there are a hundred people in a room or in a scene,” says Angie Dickinson, “you look at him. But it’s more than so-called star quality. There’s a quiet power in his being that is almost awesome.” Abraham Lincoln is Peck’s hero, and a friend claims, “He has what Lincoln had: reticent majesty.” For Anthony Quinn, Peck’s co-star in The Guns of Navarone, “character” is the operative word: “The man has strong values, and he lives by them. You don’t push Gregory Peck around.” And in a town where the Hollywod Reporters considered serious reading, Peck comes off as an intellectual heavyweight. He is a serious Civil War buff, a connoisseur of art and music (pop as well as classical) and a political progressive who was once urged by top Democrats to run for Governor of California; he is proud to say he made Richard Nixon’s enemies list. How does he feel about Ronald Reagan? “I felt fine when we were on liberal committees together,” he says with a sly grin, then launches with bawdy delight into the latest Ron-and-Nancy routine (“Nancy: Ron, did you fart? Ron: Er—no. Should I have?”).

Peck, in short, is a big one that Hollywood carelessly allowed to get away. Now that Cagney is gone and Jimmy Stewart is too frail to undertake major roles, Peck looms as the last of the Great Ones, a grand old man of the movies who still has much to give to a medium badly in need of creative integrity and moral force.

Peck despises the new Hollywood. He sneers at “the vest-pocket executives now running the store in this town. The old boys—L.B. Mayer, Darryl Zanuck, the Warners—were dragons, but they had passion and creativity. Today the business is run by cold fish who love to make money, not movies. And then they buy impressionist paintings and install huge Henry Moores in the backyard. What they do doesn’t interest me a damn bit. I’m not excited by cartoon violence in outer space.”

But such flare-ups are rare. “Dad doesn’t like conflict,” says his son Stephen, 40, a director of documentaries. “He is where he is because he’s got ego, ambition and drive. But the man I see is still basically a small-town boy. He’s shy and very sensitive to people’s feelings. He doesn’t want them to be hurt the way he was hurt.”

“Eldred!” says Peck with a grin and a groan. “My mother found the name in a phone book, and I was stuck with it.” That was in La Jolla, Calif., where Eldred Gregory Peck was born on April 5, 1916. Mother Bernice was a sparkling beauty who longed for the bright lights. Father Gregory was a quiet Irish druggist. They split when Eldred was 6, and for two years he bounced from city to city, parent to parent. At 8, he landed back in La Jolla with his mother’s mother, and at 10 he was shipped off to a Roman Catholic military academy, where for three years he was laminated with virtue by “tough Irish nuns and square-jawed ROTC officers.” At 14, he escaped to high school in San Diego, parked with his father in “a barren household” and grew like corn in the moonlight—between 14 and 17 he shot up from 5’2″ to 6’3″.

“I was lonely, withdrawn, full of selfdoubt,” Peck remembers. At 18, after a year at the wheel of an oil truck, Eldred worked his way through Berkeley, rowed with the crew, and in his senior year played the first mate in a dramatization of Moby Dick. “I wanted to crawl in a hole and come up in Mexico,” says Peck, “but people liked me, and I saw that through acting I could express myself and win approval.” Without waiting to pick up his degree, he was off to New York. “Eldred Peck got on the train,” he recalls with a chuckle, “and Gregory Peck got off.”

Success came quickly. Peck won a scholarship to study with Sanford Meisner and Martha Graham. A year later he was cast in Katharine Cornell’s road show of The Doctor’s Dilemma. Then came World War II—and Peck’s big break. With Gable, Stewart and Tyrone Power in the service, Hollywood was raking the boonies for young leading men, and Peck was the pick of the pack—the military didn’t want him because he’d injured his back in dance class. MGM’s Louis B. Mayer promised to make him the next Clark Gable, but Peck coolly refused an exclusive contract. Mayer burst into tears—”No kidding,” says Peck. “Big fat tears rolled down his cheeks and fell off his chin.”

Mayer had good reason to weep. Peck became an instant superstar. Of his first nine movies, seven were smash hits: The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), The Valley of Decision (1944), Spellbound(1945), The Yearling (1946), Duel in the Sun (1946), The Macomber Affair (1947) and Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). Yet Peck has no illusions about his early work. “I hadn’t learned how to relax and how to concentrate,” he says. “All I had was sincerity.”

Sincerity didn’t satisfy the critics, who often grumped that Peck played Peck instead of the character in the script. “That’s critic talk,” Peck says heatedly. “It’s easy to say, ‘Bogie was always Bogie.’ Well, just try it! Cooper and Bogie drew on themselves. They pulled the script to them, rather than do a lot of acting to reach the script. I think that’s the best kind of acting. The public wants actors who can be themselves on the screen. People are interested in people. The man must be greater than the actor.”

More than most actors, Peck has revealed himself on film. At his core there is a muscular moralist, and in his most powerful films the hero lays his neck on the block for his beliefs. As Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), the role that won him an Oscar, Peck infuses the hero’s fight for justice with his own libertarian passion and transforms the kindly small-town lawyer into a secular saint. Darryl Zanuck put it simply: “Peck gets you on his side. You root for him to win.”

Peck nevertheless has refused to play only heroes of high resolve. He has regularly risked failure in order to broaden his range. And in The Boys From Brazil (1978), he failed. “Watching Gregory Peck play Josef Mengele, the mad doctor of Auschwitz,” said a Brit wit, “inspires the same disbelief I would feel if I watched Sir Galahad eat a small child.” Peck, in fact, had made a similar leap into the demonic 30 years earlier, with similar results. In John Huston’s Moby Dick he played mad Captain Ahab like a perfectly sensible millionaire who wondered why he was clinging to a wet whale when he could have been holding a dry sherry.

In fact Peck was clinging to the whale for dear life. It was 90 feet long and made of rubber and plastic. Towed eight miles off the coast of Wales, the whale was yawing wildly in 10-foot seas when the towrope broke. “Ahoy!” Peck yelled as he and the whale disappeared into a fog bank. But nobody came. Panic set in as he imagined himself meeting the fate of Ahab, but 15 minutes later Huston’s launch emerged from the mist, and Peck promptly abandoned whale.

Danger be damned, Peck loved his work and fought for his turf in the celluloid jungle. (He once had a punch-out with a rival, Dana Andrews.) His career claimed the bulk of his energy and left little for wife Greta, a Finnish beauty he first knew as Katharine Cornell’s hairdresser, and their three young sons, Jonathan, Stephen and Carey.

Were there other women in his life? Peck rambles on freely about his leading ladies—Sophia Loren, Ava Gardner, Lauren Bacall, Greer Garson, Jane Wyman—but when mention is made of Ingrid Bergman, his co-star in Spellbound, he begins to blather. “Now we get into an area where I can’t answer. All I can say is I had a real love for her, and I think that’s where I ought to stop. Except to say she was like a lovely Swedish rose. I was young. She was young. We were involved for weeks in close and intense work.” Ever gallant, he declines to confide more intimate matters.

What about Audrey Hepburn, his co-star in Roman Holiday (1953)? “No, no! The same thing applies.”

By the early ’50s, Greg and Greta’s marriage was a rouged corpse. On vacation in Paris, they agreed to separate. “For three weeks I just felt awful about the boys. I stayed in my hotel room like a bear in a hollow log. Then suddenly I had this vivid image of a French girl who had interviewed me seven months before. She had huge, glowing eyes and a face brimming with vitality and intelligence and heart and humor.” Her name was Veronique Passani, and the next day Peck asked her to the races.

They fell in love, married after Peck was divorced, and have lived passionately ever after. “Everything about him is magnanimous,” says Veronique, 55. “There is nothing small about him, ever. The more I know him, the more I adore this man.” No less lyrical, Peck says: “I found myself when I found Veronique.”

Both of their children, Anthony, 30, and Cecilia, 29, have acting careers. Tony plays opposite Brooke Shields in Brenda Starr, a movie slated for fall release. Off screen he “walks out,” as father delicately puts it, with Cheryl Tiegs. Cecilia has just finished Wall Street, Oliver Stone’s new film. “Dad was a strict, old-fashioned father,” she says, “and we had clashes about that. But we’re all very close now.” Tony adds, “Yes, he was strict—taught us manners and responsibility. We got in our share of hell-raising, anyway.”

Relations between Peck and the children of his first marriage have been more complex. His eldest son, Jonathan, a CBS television reporter in Santa Barbara, Calif., killed himself 12 years ago at the age of 30. Peck says he was depressed by overwork, arteriosclerosis and a failed love affair. “It’s the most terrible thing that has happened to me in my life,” Peck says quietly. “You never get over a thing like that.” His second son, Stephen, last year produced a recording of the New Testament read by his father. “The work brought us closer,” Stephen says. Carey, 38, Peck’s third son, has twice run unsuccessfully for Congress in California and is now a bank officer.

“The one who brings us all together,” says Peck, “is my mother. She’s 92 and still wonderfully pretty and spirited. She goes to the races and bets like a sailor on colors and birthdays and names—and she wins! She flies down from San Francisco once a month and stays in her own room here.”

“Here” is a grand but delightfully cozy Norman-style mansion that sits on four gorgeously planted acres in L.A.’s lush Holmby Hills. Golden retrievers romp among blazing masses of rhododendron and bougainvillea, and the house itself is a casual gallery of paintings, drawings and prints by the likes of Renoir, Matisse and Picasso. A soft-footed butler brings a silver tray full of fluffy white cookies stuffed with raspberry mousse. The host offers Roederer Cristal. The Pecks live quietly but well.

Often they invite close friends to an elegant small dinner party. And when the mood strikes, they travel. In the last seven months they have visited Cuba for a film festival, Moscow for a forum on disarmament, Paris for a look at the new Musée d’Orsay and Louisville for the Kentucky Derby. “We do whatever we want whenever we want to do it,” says Peck. “I suppose that’s the ultimate freedom.”

Right now Peck urgently wants to make a new movie based on the Sinclair Lewis novel Dodsworth, about a U.S. industrialist who moves to Europe to please his frivolous wife. “It’s a glorious part, one of the few I’m not too old to play,” he says. He has a script and is starting to think about casting. Is he out of touch with the current crop of actors? Not for an instant. “I like Don Johnson. He’s intelligent. He has style. He’s really too good for that series…”

What about Peck’s health—can it support the strain of a major role? “Sometimes I’m creaky in the a.m.,” he says, “but I feel no different. I eat what I please and sprinkle hot peppers on almost everything. I’m not obsessed by age, and I don’t think about death. I’m aware it’s autumn. But I’m not bothered. I just do things I really enjoy. I enjoy acting. When I’m driving to the studio, I sing in the car. I love my work and my wife and my kids and my friends. And I think, ‘You’re a lucky man, Gregory Peck, a damn lucky man.’ ”