Old Matinee Idols Never Die—Some, Like Gregory Peck, Don't Even Fade Away

He was his own man, a nonconformist, a complex man who made his own rules. He was aloof, not a clubbable man. He kept his own counsel. I think there was a shyness, a sensitive side to his nature that led him to be something of a loner. He didn’t let other people get to know him very well.

There are people in Hollywood who would say that description fits Gregory Peck pretty well. But it is Peck talking about Gen. Douglas MacArthur, whom he once considered an arrogant warmonger and whom Peck now portrays, with dignity and warmth, in the movie MacArthur.

His role as the five-star hero of the Pacific marks a significant change of direction, at age 61, in Peck’s 33-year movie career. He could echo MacArthur’s famed “I have returned,” since there was a decade of duds and inactivity between Arabesque, his last previous moneymaker in 1966, and The Omen, which immediately preceded MacArthur.

Managing to look Gregory impeccable even in sneakers without socks and a rumpled safari suit, Peck conducts an inspection of the Norman-style estate in Holmby Hills he bought in December. His French-born wife, Véronique, is supervising an extensive restoration job. (“Can you imagine adding a Hawaiian lanai to this living room? We are giving it back its integrity.”) During the tour Peck expands on the differences between himself, long a highly visible spokesman for liberal causes, and MacArthur, the idol of conservative Republicans. (In his 1960s activist prime in their old Los Angeles neighborhood, the actor was called “the senator from Brentwood.”) Peck studied hard for the MacArthur part, reading a long list of books about the general “from the violently against to the cloyingly pro. I could identify with him in his obsession with an ideal, in his concern for duty, honor, country, in his compassion for his men—something that may have been overlooked heretofore. I realized that most of his idiosyncrasies have no bearing on the man’s accomplishments. One hundred years from now nobody will be interested in the scrambled eggs on his cap or his evangelistic rhetoric. They’ll be interested in how he affected history.”

Peck’s turnabout marks both a political mellowing (though he still dislikes Richard Nixon, on whose 1971 “enemies list” he found himself) and the reemergence of the former matinee idol as a character actor. The MacArthur role and the move to exclusive, woodsy Holmby Hills are part of a deliberate attempt to change the Peck family’s way of life. It is aimed, he says, at “more privacy, adventure and excitement” for himself, Véronique, 45, a former Paris journalist, and their two bilingual children. Anthony, 20, is studying drama at Amherst, and Cecilia, 19, is an English major at Princeton. Véronique’s mother also lives with them.

The two-level house with five bedrooms is surrounded by four acres of rolling lawn graced with tall pines and a gnarled oak. Invisible from the street and protected by electronically controlled wrought iron gates, the estate was once hired out for a Cougar TV commercial with Farrah Fawcett-Majors (before Peck bought it, needless to say). There is, of course, a pool, plus tennis court, guest house, greenhouse and a log cabin tucked away in a wooded hollow.

Véronique, an expert decorator, found the house while Peck was filming MacArthur. Smitten, she phoned him during a lunch break and he came right over in his uniform, makeup and all. He decided to buy it in 20 minutes. “She fell in love with the place,” he says. “I bought it for the oak tree.”

Affording it was not a problem. Although Peck has never commanded the supersalaries of other stars, he can ask and get $750,000 a picture. Because he had a percentage of the gross, he made $2.5 million on The Guns of Navarone. Peck has also invested wisely. Today he maintains limited partnerships in a computer component factory and in industrial and commercial real estate. He also recently ended a four-year, million-dollar association with Travelers Insurance Company as the voice for their commercials.

When he could not find films to act in, Peck tried producing. He made The Catonsville Nine (1971), from a play about Vietnamese war protesters, and The Dove (1973), the adventures of a teenaged boy who sailed around the world alone. Too controversial or too clean, neither film did well. But, says Peck, “At least I put my money where my mouth is. I’m glad I did them.”

As a kid in La Jolla, a town 112 miles south of L.A. on the coast, Eldred Gregory Peck developed movie fever early. In 1922, when he was 6, his parents separated, and he lived with his maternal grandmother. Twice a week she would take Eldred to the town’s new movie house. “We didn’t care what was showing,” says Peck. “One night in this film a man was playing an organ in a Paris sewer, and when he turned around and looked straight into the camera, he had no face, just a mass of scars. Grandmother let out a scream, and my hair stood straight up. I haven’t got over The Phantom of the Opera yet.”

His childhood, says Peck, was “entirely free. There was a certain amount of loneliness, but I have wonderful recollections of playing games in the twilight and romping barefoot.” At 10, though, he was packed off to St. John’s Military Academy in L.A. It was largely attended, he recalls, by the children of divorced parents who, “out of guilt and uncertainty,” sent them there for discipline.

During high school days in San Diego, while living with his father, Gregory, a pharmacist, the boy shot up to 6’3″ by 17 and discovered girls. “I grew like an asparagus—and looked like one too,” he says. “I was always shy, a bit reticent. But girls brought me out of myself and gave me confidence.” He went to San Diego State College, then transferred to Berkeley so he could compete on the rowing team. In his senior year he decided to focus all the “discipline, hard training and teamwork” of crew on the theater.

After graduation he left for New York so fast “they had to mail me my diploma.” He dropped the Eldred (“It didn’t have much punch”) and studied acting while supporting himself with jobs as a Rockefeller Center tourist guide and a midway barker at the 1939 World’s Fair. He performed in regional theaters, then landed a small role in The Doctor’s Dilemma, touring with Katharine Cornell. The first night out, Miss Cornell forgot her lines. “I turned my face upstage and whispered the lines to her. She never forgot that.” She gave him his first big Broadway role in Morning Star, and his career was launched.

In 1943, after marrying Cornell’s Finnish hairdresser Greta Konen, Peck got a chance for a screen test and went West. (“I had no need for nightly applause. Filmmaking is my thing.”) His first movie was one of those love-our-Russian-allies drumbeaters, Days of Glory, in which Peck, ironically 4-F because of an old spinal injury from rowing, played a Red Army soldier. His second, Keys of the Kingdom, made him a star.

He went on to play 50 film roles, from Captain Ahab in Moby Dick (1956) to Hemingway’s Harry in The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952). He won five Academy Award nominations—for Keys of the Kingdom (1944), The Yearling (1946), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), Twelve O’Clock High (1949) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). He finally won an Oscar for Mockingbird, his favorite role. He hung on even after a string of failures—such as Shootout (1971) and Billy Two-Hat (1972)—because “I love the work,” he says. “It may sound crazy, but I sing and hum and whistle and snort on my way to the studio in the morning. I’m not at all blasé about it.”

Although his life has been free of scandal (“He couldn’t deal with the fear and guilt of unfaithfulness,” says one friend), Peck was divorced from Greta in 1954 after 12 years of marriage and three sons, Jonathan, Stephen and Carey Paul. The day after the divorce became final he married Véronique Passani, whom he had met three years earlier when she interviewed him in Paris.

The second marriage has endured, and the children from both wives “are the most rewarding part of my life,” he says. “Movies are a sideline.” His family was, however, the source of the one great tragedy in his life—which Peck can still scarcely talk about—the suicide two years ago of Jonathan, his eldest son. Plagued by daily pressure as a Santa Barbara TV newsman, by premature arteriosclerosis and depressed over his breakup with a girl and the suicide of a friend, Jonathan, then 30, shot himself in the head. His father was in France, where he also has a home. “The ‘if that haunts me,” Peck says, “is that if I had been here in Los Angeles he would most certainly have called me. I’d have told him, ‘If the job is too much pressure, quit it, tell ’em to stuff it. Come to me.’ ” Under the knitted brows, the eyes are dark with tears.

Peck returned to acting a few months later only when the makers of the supernatural melodrama The Omen, seeking the stamp of legitimacy that the actor’s presence would lend, pressed him to accept a featured role. Actress Lee Remick, who had been a longtime admirer of the public Peck but had never worked with him until The Omen, found making a film with him a “revelation.” He was relaxed and yet absorbed with the details of his role. “As the shooting progressed,” she says, “his copy of the script became a mass of scrawled memos to himself. And that considerateness! It’s not fabricated. It’s devastating.”

Today Peck clocks five miles each morning on a stationary bike while he “flips back and forth” between the Today show and Good Morning, America or reads a magazine or newspaper. After breakfast (coffee and grapefruit, maybe a boiled egg) he retreats to his new office. While he once worked for LBJ and the Great Society and presided over the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he now pursues “causes” like regional theater and opportunities for new filmmakers.

The house is on an informal summer schedule. Anthony and Cecilia pop in and out. He’s studying acting with Stella Adler and she’s getting ready for a trip to Japan and Europe with her parents, during which she’ll act as Peck’s secretary. His next movie will be The Boys from Brazil, with Laurence Olivier, which will start filming in Europe in October.

He and Véronique dine out two or three times a week, sometimes with old friends like producer Martin Manulis and his wife, Katharine Bard (with whom Peck first screen-tested), or Mary Livingstone, the widow of Peck’s close friend Jack Benny. At home they eat with the kids in the breakfast room rather than in the formal dining room, and once in a while Peck indulges himself in “pure luxury”—dinner a deux on trays in bed.

“We never seem to have time on our hands,” says Peck. “I’m bouncing back. I’ve had my day as a leading man. Now I’m having a late-blooming career and enjoying it. I’m not fighting tooth and claw to get back to the top of the heap.” He stares reflectively into his glass of white wine at the playroom bar. “I am quite happy in the fullness of my years.”

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