By Stephen M. Silverman
Updated June 12, 2003 11:35 AM

Hollywood has lost one of its true giants: Academy Award winner Gregory Peck, 87, who possessed one of the most stoic, distinguished — and liberal — voices in the movies, died at his Beverly Hills home Wednesday night, his spokesman said Thursday.

His wife of nearly 50 years, the former Veronique Passani, was at his side, rep Monroe Friedman tells the Associated Press.

“She told me very briefly that he died peacefully. She was with him, holding his hand, and he just went to sleep,” Friedman said. “He had just been getting older and more fragile. He wasn’t really ill. He just sort of ran his course and died of old age.”

Peck will be forever remembered for his Oscar-winning 1962 role as Atticus Finch in the film adaptation of novelist Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” about a small-town southern lawyer who defends an African-American accused of a crime he didn’t commit. The role was practically tailor-made for the leading man, and mirrored his own humanitarian beliefs.

The American Film Institute recently named Finch Hollywood’s No. 1 all-time hero.

(The film) seems to have meant so much to so many people,” Peck once said. “I still get bundles of essays from school teachers whose students write about what the movie meant to them.”

The handsome and gentlemanly Peck, a born romantic leading man, was a California native who got his acting start while studying literature at the University of California at Berkeley, where he was also a member of the rowing team. The director of the student theater noticed the strapping 6’3″ athlete and offered him a role in a production of “Moby Dick.” (Years later he would play Captain Ahab on the big screen.) He dropped out of school and moved to New York, where he appeared onstage until Hollywood came calling.

His most memorable roles include those in the films “Twelve O’Clock High,” “Duel in the Sun” “Captain Horatio Hornblower,” “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit,” “Moby Dick” and “Roman Holiday,” which marked the screen debut of someone who was to become his lifelong friend: Audrey Hepburn.

Peck also starred as a Gentile journalist who poses as a Jew to expose discrimination in the groundbreaking 1947 film “Gentleman’s Agreement.”

Offscreen, the father of four adult children (sons Stephen, Carey and Tony and daughter Cecilia; son Jonathan committed suicide in 1975 at the age of 30) served as the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and was considered a pillar of the film community, a beloved figure and a tremendous presence on screen — and in person.

“When there are a hundred people in a room or a scene, you look at him,” actress Angie Dickenson once said of Peck. “But it’s more than so-called star quality. There’s a quiet power in his being that is almost awesome.”

Peck spent his later years traveling and raising money for charities such as the American Cancer Society.