June 13, 2003 02:46 PM

Thursday night saw the American Film Institute pay tribute to this year’s honoree, Robert De Niro, but the talk of the evening belonged to Hollywood legend Gregory Peck — whose death plunged Tinseltown into mourning.

De Niro, 59, was AFI’s 31st lifetime achievement award winner, and his tribute in Los Angeles attracted Leonardo DiCaprio, De Niro’s “Taxi Driver” costar Jodie Foster, his “Goodfellas” costar Joe Pesci and the director of those and other great De Niro films (including their definitive 1980 movie, “Raging Bull”), Martin Scorsese.

Still, Reuters reports, the name on most people’s lips — including De Niro’s — was Peck’s, who died peacefully at home Wednesday night at the age of 87.

“I had a scene with him in ‘The Boys from Brazil’ and I can’t tell you how well he treated me. He gave me a kiss in the movie and he was the best kisser ever,” said comedian Anne Meara, 73, whose son Ben Stiller costarred with De Niro in “Meet the Parents.”

“Mr. Peck epitomized the leading man. He was graceful and elegant. I watched ‘Roman Holiday’ about 30 times and I can’t tell you my fantasies,” said actress Mimi Rogers, 47.

De Niro told Reuters that he knew Peck “a bit and he was very nice. He was elegant and distinguished and a film icon.”

De Niro later took to the stage to thank those who attended, and added in conclusion, “Good night — and good night, Gregory Peck.”

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