The week of March 17, 1939, was fairly active in terms of news. On Monday of that week, a new pope, Pius XII, entered the Vatican. On Wednesday, German troops occupied the remaining portions of Bohemia and Moravia and Czechoslovakia ceased to exist as a united state. By Friday, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced that Britain would officially oppose any and all of Germany’s attempts at world domination. But, there was one more bit of news on Friday that didn’t make the headlines.
On the evening of March 17, UC Berkeley’s Little Theatre premiered their production of the Eugene O’ Neill play “Anna Christie” — a classic tale where a lowly prostitute falls in love. When the Daily Californian reviewed the piece, the reaction was mixed. It seemed the production was a mild success save for the lead actor, who apparently “almost endangered the success of the production with his exhibition of inexperienced acting technique.”
That man was Eldred Peck. By spring of 1939, Peck was a senior at Cal, a declared English major, a dedicated member of the university’s crew team and a frequent participant in the school’s several theatrical productions. At the end of term, Peck graduated and decided to pursue acting professionally. He booked a trip to New York and changed his name to Gregory.
In less than five years that name — Gregory Peck — could be seen on marquees across the country amid more accomplished actors like Vincent Price and Lionel Barrymore. Despite what the Daily Californian may have said, Peck had made it as not only a professional actor, but a successful one from the get-go. In the same year that he made his screen debut (in 1944’s “Days of Glory”), Peck beat out Henry Fonda, Spencer Tracy, Orson Welles and even Gene Kelly for the lead role in “The Keys of the Kingdom” — a part that earned him his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
The rest of Peck’s illustrious career doesn’t need to be rehashed here. His iconic turns as Audrey Hepburn’s love interest in “Roman Holiday,” Captain Ahab in “Moby Dick” and, of course, Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” are already firmly entrenched within the American cultural conscious.
However, the man behind these legendary roles remains somewhat enigmatic.
For the last two weeks of June, the Pacific Film Archive will be hosting a series of Peck’s films subtitled “An Agreeable Gentleman.” For one of those films, “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” former President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Sid Ganis, his wife Nancy and Peck’s wife Veronique will be holding a discussion. So, I asked Ganis his opinion of the man, the myth and the legend. His answer was simple: “He was a movie star in the absolute totality of that phrase.”
Peck had poise, charisma and according to Nancy Ganis, who met him when she was 21, “he couldn’t have been more of a gentleman.” In fact, the word “gentleman” seemed to follow the star throughout the conversation. With regards to his personal life, Gregory Peck was not only generous, devoted and a “fantastic family man,” he was a gentleman. In terms of politics, Peck committed himself to liberal causes and humanitarian efforts — so much so that he ended up on Richard Nixon’s “Enemies List.” Again, he was a gentleman.
With overwhelming praise from his peers, a Presidential Medal of Freedom and five Academy Award nominations, it would seem he was a cut above the rest — not just a gentleman, but some type of superman. When Sid Ganis described the aura surrounding Peck at a Cassius Clay boxing match, the scene gave the impression of a king entering court. “We walked to the Paramount Theatre on Broadway,” Ganis said, “and everything stopped when Gregory Peck was there. He was just larger than life, biggest star of his day and maybe of this day.”
Indeed, the film industry owes much to Peck’s prestigious career. Aside from his extensive involvement with the Screen Actors Guild and the American Film Institute, it is his immense talent and versatility as a performer that have transcended the dramatic shifts in movie production and acting styles in the last 50 years. “There are only a few great actors working today,” said Nancy, “but there’s a difference between acting and celebrity.” In the era of Bogart, Hepburn and Peck, there was an elusive element to actors that has since passed in the face of digital media and 24-hour celebrity coverage.
And yet, despite this perceived mysteriousness and detached grandeur, Peck revisited the UC Berkeley campus in 1997 to present his intimate, one-man show, “A Conversation with Gregory Peck.” In the filmed version of this show, he’s funny, charming, eloquent and polite. But, for a renowned man of refinement, these traits are required. Stripped bare of any set dressings or stage makeup, he emerges as more than just a slick man in a gray suit. He becomes what actors should be and sadly are lacking these days — an engaging storyteller. Peck “raised the bar on every level,” Sid said. “He stood above the rest,” said Nancy. He was, is, in a word, a gentleman.