Gregory Peck, the star of To Kill a Mockingbird, marks its 35th- anniversary edition by revisiting his career peaks.
Gregory Peck revisits his career peaks
Whenever Gregory Peck goes out in public, chances are somebody will come up to him and wax enthusiastic about To Kill a Mockingbird. Few films have succeeded so well at capturing a child’s view of the adult world, looming before young eyes as alternately puzzling, menacing, and inspiring. Now, 35 years after its original release, as baby boomers who grew up with Peck’s Atticus Finch share the film and its fervent family drama with their children, To Kill a Mockingbird has been released in a new wide-screen edition (Universal, $19.98), accompanied by interviews with the makers of the movie that crystallizes a 55-year career the actor still eyes with twinkling pride. By Peck’s own modest account, given with his characteristic baritone ringing, the following films are the best of his lot.
TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH (1949, Fox, for rental only) A somber depiction of aerial combat in World War II that marked the first of six collaborations between Peck and director Henry King. ”Still an excellent picture. We avoided all the wartime sentimentality, Mom’s apple pie and all that. It was a tough, tough, terse movie about the Americans who began the daylight bombing over Germany in World War II. Henry King was like an older brother, even a father figure. We communicated without talking anything to death. It was direction by osmosis.”
THE GUNFIGHTER (1950, Fox, for rental only) In a film that helped begin a wave of so-called adult Westerns, Peck, as the title character, is haunted by his violent past. ”This was a character study, and we were determined to have my character look authentic, like somebody out of a Remington. The story is that [studio chief] Spyros Skouras was the first one to look at rushes, and he said, ‘Goddamn it, what is that ugly-looking walrus mustache on Peck? You can’t do that — this boy is a sex symbol.’ He said, ‘You gotta shoot the first two weeks over again.’ We didn’t want to, so we had the production manager double the cost of reshooting. And so we went ahead with our authenticity. And I never saw Skouras once as long as he lived that he didn’t say, ‘Goddamn mustache — it cost me millions.”’
ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953, Paramount, $14.95) The U.S. career of Peck’s costar Audrey Hepburn got off to a radiant, Oscar-winning start in this cross-cultural romantic comedy. ”It’s such a gossamer-thin little Cinderella story in reverse, but Willie [director William Wyler] had the light touch and the right humor. And Audrey Hepburn was a natural from the first day. Her looks, obviously, her manner, her ballet training, and her inner self — to me she was just, as they say, born to play that role. I called my agent after two weeks, and I said, ‘George, you’ve got to change the billing.’ The billing was to be ‘Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday.’ He said, ‘Why? What’s the matter with you?’ I said, ‘Nothing’s the matter with me, but I’m smart enough to know this girl’s going to win the Oscar in her first picture, and I’m going to look like a damned fool if her name is not up there on top with mine.”’
PORK CHOP HILL (1959, MGM/UA, $19.98) The Korean War inspired only a few memorable films; this is one of the best and most hard-bitten. ”A straightaway combat story with an ironic twist of events: Once they make the top of the hill, having lost about 40 percent of the company on the way up, they get the phone call ordering them to march back down. Lewis Milestone, the director, put the camera at the bottom of the hill, and we walked by it, one by one, in close-up, expressionless. And that was what the picture had to say — the futility of settling political arguments by killing young men. We tried not to preach; we let it speak for itself.”
THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961, Columbia TriStar, $19.95) Clipped characterization and wartime swashbuckling in this Oscar-nominated adventure and perennial guy-movie favorite. ”The credit goes primarily to the producer, Carl Foreman — it was his script, taken from the novel by Alistair MacLean. I said to him one day, ‘I figured out the real structure here. This is not about blowing up those guns — well, it is — but the main thing is, Greg Peck loves Anthony Quinn, David Niven loves Anthony Quayle, but Quayle breaks his leg and has to go to the hospital, Quinn falls in love with a girl, Irene Papas, and Niven and Peck catch each other on the rebound and live happily ever after.”’ He said, ‘You sonofabitch, you found me out.”’
CAPE FEAR (1962, Universal, $14.98 as of April 28) A nerve-rattling confrontation between Peck, film’s tower of integrity, and ultimate bad boy Robert Mitchum. ”I thought this was quite good, quite tight. As for what made it so frightening, that was Bob Mitchum. He was so excellent. He was reptilian and subtle and very threatening. That piece of casting was essentially my idea. I thought of Mitchum because I remembered The Night of the Hunter. I knew what Bob was capable of doing in a good part.”
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD After four nominations, Peck finally collected his Best Actor Oscar in this adaptation of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. ”I must have had at least 50 men over the years tell me that they became lawyers because of that film. They were young when they first saw it, and they became determined to serve the cause of justice and fight against bigotry and intolerance. These days the film is shown all over the country in junior high schools, so it’s my pipeline to the teenagers. It just goes on. I think it’s the warmth between the widowed father and his two kids and the way he spoke to them, like young adults. He didn’t patronize them, and he always made time for them. I think that probably means more to teenagers today than the civil rights issue, although they do sometimes talk about that.”