For more than half a century, Gregory Peck graced the screen with an unforgettable dignity.

By Mark Harris and Michael Sauter
Updated June 27, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

Some movie stars, tall and noble-browed and stentorian, are meant to play heroes. Others, creased and gentle and soft-spoken, are destined for a career of playing decent men. Gregory Peck embodied both styles — in fact, he merged them into one — and if you doubt the rarity of that achievement, consider the national sigh of sorrow that greeted his passing, at the age of 87, on June 12. Men who are old enough to have held hands with their dates in the balconies of long-gone movie palaces as Peck romanced Ingrid Bergman in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 thriller Spellbound mourned him, but so did women who imagined themselves falling as hard for Peck’s reporter as Audrey Hepburn did in 1953’s Roman Holiday. And so did teens who knew him only from his Oscar-winning role as the gentle Southern lawyer of 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a movie that has become so integral a part of America’s cultural core curriculum (it even shows up on some law-school syllabi) that 40 years on, it seems permanently woven into the history we all share. Even the woman who created Atticus Finch had trouble telling the two apart. ”Gregory Peck was a beautiful man,” said author Harper Lee upon his death. ”Atticus Finch gave him the opportunity to play himself.” When, last month, the American Film Institute named the character the greatest hero in movie history, the choice felt both surprising and inevitable. Under Gregory Peck’s quiet care, decency itself was heroic.

”If anyone says, how do you define a star, you should say Gregory Peck,” says Arnold Schwarzenegger, who hosted the AFI show and had gotten to know Peck in recent years. Peck’s career ascended rapidly after his Hollywood debut in 1944’s Days of Glory. He won an Oscar nomination as a noble priest in The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), another as a caring father in The Yearling (1946), a third as an earnest writer exposing anti-Semitism in Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), and a fourth as a brave flier in Twelve O’Clock High (1949). Noble, caring, earnest, brave — they were the kinds of parts that made some critics roll their eyes and dismiss Peck as the personification of rigid rectitude. And indeed, in many of his 50-odd films, Peck — who arrived on screen several years before Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, and Montgomery Clift started to forge a more emotionally immediate, sexually charged definition of the leading man — could be stiff and recessive. His rare forays into villainy in movies like Duel in the Sun (1946) and The Boys From Brazil (1978) were also less than convincing. But at his best, he drew on the underutilized tools of the actor’s trade — humility, understatement, quietude — to create captains, crusaders, soldiers, and sheriffs who felt so honestly lived-in that moviegoers would leave saying, He just has to be a good guy off camera, right?

He was. Peck’s political and charitable commitment earned him the Medal of Freedom, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and the admiration of generations of his peers. ”Greg was one of the few who was in fact who he appeared to be,” says Polly Ber-gen, who costarred in 1962’s Cape Fear. An unabashed liberal (and one suspects that even those who throw that word around as an epithet would have thought twice before trying to insult Gregory Peck), he made Richard Nixon’s enemies list, worked for nuclear disarmament, and campaigned vigorously for like-minded candidates.