In both his professional choices as an actor and producer and in his volunteer activities, Gregory Peck took stands, not always popular, which demonstrated his conviction that the individual bears responsibility for his beliefs and actions. In a quiet way, Mr. Peck was a model for his colleagues, and for all who know that artists can, and do, change the world.
Arriving in Hollywood in 1943, Gregory Peck quickly became a star with an Academy Award nomination for his second film, Keys of the Kingdom, in 1944. In 1947 he starred in Gentleman’s Agreement, a groundbreaking film denouncing anti-Semitism, although he was advised that the role would hurt his career. (It earned him another Academy Award nomination.) In the 1959 landmark On the Beach, Mr. Peck starred as a U.S. submarine commander seeking signs of life after a nuclear holocaust. Produced during the height of the Cold War, the film created major controversy at the time. In a press conference Mr. Peck responded that it was “a subject which needs airing, which needs dramatizing.” Indeed, its chilling warning to the world about the potential results of nuclear war is as meaningful to society today as it was then.
In 1962 he took the role of a Southern lawyer crusading against racism in To Kill A Mockingbird, for which he is probably best known, and for which he won the Academy Award.
In 1964 President Lyndon Johnson appointed Mr. Peck a member of the newly-established National Council on the Arts – where he served alongside of Marian Anderson, among others – which would set policy for the National Endowment for the Arts. In that capacity, the President asked him to explore the status of regional theatre in America, an interest of Mr. Peck’s since 1947, when he co-founded the La Jolla Playhouse in his home town along with Mel Ferrer and Dorothy McGuire.
Mr. Peck’s response was a tour of some 16 U.S. cities, and recommendations for future grants to establish regional theatre activities sorely lacking at the time. As a result of his time and efforts in this area, Mr. Peck was often referred to as the ‘father of regional theatres in America.”
It was also during the early 1960s that Mr. Peck took a leadership role in the fight against cancer. In 1964 he became California Chair of the American Cancer Society, devoting significant time to this cause. In 1966 he became National Chair for six months. He has called it “the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.”
In 1969, President Lyndon Johnson honored Mr. Peck with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.
From 1967-1970, Gregory Peck served as President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which, in addition to its Awards program, includes programs for student filmmakers, an archive and film preservation effort, and a number of philanthropic activities that benefit the industry and the community. In 1971 Mr. Peck served as Chairman of the Motion Picture and Television Relief Fund, and as producer of its 50th Anniversary Gala.
In 1967 he helped found the American Film Institute, expressing concern for the need to rescue and preserve classic films, and to professionally train new filmmakers. He served as the Institute’s first Chair from 1967-69, and received its Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989.
During the 1970s Mr. Peck’s anti-war stand landed him on President Nixon’s “enemies list.” In 1974 he produced The Trial of the Catonsville Nine. Of this motion picture he said, “I decided to make the film because the play confirmed my thinking that the Vietnam War was a tragic mistake.”
When President Clinton conferred the 1998 National Medal of Arts on Gregory Peck he stated, “His performances have helped to heal some of our country’s deepest wounds. For many, he will always be Atticus Finch, the Alabama lawyer whose brave stand for justice and against racism in To Kill A Mockingbird stirred the conscience of a nation….”
A long-time supporter of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, he addressed the organization’s annual meeting in 1998 in Washington, D.C., where he received its Robert F. Kennedy/Martin Luther King, Jr. Award in recognition of his efforts.
Although his passing earlier this year was an enormous loss to the film world and to our broader culture, Gregory Peck’s character continues to inform our lives. It may best have been best summarized during the American Film Institute Award program of 1989: “The quiet moral determination of Peck’s film characters reflects the standards he set in his own life….He has continually refused to follow the safe and easy path.”