One Of The Most Endearing And Respected Stars To Ever Grace A Marquee, Peck Not Only Sought Out Roles That Would Strike A Chord With Audiences But Those That Might Effectuate Change
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Modern Times Magazine
Sept. 22, 2014 — When we were interviewing celebrities back in the early 1980s, Gregory Peck, who died in 2003, had the best liberal bona fides in Hollywood (much as his Republican alter ego, Charlton Heston, was the “go-to guy” for conservative causes during that time).
As an actor, spokesman and fundraiser for socially-responsible causes, Peck was a formidable man to have in your camp or sitting on your dais. Indeed, Peck’s commitment to worthwhile causes found a parallel in many of the films in which he starred.
“I’ve been called the Hollywood equivalent of John F. Kennedy because of my devotion to liberal politics,” he told us during a 1981 interview on the back terrace of his Bel-Air home. “Naturally, I’m flattered, but I’m afraid the comparison more or less ends where it began.”
Dressed in khaki shorts and an old dress shirt rolled up at the sleeves, Peck spoke about a few of those films as his beloved German Shepherd “Roger” busily perforated an empty Hawaiian Tropic Suntan Oil bottle.
Gentleman’s Agreement, along with To Kill a Mockingbird (Peck’s favorite movie for which he won an Oscar) and On the Beach (about nuclear Armageddon) were entertaining films that also instructed and crusaded for timely social issues. They were also, of a sort, Peck’s dream movies because they did double duty.
“Gentleman’s Agreement was a cause célèbre around Hollywood because it was the first film to deal directly with anti-Semitism,” Peck told us. The 20th Century Fox drama is about a journalist (played by Peck) who goes undercover as a Jew to conduct research and expose anti-Semitism.
“When producer Darryl Zanuck (a non-Jew) decided to do it, people advised him not to rock the boat. ‘Business is great,’ they said. ‘Why deal with such a controversial subject?’ Zanuck replied that it was a very good dramatic story that also made observations about racial prejudice. We all felt we were pioneering in a small way. Nowadays it would be nothing, but in 1948, it mattered.”
The era of mogul-producers like Zanuck, who were passionately interested in every line in the scripts of their movies, gave way years ago to succeeding generations of largely faceless entertainment conglomerates staffed by bean counters who often looked only as far as the profit columns on their spreadsheets.
“I don’t know any studio heads today and I don’t want to know them because they probably won’t be here next year,” Peck said. They are essentially crapshooters. Zanuck was a walking computer. You could call him from the set if you had trouble with a line and he’d rewrite the line with you right there on the telephone.”
TCM will screen Gentleman’s Agreement on Tuesday, Sept. 23.
The role of Atticus Finch, the morally courageous lawyer in Mockingbird, was one of the most challenging of Peck’s career.
“I think one of the hardest things to do as an actor is make a good man interesting because they can be awfully dull. If a man is predictably nice, he can put audiences to sleep,” Peck said. “Atticus was a good man if anyone anywhere was ever good. We managed to make him compelling. Today, when I’m with my wife and we walk down Fifth Avenue in New York City, people will come up to me and say how much Mockingbird meant to them. One young man even said that his decision to become a lawyer was formulated at the age of 14 after he saw the film.”
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have been entertainment journalists for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 years of celebrity profiles from vaudeville to movies to TV. Fantle teaches film and television at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Johnson is a former senior editor for Netflix. They can be reached at www.reeltoreal.com
The Sun Also Sets: Or, Living In Phoenix In Summertime? Local Writer Takes Us On A Trip Through Some Of The Sights And Sounds Available In The Phoenix Metro When Its Hot — And What We Adore, Bemoan And Find Jocular — In A Partly Fictional Tale.
Beyond The Hill An exceedingly intelligent homeless amnesiac finds a dear friend on the streets who is not really from the neighborhood, but beyond the hill.