Gregory Peck, who died yesterday at age 87, built a tower of celluloid on that now-rare movie quality, strength of character. Like Gary Cooper before him, he expressed with peerless authority what used to be called American virtues: decency, fortitude, self-reliance and an equal capacity for group leadership.
With his wife of 48 years, Veronique, at his side, Mr. Peck died of natural causes about 4 a.m. at his Los Angeles home, family spokesman Monroe Friedman said.
"He wasn't feeling well," Mr. Friedman said. "She told me she went to him and held his hand, and he looked at her and closed his eyes and was gone."
Mr. Peck,unlike Mr. Cooper, who epitomized "the strong, silent type," frequently soared to heights of tough verbal persuasion - most notably in his Oscar-winning role as the lawyer Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). When he focused dead-on at his jury and said, "to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and jury system: that's no ideal to me, that is a living reality," for that moment it was real for the movie audience, too. Little over a week before he died, an American Film Institute poll lavished one more honor on Mr. Peck's Oscar-winning characterization by naming Atticus Finch the No. 1 hero in American movies.
Because Finch has made such an indelible impact on the American psyche, fans may forget that he was just as potent when playing villains and good-bad or bad-good guys.
He was acclaimed more for honor than for brilliance, but he put together one brilliant career.
Eldred Gregory Peck was born April 5, 1916, in La Jolla, Calif., the son of a druggist.
After a couple of years on Broadway in the early 1940s, Mr. Peck headed to Hollywood.
He attracted attention in his first film, Days of Glory, playing a Soviet soldier in World War II, and soon landed the star-making lead in The Keys of the Kingdom.
When the poet-novelist James Agee reviewed Mr. Peck's performance as a Catholic missionary in that celebrated 1944 film, he admitted he might have been misled into thinking Mr. Peck was "a particularly gifted actor" by his "newness, his unusual handsomeness, and his still more unusual ability to communicate sincerity." Critics would continue to question whether Mr. Peck's lanky glamour accounted more for his stardom than talent or technique, particularly when he played Captain Ahab to widespread (and unearned) derision in John Huston's Moby Dick (1956).
But there's a magic to movie acting that defies analysis. And Mr. Peck didn't merely possess that magic, he explored it tenaciously and daringly, and showered it on an amazing array of motion pictures.
As soon as he achieved stardom, Mr. Peck took his ability to appear genuine and open and used it to lead audiences into then-shocking areas of psychological and social content, whether as the troubled amnesiac in Alfred Hitchcock's Freudian extravaganza Spellbound (1945) or the journalist investigating anti-Semitism in Elia Kazan's Gentleman's Agreement (1947).
The choices he made from the 1940s through the mid-1960s were those of a fearless performer with a yen for quality and the capacity to dance with the devils of his nature.
Although set in the public memory as an inviolable good guy, he just about incinerated the screen as the lusty, homicidal scion of a Texas cattle baron in the camp classic Duel in the Sun (1946), then brought a wired sexual awareness to the charismatic white hunter caught up in an ambiguous murder in The Macomber Affair (1947).
Based on the short story "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," it remains one of the most vivid of all big-screen adaptations of Ernest Hemingway - more exciting and illuminating than Mr. Peck's better-known foray into Hemingway with The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952).
Although Mr. Peck starred as an out-of-water sea captain in William Wyler's The Big Country (1958) and as a gambler in the Cinerama spectacle How the West Was Won (1962), he made his biggest and boldest mark in the western genre with a perfect anti-western: Henry King's myth-shriveling The Gunfighter (1950).
Mr. Peck imbues the title character, Jimmy Ringo, with the self-lacerating regret of a man who, at trail's end, realizes that he squandered his adulthood as soon as he proved himself the fastest draw in the West.
"How come I run into a squirt like you nearly every place I go these days?" he asks the latest aspiring gunslinger. Drawing on every emotional pang of bruised, wasted humanity, he fills out the iconoclasm of the Oscar-nominated script - and makes it sting.