By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published March 3, 2016
The death of novelist Harper Lee two weeks ago represented far more than the passing of a fine writer. Lee’s death came at a peak in her long life, for over the last year the controversial publication of her lost manuscript, “Go Set a Watchman,” had sparked a renewed interest in her life and work.
That work, of course, centered almost entirely in the public imagination around one book, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which is perhaps the most beloved American novel of the 20th century. In spite of the often petty sniping that surrounded the book’s reputation—that it is merely a children’s book; that it is contrived and sentimental; that it is in many respects unbelievable—the book inspired a passion within its large and adoring audience that transcended the page.
For readers of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Scout and Jem and Dill and Boo Radley were real people. Yet of all the characters in the novel, none was more real than the father and attorney Atticus Finch. And Atticus Finch, in the minds of fans, was inseparable from actor Gregory Peck, the man who portrayed Atticus in the 1962 film adaptation.
It would be tacky, to use a good Georgia expression, to demean Harper Lee’s novel when she has only been dead two weeks. Yet I will say this: though “To Kill a Mockingbird” is quite a fine book, even a modern classic, the achievement of the film surpasses that of the novel and is, I believe, what most people actually have in mind when they recall the story. To imagine Atticus Finch is to remember Peck’s portrayal of him; there is quite simply no way to separate the actor from the perception of the character. Gregory Peck is Atticus Finch.
Yet to limit an appreciation of Peck to only his most famous role does a disservice to one of the most gifted actors—and decent human beings—of the golden age of Hollywood film. Consider this, for example: though Peck was nominated for an Academy Award five times, winning once for his role as Atticus Finch, he was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his exemplary humanitarian efforts. Perhaps Peck really was Finch; he was among the very best in his profession, but he also won the highest award an American civilian can earn. And he won that award nearly 40 years before his life’s work ended. His public legacy endures forever, as movie stars don’t entirely die, yet his quiet and private good works continue to have ramifications in charitable causes for health, art, religion and education.
Peck was born in San Diego in 1916, the son of a Roman Catholic father and a mother who converted to the faith. Peck was educated in Catholic schools and for a time considered entering the priesthood. His plans for a religious vocation ended, however, when he enrolled as a pre-medical student at Berkeley. While at Berkeley, Peck changed his course of study to English, and was discovered by a theater professor who thought Peck would make an ideal actor.
Peck discovered that he was in fact a natural talent, and he decided to make acting a career. The early years of his professional life read like that of so many actors. He was usually without money, and often homeless. He struggled in New York to find work and often resorted to acting in regional community theater. By 1942 he had made his Broadway debut, and in 1944 he appeared in his first films.
Peck was fortunate in the early 40s, because unlike so many other Hollywood stars, a chronic back injury prevented him from serving in World War II. Early in his career he gained a reputation for professionalism, decency and style. Perhaps most notably, in an era ruled by the “Star System,” Peck demonstrated, and was allowed to nurture, versatility rare in the “Studio Era.” Peck could play a priest in one role, a gunfighter in the next. He could be warm and affectionate in films such as “The Yearling,” yet chilling and ominous in “Moby Dick.” He could be as debonair as Cary Grant and as humble as Gary Cooper. Like his contemporary James Stewart, he refused to be cast only according to type, and he sought roles that meant something to him personally and that resonated with universal causes in which he believed.
Peck’s Catholic faith often informed his performances, and it’s no coincidence that some of his most memorable performances are in films made by religious or Catholic directors, including Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Mulligan. Like Peck, Mulligan had also studied for the priesthood, and his collaboration with Peck on “To Kill a Mockingbird” certainly reveals a Catholic understanding of love, tolerance and our obligation to our fellow man.
Like many people, however, Peck struggled at times to maintain fidelity to his faith. The common criticism of Atticus Finch is that he is simply too good to believe; when that image was linked to Peck, it became almost impossible to bear. Peck was married twice in his life, first for 13 years in a marriage that produced three sons. An affair with Ingrid Bergman brought on a divorce, but the day after the divorce was finalized, Peck married again. The second marriage produced two children and lasted nearly 50 years until Peck’s death. Though neither marriage took place in a Catholic church, Peck never left the faith.
Peck was open about his Catholic faith and frequently spoke about it publicly. He delighted in meeting St. John Paul II at the White House and referred to him as the most impressive man he ever met. The pope was pleased to meet Peck as well. Recognizing him at once, he said to Peck, “God bless you, Gregory. God bless you in your mission.”
Of his Catholic faith, Peck said, “Faith is a force, a powerful force. To me, it’s been like an anchor to windward—something that’s seen me through troubled times and some personal tragedies and also through the good times and success and the happy times.”
In 1943, Peck began filming his second movie, “The Keys of the Kingdom,” in which he was to play the part of Father Francis Chisholm. In preparation for the role, Peck worked closely with Father Albert O’Hara, a Jesuit missionary to China. Peck and O’Hara remained friends for the rest of Father O’Hara’s life, and Peck was a frequent generous contributor to all of Father O’Hara’s charitable works.
Yet what most endures is the work, and it is Peck’s acting that best reveals the true measure of the man. Peck was among the greatest American screen actors because in film after film he literally became the role he played. Though he was one of the most recognized stars in the world, he was able to transcend personality and fully inhabit the character. Though he will forever be remembered as Atticus Finch, it is a tribute to Peck’s great talent that he brought an equally memorable realism to characters as diverse as Captain Ahab, Sam Bowden, and Lieutenant Joe Clemons, giving these roles a full range of vengeance and madness, empathy and insight.
A favorite story about Peck’s gift for blending his own personality with that of the character involves Harper Lee herself, with whom Peck remained friends for the rest of his life. Lee had been actively involved in the pre-production process of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” even giving Peck a tour of her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, and introducing him to her family, including her father, the man on whom the character of Atticus Finch was closely based. When Lee first saw Peck perform, she wept, and exclaimed, “He’s got a little pot belly, just like my daddy.” Peck responded with his typical charm, “That’s no pot belly, Harper, that’s great acting.”
Peck died of pneumonia in 2003, in his sleep, with his wife at his side. As he had wished, he was given a small private funeral at Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in Los Angeles, where he is buried. A larger public service held later was presided over by Cardinal Roger Mahony, who said of Peck, “He lived his life authentically, as God called and willed him and placed him in this world, with gifts and talents.”
Another speaker presented the eulogy. Brock Peters, who played the tragic part of Tom Robinson in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” spoke with eloquence when he said, “In art there is compassion, in compassion there is humanity, with humanity there is generosity and love. Gregory Peck gave us these attributes in full measure.”
Atticus Finch would have been pleased.
David A. King, Ph.D., is associate professor of English and Film Studies at Kennesaw State University and director of adult education at Holy Spirit Church in Atlanta.