Gregory Peck, who died at age 87 on Thursday, June 12, was one of Hollywood’s most iconographic leading men. It was commonplace to associate the quietly principled characters he played—Atticus Finch, the upstanding Alabama lawyer from Robert Mulligan’s 1962 To Kill a Mockingbird, being the most memorable—with the actor himself, and the many progressive causes he supported only reinforced the connection. For better or worse, Peck became the first post-war liberal celebrity symbol, an outwardly blank slate onto which left-leaning moviegoers could project their hopes and fantasies of a more just world.
It was a flattering role that he bore graciously, but it obscured how hard Peck worked at his craft and how often he stretched himself as an actor—sometimes to the breaking point (cf. John Huston’s Moby Dick), but never uninterestingly. Born in La Jolla, California, Peck began acting in college before moving on to summer stock and, briefly, Broadway. In Hollywood, he kicked into virtuous stud mode in films like The Keys of the Kingdom and Hitchcock’s Spellbound, but was at his best playing against type: lusting after Jennifer Jones in David O. Selznick’s absurd Duel in the Sun; mutely melting down in Twelve O’Clock High; angrily beating the smugness out of Charlton Heston in The Big Country. Even Atticus, his favorite role, was more daring than most recall: Beneath Mockingbird’s warmed-over New Deal speechifying is a subtle indictment of adult moral myopia and ethical exhaustion, and Peck captured the character’s depleted, near doddering resolve with canny grace.
Despite subsequent typecasting, Peck never lost the capacity to surprise. He tapped into his essential aloofness in The Boys From Brazil and his irascible warmth in Old Gringo, and gleefully nailed the scuzzy lawyer in Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear. But mourners of a certain vintage may remember him best as the unflappable, beleaguered dads in The Yearling, the original Cape Fear, The Omen, and, of course, Mockingbird. They make the irony of his passing just three days before Father’s Day all the more poignant.