An actor celebrated both on and off screen for his strength and authority, Gregory Peck starred in numerous classic movies and was one of Hollywood’s most iconic stars. But to get an accurate measure of both the man and the actor, look no further than his performance as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), undoubtedly his most identifiable role.
Of course, Peck delivered many other great performances in his career, starring in thrillers, Westerns, war movies, melodramas and romantic comedies. He worked with some of the day’s great directors and was nominated for five Best Actor Academy Awards, winning for his performance as Finch. A favorite of audiences for decades, Peck was a bankable star whose creative integrity was never questioned. Here are seven of the best performances from his extraordinary career.
Anchor Bay Entertainment
Having been propelled to stardom following his Oscar nomination for The Keys to the Kingdom
, Peck was cast by Alfred Hitchcock
in this classic psychological thriller about forgotten identity. Peck played a young, but detached psychiatrist accused of being a deeply disturbed amnesiac by one of his colleagues (Ingrid Bergman
) and quite possibly the murderer of her department’s new director. The chemistry between Peck and Bergman is undeniable, with both actors delivering top-notch performances. In only his second year of making films, Peck was already emerging as one of Hollywood’s major stars.
Already a star, Peck solidified his standing with a second Best Actor nomination at the Oscars for his performance in The Yearling
. Set in post-Civil War Florida, the film featured Peck as an ex-Confederate soldier turned pioneer farmer and loving father who gives his only surviving child (Claude Jarman, Jr.) the daunting tasking of killing his troublesome pet fawn after it nearly destroys all their crops. Based on Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings award-winning novel, The Yearling
is a heartwarming coming of age picture that showed glimpses of Peck’s the morally upright Atticus Finch he would play later in his career.
20th Century Fox
Directed by the great Elia Kazan
, Gentlemen’s Agreement
was a controversial, but groundbreaking film its direct confrontation with anti-Semitism, while earning considerable praise on its way to becoming a big box office hit. Peck played a widowed journalist newly arrived to New York City who is asked to write an article about bigotry towards Jews. Unsure at first how to handle such an assignment, he eventually poses as a Jewish man and starts to uncover the anti-Semitism lurking beneath an upper class community in Connecticut. Along the way, he falls for the niece (Dorothy McGuire) of his editor and watches as his lifelong Jewish friend (John Garfield) suffer the real inequities of racism. Gentlemen’s Agreement
won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director
, though Peck would have to wait another decade and a half to win his first.
20th Century Fox
A classic war movie
that turned standard conventions on their head, Twelve O’Clock High
eschewed the idea of a commander remaining emotionally distant from enlisted men and instead showed how true leadership demands sympathy of even the toughest of officers. Set during World War II
, the film starred Peck as Frank Savage, a brigadier general in a U.S. Army Air Force bombing group who pushes his men to the breaking point by sending them on one harrowing mission after another. As his men grow cold to his increasingly demanding orders, Savage comes to accept the burden of leadership as he sends them to their deaths. Hailed by critics and the military alike – it was shown at U.S. service academies as a training film for many years – Twelve O’Clock High
featured Peck in a another great performance that earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor and ranked among the best of his career.
A breezy travelogue of Rome directed by William Wyler
, Roman Holiday
features Peck at his most charismatic on screen and his most magnanimous behind the scenes. Co-starring a then-unknown Audrey Hepburn, the film starred Peck as an American reporter who identifies a crown princess trying to take in Rome incognito. Smelling a big story, he makes her acquaintance and offers to give her a tour, only to fall in love with the exuberant princess. Peck took over the role originally offered to Cary Grant
, who felt he was too old to play Hepburn’s love interest. That proved fortuitous for the actress when Peck – whose contract stated he was to receive top solo billing – generously suggested that Wyler should give Hepburn equal billing, proof that he was indeed as gracious in real life as he was on screen.
One of the great war movies of all time, The Guns of Navarone
featured Peck as a member of an Allied commando unit sent on an impossible mission to destroy a pair of Nazi canons standing sentry over a strategic channel in the Aegean Sea. Joining Peck are David Niven as a British explosives expert, Anthony Quinn as a Greek soldier, Anthony Quayle as the team leader and Irene Papas as the leader of a resistance movement. While tensions running high among the disparate group, matters take a turn for the worse when a traitor is discovered. The Guns of Navarone
was a major box office hit and a significant precursor to the action movie genre. But it wasn’t all bullets and explosions, as Peck and the rest of his cast delivered strong performances throughout.
Without a doubt the one film he’s most identified with, To Kill a Mockingbird
allowed Peck to portray in Atticus Finch a character with whom he deeply identified, and along the way earned his one and only Academy Award. Adapted
from Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the film featured Peck as the morally upright Finch, small town attorney who defends an innocent black man (Brock Peters) against charges of rape while trying to protect his two children, Scout (Mary Badham) and Jem (Phillip Alford), from the scourge of racism. Peck was uniquely suited to play Finch – could any other actor past or present fill those shoes? – as the role not only defined his career, but became one of the most beloved of all time.