Actor. Born Eldred Gregory Peck in La Jolla, California. The last of the classic leading men from Hollywood's Golden Age, Gregory Peck became a star during the 1940s when a spinal injury prevented him from joining the armed forces during World War II. With many of its male stars in uniform, Hollywood turned to the tall, dark, and handsome Peck, who soon made a name for himself playing men of moral fortitude and great dignity. A five-time Academy Award nominee and Oscar winner for Best Actor for his wonderful turn as Atticus Finch in the classic To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Peck was a versatile actor who was able to take on a wide range of roles, including those depicting the darker side of humanity. A tireless supporter of the film industry, Peck has served on almost every major film and arts council. But Hollywood's dedicated elder statesman will undoubtedly always be best remembered as the actor who became a pop culture icon by unflinchingly showing America both the best and the worst about itself.
Peck was born in the beach town of La Jolla, California, the son of the town's only pharmacist. Eldred's parents divorced when he was six, but the boy continued to live in the seaside resort community with his mother and grandmother until age ten, when he was sent to St. John's Military Academy in Los Angeles. Upon graduating from the academy after ninth grade, Peck moved in with his father in San Diego, where the teenager attended San Diego High School. The handsome six-foot-two-inch boy was an average student who enjoyed being on the rowing team, but because his father wanted him to become a doctor, Eldred studied at San Diego State University before transferring to study medicine at the University of California, Berkeley. There he quickly realized that he was more interested in literature than in medicine and, as an English major, he fell in with an artistic crowd and was soon persuaded to audition for a production of Moby Dick. Cast as Starbuck, Peck so fell in love with the theater that shortly before graduation he dropped out of school and caught the train for New York City.
Arriving in New York in 1939, Gregory Peck, as he now called himself, found work as a barker at the New York World's Fair, before auditioning for Sanford Meisner's famed Neighborhood Playhouse. While studying there with renowned dancer Martha Graham, he received the severe back injury which would eventually keep him out of the war. In the meantime, however, Gregory Peck gradually began to find acting work in stock companies around the East Coast before being "discovered" by distinguished director Guthrie McClintic, who regularly began to use the handsome young leading man in his productions.
Gregory Peck made his Broadway debut in McClintic's 1942 production of an Emlyn Williams wartime drama. The young actor received excellent reviews and soon began to find regular work on Broadway. But not long thereafter, Hollywood, whose ranks of leading men had been depleted by the war, came calling.
With a paucity of available actors, the talented Peck was immediately cast in prime leading roles, working with some of Hollywood's best directors--from John Stahl in Keys of the Kingdom (1944) to Alfred Hitchcock in Spellbound (1945); and from King Vidor in Duel in the Sun (1946) to Elia Kazan in Gentleman's Agreement (1947). Overnight the versatile actor became a star, garnering four Academy Award nominations in five years. Despite becoming a famous movie actor, Peck continued to devote himself to the theater, co-founding the prestigious La Jolla Playhouse in his hometown with fellow actors Dorothy McGuire and Mel Ferrer.
Although the gifted Peck could play a wide range of characters, as Baseline's Encyclopedia of Film notes, it was "as an authority figure of quiet dignity and uncompromising singlemindedness" that audiences seemed to love Peck best--in such films, for example, as The Yearling, The Gunfighter, and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Throughout the 1950s, Peck's popularity only seemed to grow. He was a popular leading man opposite such A-list actresses as Audrey Hepburn, Jean Simmons, and Lauren Bacall, even as he topped the list of Hollywood's favorite action heroes in war films such as Pork Chop Hill and The Guns of Navarone. But the apex of his career came in 1962, when he was cast in a role that would earn him cinematic immortality. Playing a morally courageous lawyer and single father of two children in a small Southern town who defends a black man accused of rape, Gregory Peck turned in a superb performance as Atticus Finch, epitomizing his appeal as an actor. To Kill a Mockingbird, which has become a screen classic, would go on to win three Academy Awards, including Peck's for Best Actor.
Although Peck continued to work in films throughout the 1960s and on into the 1990s, only a few of his later movies, such as The Omen and The Boys from Brazil, were particularly notable. Peck, however, found an outlet for his creative energies as a founder of the prestigious American Film Institute, three-time president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and a member of the National Council for the Arts. Long one of Hollywood's most popular actors, Gregory Peck has managed to meld life and art in creating both an honorable career as well as a career playing some of movies' most honorable men.
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