Thursday, May 31, 2007

And of course, Gregory Peck. In the late 50s and early to mid 60s, he was probably the film actor I looked to most as an adult role model. (Even if I had to learn that his thoughtful, brooding silences played better in close-ups on film than in real life.) What lasts about role models is what they bring out in you that was in you already, and now you have some means to express it, and above all, permission to express it.

I recall him especially in a couple of 1959 releases, the classic On the Beach, and the justifiably forgotten Beloved Infidel, in which he played F. Scott Fitzgerald. (Sorry, but I really liked him in that. He also played several Hemingway stand-ins in other films.) Later in Captain Newman, M.D., and a romantic caper film, Arabesque, and when I caught up to earlier films, especially Captain Horatio Hornblower and Roman Holiday.

As a film actor, Peck was able to project a great deal by not doing very much, by nuance, gesture, tone and simply by presence. The makers of this film understood and complemented this particular power. They allowed him to react without speaking; in a key scene, in which he learns that his client is dead and he must tell others of this, we see him mostly from the back.

But in that amazing year of 1962—JFK in the White House, John Glenn in orbit, James Meredith enters Old Miss, Silent Spring, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Bob Dylan and folk music, and two crusading court room dramas on TV (The Defenders, and The Law and Mr. Jones) –Gregory Peck was clearly the soul of To Kill A Mockingbird. There was a Kennedyesque quality about him—if he’d been younger, he probably would have played JFK as the World War II hero who rescued his crew in the movie made about the incident, PT-109.

He could be wonderfully funny, but in dramatic roles he often brought a sense of rectitude, and the full weight of that accompanied him in this role. I’m sure that when as a teenager I joined the now famous but then somewhat daring (Civil Rights) March on Washington the next year, I carried a bit of Peck as Atticus Finch with me.

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