GREGORY PECK: AN APPRECIATION Send This Review to a Friend
While I didn't know Gregory Peck personally, I interviewed him twice, and in being saddened at his recent death at the age of 87, I recall one conversation that stands out particularly as revealing much about the man as an artist and human being of conscience who prized fairness along with his liberalism. The occasion was his 1977 film "MacArthur," in which he played the controversial general. The setting for our talk was the patio of his then newly acquired home in the Beverly Hills area, with breathtaking grounds that included towering trees, a large pool, tennis courts, a tennis house and even more wooded land than could be seen from where we sat.
He had a twinkle in his eyes when he said that some of his liberal friends were shocked that he was playing someone to the right. He took pleasure in the situation. "I think liberals can use a good shaking up and MacArthur's career can stand a reappraisal now," he said. Peck revealed that he was annoyed with the producers at Universal because he didn't think the film went far enough in articulating the general's views.
"This is a difference I've had with the producers, not a major fight, mind you, but a difference. They think the balance needed is there and perhaps they are right, but some of his speeches in which he thunders his views about duty, honor and country and strongly argues his position against Truman's during the Korean War were taken out. I think we should have given him the opportunity to better state his case. They didn't want the picture to lean toward being on his side.
"But I'd like people to walk out of the theater a little more angry, a little more balanced. I'd like to see MacArthur supporters stand up and cheer and my liberal friends get angry and even have a punch-out in the lobby. I call that good theater. When I'm working, my politics go out the window. I'm interested in entertainment and good drama."
Peck's liberal credentials were such that he needed no apology. He was known as one of Hollywood's foremost actors who would embrace a worthy cause related to racial equality, assorted freedoms and peace. He also excelled in roles that reflected his views, such as his Oscar-winning role as Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird" and his role as a gentile writer posing as a Jew to expose anti-Semitism in "Gentleman's Agreement."
He also was a handsome, graceful man with an authoritative voice, someone whose presence and charm were imposing and lent weight to his performances and what he had to say on an issue that concerned him. He took the parts that he played seriously, as he did with this particular portrayal of MacArthur. He did considerable research on the man, and was very earnest as he regaled me with the result.
"I always had a lot of respect for MacArthur, but I think I was overly prejudiced against him. Now I better understand him, even though I don't think that constitutionally there is any question but that Harry Truman was right in not permitting him to make political policy during the Korean War. Militarily MacArthur was right in not wanting to fight a no-win war, but he was wrong in thinking he could decide policy. However, I believe Truman didn't have to fire him in the abrupt way that he did, but could have called him home for a discussion."
Peck said he had learned something important from an incident involving Laurence Olivier about what an actor must do in portraying a character. "You must love all of your character. When Laurence Olivier was playing Richard III, he was unhappy about how it was going. Tyrone Guthrie told Olivier the trouble was that he didn't love the character. Olivier wanted to know how he could love a man who does so many terrible things. Guthrie said you have to love all of him. I don't mean to compare MacArthur with Richard, but to act the role, I had to see his viewpoint and speak for him."
Despite Peck's meticulous efforts, the film turned out to be weak and unexciting. But his approach stays with me as I remember the integrity with which he worked and which showed over and over again in his movies and in his public life. I also remember his comments about the need to pursue world peace and the "genius and leadership" it would take to avoid nuclear war. He smiled and said, "I don't think I'd want John Wayne to have the job."