Gregory Peck: old-fashioned integrity in a new age

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Washington -- It is as if the earth itself has buckled and cracked and, amid geysers of steam and far-off flashes of lightning, lumbering from the Mesozoic muck, slow-moving and majestic, craggy and plated as a stegosaurus, comes . . . Gregory Peck.

It's not that Peck is a dinosaur; he is in fact, at 75, a charming, extraordinarily likable and decent man. It is, rather, that his form of movie stardom is extinct. Stars had faces then but they also had moral weight and unchallenged authority.

Peck's was the stardom of stalwart male enterprise, when macho meant competent and heroic rather than pathological and oppressive. He stood, always, for the decency of the patriarch, for the male responsibility toward family, community and country, for the good liberal's commitment to the oppressed and the weak.

He could kill -- he killed hundreds in "Guns of Navarone" -- but he could never enjoy it and he could only do it when it was necessary. He could make love -- "Roman Holiday" -- but only in the whispery world of Hollywood gesture and symbol, where orgasms were fountains or fireworks; he and his partner could never be reduced to such mortal, flawed aspic as mere flesh.

But mostly what he could do was inspire, and inspiration, as a style of screen charisma, is deader today than the pterodactyl. But how he inspired! He inspired us to racial justice in the still vivid "To Kill a Mockingbird"; he inspired us up "Pork Chop Hill" and through the thin air at "12 O'Clock High." He inspired us across the seas in search of a white whale and across the Pacific in search of a return to the Philippines in "MacArthur." He was the ideal commanding officer who led without making us fear him. And it's exactly that kind of old fashioned movie-star power that's on display in his new film, "Other People's Money," which plays with his iconographic value.

Thus, even in a hotel room doorway and then leading a reporter into the chamber, he appears initially more an icon than a man. To see him, to come dead onto that famous face, that shambling, elongated gait, that eerie serenity, is somewhat discombobulating: You find yourself infantilized by his formidable presence into a babbling sychophancy. He knows this, of course.

"If I sense that," he says in the first breathless surcease in the sychophantic babbling, "I try to climb down off that pedestal. I try to put people at ease. One doesn't feel that way inside. I just feel like a regular man who has been working at a job that he feels very lucky to have."

No trace of dotage attends him. He is a trifle slow, perhaps, now a lumberer rather than the forceful strider who hiked across the island of Navarone to blow some German artillery pieces to hell for breakfast in 1962's "The Guns of Navarone," and even further removed from the harrumphing young dasher who outfought and outthought the entire Spanish navy in 1952's "Captain Horatio Hornblower." But he is still and everlastingly Gregory Peck.

On top of Mount Peck, as he says laughingly, the snow has fallen, by which he means his thick lank hair has turned a frosty gray. But the eyebrows, those jutting promontories of many an adventure, retain both their slashing shape and their jet blackness. Only slightly jowly, it's still Abraham Lincoln's older brother's or Ahab's cousin's intense visage that unites his geologically scaled features. The nose is the blade of an Iroquois hatchet, the eyes flinty black and powerful as sugarless coffee, hot and strong.

And of course Gregory Peck is wearing a three-piece gray herringbone suit, a tie, immensely cloddy black brogues

because of course Gregory Peck would wear a three-piece gray herringbone suit, a tie and immensely cloddy black brogues. And of course he's big, because Gregory Peck would be big. No movie-fake china-boned pipsqueak, he's still a looming, honest 6-2, with giant hands and shoulders so wide that they had to invent Cinemascope to get them on the screen.

"Other People's Money," directed by Norman Jewison, is conceived as a parable of the pig years of the '80s as new business gobbled old business. Peck plays Andrew "Jorgy" Jorgenson, patriarch of a once-proud New England wire-manufacturing concern which has now fallen upon hard times and is therefore vulnerable to hostile takeover by a carnivorous company-buster, played with reptilian glee by Danny DeVito.

"I wrote him," recalls Peck, "and said, I'm the one. I can play this better than any of the other older chaps."

In fact, even now the passion runs hot, strong and deep. Without much bidding, he launches into a reprise of the speech, couched in the form of a recollection of a recent screening at a New York theater where, to tumultuous response, he told an audience of 1,500 that "Jorgy was right!"

Yet even as his stentorian rhetoric mounts, he catches himself getting carried away and swiftly pricks his own balloon with a self-deprecating jab: "Well," he says, laughing, "you won't get Peck without a speech."

"But," he recalls, so moved was he by the play that "It was the first time I wrote anybody for a part."

He is not actively seeking roles. "I sit back and live very comfortably," he says. It may be a full-time job simply being Gregory Peck. In an instant, he's off on a remembrance of a Peck adventure.

It seems that the United States Information Agency had sent him on a tour of China with five of his great old films a few years ago, just as the Chinese were coming out of their long period of isolation.

"One of the movies they sent was 'Roman Holiday,' " he says with a barrel-chested laugh. "And when I got off the plane, there were 500 teen-aged Chinese girls who'd just had their hair cut into the style of, and were wearing the dress of, Audrey Hepburn in the year 1952! And of course they expected this young skinny guy with black hair, and here I come, not so young, not so skinny and with snow on the mountain, and you should have seen their jaws drop!"

When asked to pick a favorite film from among his 56, he demurrs.

"If I walk to the newstand or go into the restaurant," he will say, "the film I hear about the most is 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' " which was of course the 1962 version of the Harper Lee novel in which Peck played a compassionate southern lawyer named Atticus Finch, and for which he won the Academy Award.

"I must have heard about that one 500 times. And it seems that they keep showing it to high school civics classes and I keep getting letters and themes from teen-agers. And I keep running into lawyers today who say to me, 'You know, I became a lawyer because of Atticus Finch!' "

But Peck says most women prefer "Roman Holiday" and many men still love "The Guns of Navarone."

"Thank heavens, the people who saw you in clunkers are discreet. Nobody ever comes up and says, 'I saw "Only the Valiant" and I want my money back!' "

Ever graceful, Pecks slides through an embarrassing incident when our hero, the overeager movie critic, sitting there awash in nostalgic Peck arcana, manages to credit him for his wonderful film with Frank Sinatra and Sophia Loren, "The Pride and the Passion." The only problem is, Cary Grant starred in "The Pride and the Passion."

With only a momentary darkening of those Grand-Teton brows, Peck acknowledges that it's not the first time such a gaffe has been committed in his presence.

"Usually, they tell me how good I was in 'High Noon,' " he harrumphs. "And Gary Cooper has been dead for 30 years!"

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