- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Atticus Finch dead at 87? The news had to come someday, but you knew it would be a shock when it did.

Some actors become lodestars in the generation that grew up with them — role models, stars in our Walter Mitty daydreams, assurances we can rise to the occasion, challenges to our character. And not just because of the characters they played, but because of who the actors were themselves.

Some mysterious alchemy takes place between actor and role that merges forever an Atticus Finch and a Gregory Peck. And the result leaves the imprint of “To Kill a Mockingbird” on a whole generation in a way no number of high school readings could.

It’s the combined power of the visual, the character and the actor that does it. “I found it easy to climb into his suit and shoes,” Mr. Peck said of Mr. Finch. “I felt that I knew him.” Knew him? He was Atticus Finch.

Gregory Peck was born to play the character that the American Film Institute has just told us is the top American movie hero of all time: a country lawyer, father, gentleman, marksman, Southerner of course, and mainly a personification of decency in a time when that simple, un-star quality had been eclipsed.

Gregory Peck made decency fashionable again.

Much like newscaster David Brinkley, who died on the same day, Gregory Peck was a generically American type: well-intentioned, trying to do the good thing but wavering, a grown man forever losing his innocence yet retaining it for the sequel — hence his charm.

It’s a lot harder role to carry off than it looks, as many an American president has discovered, since the object of the game is to make it look easy. The purpose of all that artifice is to appear natural — to act. That was the spirit of the cool, understated ‘50s, and, if it had a personification, it was Gregory Peck.

In addition to looks and voice and bearing and enviable enunciation, Gregory Peck brought to a role something less tangible but just as palpable — some slight hesitation in his manner and speech and decisions that made him both vulnerable and irresistible. Any American could identify with him in a confused world.

Whatever the role, Gregory Peck was the man in the gray flannel suit, the man mystified by a world he never made, but willing to take it on.

There was more than a natural aptitude at work in the actor’s portrayal of the country lawyer. There were his own experiences in life. He was shuffled about in his early childhood, a child of divorced parents, and then sent off to a Roman Catholic military school. Whatever the reason, you couldn’t take your eyes off him in a movie, and were forever waiting to see what he would do or say.

Gregory Peck was also born — or trained, or shaped — to play many another role: the imperious Douglas MacArthur in the general’s film biography, the naive but decent magazine writer in “Gentleman’s Agreement,” the amnesiac in “Spellbound,” and the newspaper correspondent and man of honor — no, that isn’t a contradiction in terms — who played opposite Audrey Hepburn in “Roman Holiday.” (Every foreign correspondent should be so lucky.)

He was the noblest Roman of them all in that role — courtly, handsome, young, not too cynical, broke, every newsman’s idea of himself. A sophisticate but not one who made much of it. And she was … Audrey Hepburn. They were the perfect screen couple — swans among geese — for a certain generation back in Peoria or Pine Bluff who went to the movies to learn their own roles.

Whether he had lost his memory or was walking out of a princess’ life, Gregory Peck was the perfect screen lover: detached. Safely removed from reality. Rest assured, young ladies, he would let you go off to be a princess. You would never have to fix breakfast for him ever after.

Even in old age, the Old Gringo exerted a certain compelling fascination on screen, so that only those scenes in which he appeared had any power. Even when he went camp and played an aging Nazi leader of “The Boys From Brazil.” (Listen, a job’s a job, even if the script was beyond even Gregory Peck’s power to save.)

Looking back, we daresay Gregory Peck had more influence on a generation of malleable young men than all the lectures about manners and responsibility they ever got, and ignored, at home. In an outer-directed age, he played the inner-directed man. And he carried it off, never disappointing on the screen. Or off.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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