It was one of those moments that seem to come from nowhere and somehow turn into a lifetime. The young premed student was crossing the Berkeley campus when he was tapped on the shoulder by the school’s drama professor. He asked the student if he would consider auditioning for that semester’s campus production. The young man thanked him but explained that he wasn’t really an actor. The professor looked at him and replied, “That’s all right. I just need someone tall.”
The student’s name was Eldred Gregory Peck, and from his first performance in that first production, he saw that he had found his way into a unique and special world. “It was hard for me to communicate with people,” he later remembered. “So I tried to reach out to that audience — to try to make contact with them, to try to make friends with them and to tell them a story that I wanted to tell.” For over forty years, he has been doing just that — and more.
Gregory Peck has been one of the most enduring leading men in Hollywood’s history. His thoughtful, sculpted countenance and unmistakable voice alone could explain his continued popularity with America’s moviegoers. But there is something far deeper at work. There is a sense of nobility and decency that goes beyond the character he is playing beyond his ‘star persona, to the man himself. Throughout his career, Peck has brought to the subtle shadings of his diverse character an honest dignity that audiences have responded to for generations. For what he brings to these roles is himself — a man deeply concerned about the integrity both of his films and of the world around him.
Peck was an established Broadway actor in his mid-twenties when he got the call to Hollywood in 1942. He received star billing in his first film, DAYS OF GLORY. But it was his second film, KEYS OF THE KINGDOM, that not only established him as a star but also heralded the development of his film persona. The combination of resolute and unyielding strength, with a gentle and quiet understanding of the world and its people, was evident in his performance as Father Chisholm and would inform all that was to come after. From roles as great and varied as the world-weary gunman in THE GUNFIGHTER to the father battling a small town’s prejudice in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD to his uncanny portrayal of General Douglas MacArthur, his presence and intelligence enriched and ennobled each of his roles.
The quiet moral determination of Peck’s film characters reflects the standards he sets in his own life. Advised that appearing in a film about anti-Semitism would hurt his career, he ignored the warnings and went on to make the unforgettable GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT. From his opposition to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s attack on the Hollywood community to his work as a producer of the controversial THE TRIAL OF THE CATONSVILLE NINE, he has continually refused to follow the safe and easy path. His commitment and concern for the world we live in has been demonstrated by both his actions and his understanding of film as a medium which shapes our attitudes toward that world.
Gregory Peck has worked in films for forty-six years, collaborating with some of the great master directors: Alfred Hitchcock, William Wyler, Raoul Walsh, Vincente Minnelli and John Huston. To recognize such accomplished filmmakers and advance the art of filmmaking, he helped found the American Film Institute in 1967. His dedication to the pursuit and preservation of this art form makes it especially fitting that he should take his rightful place within the pantheon of movie greats.
First and last, however, it is the images on the screen that we remember and that we have come to celebrate. Gregory Peck reminds us that a star, ultimately, can be an idealization of ourselves, an image that not only mirrors our aspirations but fulfills them. Tonight we honor him with the 17th annual Life Achievement Award for allowing us — for so long — to see the very best in our world and ourselves.