20 Great Interviews:
Gregory Peck appeared in some 55 movies, received five Academy Award nominations, and won an Oscar for the role of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, which he also produced.
Sitting across from me in a black turtleneck, cardigan, and corduroy pants, sporting a beard, Peck at 81 looks strikingly handsome on this June afternoon. The Southern California sun shines in on the Peck family living room, a luxurious mix of overstuffed sofas, fine antiques, paintings (including a small Renoir) and photographs: of Peck’s mother Bunny on her 75th birthday, from whom he inherited his good looks; of his father (who bestowed on him his eyebrows); of two couples, the men in top hats – Peck, his pal David Niven and their wives at the Ascot races. And in the middle a large photograph of a group with unmistakably Irish faces – 30 cousins gathered for one of Peck’s visits to Kerry.
On the desk in his study sits a clay model of the Statue of Liberty, “to remind me that my grandmother and my dad came through Ellis Island.” With that in mind we begin our conversation with talk of a trip to Ireland.
Did you feel in touch with your ancestors in Ireland?
I did. I saw my father everywhere.
He was born in the U.S., in Rochester, but his American father died quickly from diphtheria. So my grandmother took her infant son back to the family farm in Ireland. They came back when he was about 10, and stayed.
He always had a bit of a brogue, and he loved to tell stories. He used to talk about being a boy in Ireland and say that there was no entertainment other than telling stories or singing a song, or once in a while going by horsecart to Dingle.
My father was a jokester. When he was really getting on, 76, 77, with white hair, he loved to drive into gas stations, fill up, and hand them his credit card. I was already well-known in the films by that time. The attendant would look at the old boy and say, “You’re Gregory Peck!” My dad would say, “Oh yes, but I’ve not been at all well lately.” That was typical of my dad.
You’re a cousin of Thomas Ashe, who took part in the Rising and died from force-feeding while on hunger strike.
He was a patriot. Multi-talented too. He wrote poetry, he was a bagpiper, he was a teacher. Once, years ago, we hired one of the carriages by the Plaza Hotel to ride around Central Park on my wife’s first visit to this country. The carriage driver said, “Mr. Peck, I’ve heard that you’ve got a bit of the Irish.” I said, “Yes, I have an Irish grandmother, and my father lived there as a boy.” He said, “That was County Kerry, wasn’t it?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Well, the portrait of one of your cousins, Thomas Ashe, is hanging in a place of honor in a bar in Queens.” I went out there and sure enough, in this obscure bar in Queens, there is, not a very good painting, but it has in bold letters, “Thomas Ashe the Patriot.”
What are your memories of working on To Kill a Mockingbird?
It seems to me, looking back on it, that we were in a state of grace. We seemed to be riding along on a stream or current in a river of emotional involvement with the characters so that the acting almost took care of itself. We were emotionally immersed in telling that story through those characters. I think we filmed it in only 10 weeks. I could hardly wait to get to work in the morning.
Your first visit to Ireland was to work with John Huston on Moby Dick.
We filmed in Youghal. We were there because it was John’s Irish period. It was definitely the wrong place to go out to sea looking for whales. There were no whales in the Irish Sea. But John wanted it to have some kind of Irish connection. It really was a struggle. We always said that John Huston tried to kill all his leading men.
We went out day after day from Fishguard, four, five, six miles at sea with our mechanical whale, which was about 65-70 feet long. On a day with very rough seas, a fog bank coming toward us, very dark, ominous skies, we had no business being out there. The tow line broke on the back of the whale. I was slipping and sliding trying to hold on. I wasn’t fastened to anything, as I just drifted off into this fog bank. I knew that I wouldn’t last long if I slipped off into the water, which was very cold, and I certainly didn’t know which direction to swim in, Ireland was one way, Wales another. I did actually think I could die. I imagined the Mirror in London: “Movie Actor Lost on Rubber Whale.” It went on for about 20 minutes, but it seemed like an age, before I was rescued.
Did you ever work with John Ford?
No. He had Fonda, Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, he had his stock company. He didn’t need me. I made a Western called The Gunfighter which was quite good. I won the Silver Spurs award in Reno, Nevada, as the Best Movie Cowboy of the Year.
I went up to get my silver spurs and one of the first people I saw when I came back was John Wayne. He said, “Well, who the hell decided that you were the best cowboy of the year?” and I said, “Well, Marion, you can’t win it every year.” ♦