On this day in 2003, the film actor Gregory Peck, best known to many for his Academy Award-winning portrayal of the courageous, dignified lawyer Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), dies at his home in Los Angeles, at the age of 87.
Born on April 5, 1916, in La Jolla, California, Peck graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1939. He subsequently moved to New York and got a series of odd jobs while performing in summer-stock theater productions. In 1942, he made his Broadway debut in The Morning Star in 1942; the show (and two others in which he appeared soon after) flopped, but Peck earned positive reviews for his performances. In 1944, he landed his first big-screen role, playing a Russian guerrilla in Days of Glory (1944). The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), only his second film, propelled Peck to stardom and garnered him an Oscar nod for Best Actor.
Exempt from military service in World War II due to a spinal injury, Peck was in high demand as a wartime leading man in Hollywood. He famously turned down a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer–despite the tearful entreaties of the studio’s powerful head, Louis B. Mayer–and maintained non-exclusive contracts with four different studios. As a result, he had an uncommon string of successes in the latter half of the 1940s, including a starring turn opposite Ingrid Bergman in Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Spellbound (1945) and Oscar-nominated performances in 1947’s Gentleman’s Agreement (as a journalist who poses as a Jew in order to expose anti-Semitism) and The Yearling. He went against the grain to play a villain in Duel in the Sun (1946), but the big-budget Western was a box-office failure. He earned yet another Best Actor Oscar nomination for his role as a World War II general in 1949’s Twelve O’Clock High.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, Peck remained one of Hollywood’s busiest leading men, starring in films such as The Gunfighter (1950), Roman Holiday (1951), David and Bathsheba (1951), The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), Moby Dick (1956), On the Beach (1959) and The Guns of Navarone (1961). He finally took home the Academy Award for Best Actor for To Kill a Mockingbird, in which he played Atticus Finch, a lawyer defending a black man accused of raping a white woman in the racist South. At the time, the civil rights movement was beginning to earn national attention, and Peck’s portrayal of Finch became legendary for its understated courage and moral strength.
Peck’s long film career stretched into the next three decades, as he starred in the military drama MacArthur (1977); The Boys From Brazil (1978), in which he played the infamous Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele; the poorly reviewed Old Gringo (1989); and the Danny DeVito comedy Other People’s Money (1991). Also in 1991, Peck had a cameo role in Cape Fear, Martin Scorsese’s remake of the 1962 film in which he had played the starring role.
In addition to his prolific acting career, Peck was extremely active in Hollywood’s industry and charitable causes. A longtime governor of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he served as its president from 1967 to 1970. He was also a founding chairman of the American Film Institute (AFI).