One of the postwar era's most successful actors, Gregory Peck was long the moral conscience of the silver screen; almost without exception, his performances embodied the virtues of strength, conviction, and intelligence so highly valued by American audiences. As the studios' iron grip on Hollywood began to loosen, he also emerged among the very first stars to declare his creative independence, working almost solely in movies of his own choosing. Born April 5, 1916, in La Jolla, CA, Peck worked as a truck driver before attending Berkeley, where he first began acting. He later relocated to New York City and was a barker at the 1939 World's Fair. He soon won a two-year contract with the Neighborhood Playhouse. His first professional work was in association with a 1942 Katherine Cornell/Guthrie McClintic ensemble Broadway production of The Morning Star. There Peck was spotted by David O. Selznick, for whom he screen-tested, only to be turned down. Over the next year, he played a double role in The Willow and I, fielding and rejecting the occasional film offer. Finally, in 1943, he accepted a role in Days of Glory, appearing opposite then-fiancée Tamara Toumanova.
While the picture itself was largely dismissed, Peck found himself at the center of a studio bidding war. He finally signed with 20th Century Fox, who cast him in 1944's The Keys of the Kingdom - a turn for which he snagged his first of many Oscar nods. From the outset, he enjoyed unique leverage as a performer; he refused to sign a long-term contract with any one studio, and selected all of his scripts himself. For MGM, he starred in 1945's The Valley of Decision, a major hit. Even more impressive was the follow-up, Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound, which co-starred Ingrid Bergman. Peck scored a rousing success with 1946's The Yearling (which brought him his second Academy Award nomination) and followed this up with another smash, King Vidor's Duel in the Sun. His third Oscar nomination arrived via Elia Kazan's 1947 social drama Gentleman's Agreement, a meditation on anti-Semitism which won Best Picture honors. For the follow-up, Peck reunited with Hitchcock for The Paradine Case, one of the few flops on either's resumé. He returned in 1948 with a William Wellman Western, Yellow Sky, before signing for a pair of films with director Henry King, Twelve O'Clock High (earning Best Actor laurels from the New York critics and his fourth Oscar nod) and The Gunfighter.
After Captain Horatio Hornblower, Peck appeared in the Biblical epic David and Bathsheba, one of 1951's biggest box-office hits. Upon turning down High Noon, he starred in The Snows of Kilimanjaro. To earn a tax exemption, he spent the next 18 months in Europe, there shooting 1953's Roman Holiday for William Wyler. After filming 1954's Night People, Peck traveled to Britain, where he starred in a pair of features for Rank -- The Million Pound Note and The Purple Plain -- neither of which performed well at the box office; however, upon returning stateside he starred in the smash The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. The 1958 Western The Big Country was his next major hit, and he quickly followed it with another, The Bravados. Few enjoyed Peck's portrayal of F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1959's Beloved Infidel, but the other two films he made that year, the Korean War drama Pork Chop Hill and Stanley Kramer's post-apocalyptic nightmare On the Beach, were both much more successful.
Still, 1961's World War II adventure The Guns of Navarone topped them all -- indeed, it was among the highest-grossing pictures in film history. A vicious film noir, Cape Fear, followed in 1962, as did Robert Mulligan's classic adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird; as Atticus Finch, an idealistic Southern attorney defending a black man charged with rape, Peck finally won an Academy Award. Also that year he co-starred in the Cinerama epic How the West Was Won, yet another massive success. However, it was to be Peck's last for many years. For Fred Zinneman, he starred in 1964's Behold a Pale Horse, miscast as a Spanish loyalist, followed by Captain Newman, M.D., a comedy with Tony Curtis which performed only moderately well. When 1966's Mirage and Arabesque disappeared from theaters almost unnoticed, Peck spent the next three years absent from the screen. When he returned in 1969, however, it was with no less than four new films -- The Stalking Moon, MacKenna's Gold, The Chairman, and Marooned -- all of them poorly received.
The early '70s proved no better: First up was I Walk the Line, with Tuesday Weld, followed the next year by Henry Hathaway's Shootout. After the failure of the 1973 Western Billy Two Hats, he again vanished from cinemas for three years, producing (but not appearing in) The Dove. However, in 1976, Peck starred in the horror film The Omen, an unexpected smash. Studio interest was rekindled, and in 1977 he portrayed MacArthur. The Boys From Brazil followed, with Peck essaying a villainous role for the first time in his screen career. After 1981's The Sea Wolves, he turned for the first time to television, headlining the telefilm The Scarlet and the Black. Remaining on the small screen, he portrayed Abraham Lincoln in the 1985 miniseries The Blue and the Grey, returning to theater for 1987's little-seen anti-nuclear fable Amazing Grace and Chuck. Old Gringo followed two years later, and in 1991 he co-starred in a pair of high-profile projects, the Norman Jewison comedy Other People's Money and Martin Scorsese's remake of Cape Fear. Fairly active through the remainder of the decade, Peck appeared in The Portrait (1993) and the made-for-television Moby Dick (1998) while frequently narrating such documentaries as Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick (1995) and American Prophet: The Story of Joseph Smith (2000).
On June 12, 2003, just days after the AFI named him as the screen's greatest hero for his role as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, Gregory Peck died peacefully in his Los Angeles home with his wife Veronique by his side. He was 87.