Today the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held a ceremony to celebrate the first-day-of-issue of the United States Postal Service’s Gregory Peck commemorative stamp.
With his handsome chiseled features, worthy of Mount Rushmore, and a voice as deep as the Grand Canyon, Gregory Peck was more than a Hollywood movie star and more than one of America’s greatest actors; he was a national monument. Yet, for all his larger than life qualities, he was always extremely human, approachable, and authentic – a man devoted to his family and to humanitarian causes, to his craft and to the industry he spent his adult life working in, and most especially the hard working people who make up the film industry.
My parents met Gregory Peck many years ago in Ireland, and I’ll tell you, my parents were not easily impressed, but they were terribly impressed by him. You just knew by talking to him that he was a decent, kind, and honorable man with fierce conviction. I have known the Peck family for many years now, and I had the great pleasure on a number of occasions to spend some time with Gregory Peck, so I was of course honored when asked to participate at today’s ceremony.
For better or worse, in this case for the better, movies and actors influence perceptions of who we are not only as an industry, but as a nation. Through the characters he brought to life and the ideals he brought to the screen, Gregory Peck connected international audiences to an America whose core values are respected and emulated around the world.
He played the righteous American – never self-righteous –with all the qualities that we like to think are the best this country has to offer – strong but gentle, full of emotions, including vulnerability; passion and compassion; decency and a drive to fight for what is right – for fairness, justice, and equality. He fought racial injustice in To Kill a Mockingbird and he exposed anti-Semitism in Gentleman’s Agreement. Although he was a physically powerful figure, it was always his “social conscience” that won the fights in his movies.
This social conscience, so skillfully embodied in his characters, extended well beyond the movie screen and he became as recognized for his deep commitment to the arts and public service as for his iconic film career, Inaugural member of the National Council of the Arts, National Chairman of the American Cancer Society, and a devoted advocate of the Motion Picture and Television Fund, just to name a few.
Throughout his life Gregory Peck raised the bar for the entertainment industry and for America. President Lyndon Johnson thought so too, and awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom as “an artist who had brought new dignity to the actor’s profession.”
His on-screen heroes were not necessarily bigger than life characters; but his enormous presence endowed his characters – often ordinary men in extraordinary situations – with heroic greatness, and that is exactly how I, and I hope all of you, will remember Gregory Peck.
I remember a story from one of the town halls that Gregory used to do around the country. Someone in the audience asked him what he most wanted to be remembered for. Gregory answered that the thing he most wanted to be remembered for was his family, and a lot of the time when people give that same answer they don’t seem genuine. But you could tell that Gregory’s answer was a truly genuine one.
And then he said the other thing he wanted to be remembered for most was for being a story teller. I’ve thought a lot lately about what he said and how storytelling can shape us as a nation. Documentaries and textbooks are great tools for learning, but I’m certain that most of you here will agree when I say that it’s the stories we listen to and watch on movie screens and television growing up that really shape us. You can learn all about World War II listening to teachers in the classroom and reading about it in a text book, but it takes a little girl named Anne Frank writing her story in a diary for us to truly understand the fear and persecution that people were forced to endure. Everyone knows about the horrors of slavery, but it’s only after Alex Haley writes Roots that those horrors truly come home for us. And it takes a character created by Harper Lee and later portrayed by the man we’re here to honor today to show us the righteousness and honor of standing up for those who are unable to stand up for themselves.
Gregory Peck knew the power of a story to mold a national consciousness and create models of national characters such as Atticus Finch. A man named Bill Finch, who used to work for me, is the mayor of a city in my home state of Connecticut called Bridgeport. He and his wife recently had a son, and this may not surprise most of you in this room, but they named their son Atticus.
I think one of the reasons Gregory wanted so much to be remembered as a storyteller was that he cared so deeply about his Irish heritage. This heritage told him how W.B. Yeats and the other leaders of the Irish cultural revival had invented an Ireland of the mind that preceded, and facilitated, the country born in 1916. Yeats summed up this idea when he wrote of his predecessors in the Young Ireland movement of the mid-nineteenth century who used the power of story-telling to create the idea of an inclusive non-sectarian Ireland: “They were not separated individual men; they spoke or tried to speak out of a people to a people; behind them stretched the generations.”
Gregory Peck knew – and showed how – America’s greatest form of storytelling, the movie, could speak out of a people to a people. My only regret is that he isn’t alive to tutor me as I begin on my new path as a storyteller.