The ‘Spotlight’ column returns after a lengthy interval. The focus this time is on American actor Gregory Peck. There is no particular reason other than nostalgia for writing about this former Hollywood idol at this time. Born in 1916, Peck passed away in 2003. So this year 2015 does not mark any significant anniversary in his life or of his death.
The idea to write about him for this column is due to a pleasant “accident” of sorts. Among my collection of old films is a trove of films starring Gregory Peck. Some years ago a friend borrowed and returned them later. We were shifting house then and somehow the Peck films got misplaced. I had given them up for lost until I came across the movies accidently last week. The past few days were devoted to watching them again. Hence this nostalgic yearning to write about one of the many actors whose films have given me immense pleasure.
Gregory Peck along with actors like Paul Newman and Steve McQueen were the Hollywood heartthrobs of an earlier generation of Sri Lankans. They were considered strikingly handsome and dashing by both guys and girls. A young buck would feel complimented in those days if compared to Gregory Peck. Even the young at heart would feel the same.
A friend of mine who is no more used to feel that way too. Kankanamanage Chitrasena Kulasinghe was a Senior Sub Editor at ‘The Island’ when I used to work there. The middle-aged man from Talpawila in Matara fancied himself as a Sri Lankan avatar of Gregory Peck. Lasantha Wickrematunge and I had heaps of fun teasing and annoying K.C. Kulasinghe about Gregory Peck. I also remember going with “Kule” to the American Center to see ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird,’ for which Peck won his one and only Oscar.
The original lady-killer
Peck was the original lady-killer cutting across even the generational divide. The tall (6’3), handsome actor with a mercurial screen presence sent many a heart fluttering.
From the scintillating Suraiya of the ’50s to the divine Madhuri Dixit of the ’90s, several Indian screen goddesses have confessed the “crush” they had on him. Even the evergreen hero of Hindi cinema Dev Anand modelled himself on Peck in the ’50s.
Many of Gregory Peck’s films like ‘The Guns of Navarone,’ ‘Roman Holiday,’ ‘Cape Fear,’ ‘The Omen,’ ‘Mackennas Gold,’ ‘Duel In the Sun,’ ‘Spellbound,’ etc., were hits when shown in Sri Lanka.
‘The Guns of Navarone’
The first film that I saw of Gregory Peck was ‘The Guns of Navarone’ when I was about eight years old. Based on a novel by Alistair Maclean, the movie had a star-studded cast including Anthony Quinn, David Niven, Richard Harris and Irene Papas.
It is about a team of Allied commandos infiltrating a Greek Island in the Aegean Sea and destroying a battery of long range guns in a German fortress. This was a film that glorified and romanticised war. I remained for long a fan of make-believe battles on celluloid – until experiencing the reality of war with all its horror, destruction and sorrow in my own land.
Varied roles in wide range of films
Gregory Peck played varied roles in a wide range of films. Some of these I saw as new releases on screen. I also sought out many of his older films – made in the forties and fifties of the previous century – as and when they were re-screened in Colombo in theatres such as Tower, Empire and Odeon (Mt. Lavinia). I saw many more Gregory Peck films after I relocated to North America.
There is a quaint cinema hall called ‘The Brattle Theatre’ on Brattle Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It specialises in screening old films regularly. These include retrospectives screening a selection of movies by a particular director or actor. It was in such a retrospective at Brattle that I once feasted on a number of Gregory Peck films on a daily basis for several days. I was then a recipient of a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University.
When I moved later to Canada from the USA, my interest in seeing films both new and old continued. In those days there was a theatre in Toronto called ‘The Nostalgic Cinema’. It only screened vintage movies, evoking nostalgic memories. I used to see many old films here including those of Gregory Peck. Alas! The theatre is no more now. It is sorely missed by cinephiles of classical cinema.
‘The Purple Plain’
It was at the nostalgic cinema that I saw ‘The Purple Plain’ also known as ‘Lianura Roja’ made in 1954, the year that I was born. The film directed by Robert Parrish had Gregory Peck and Burmese actress Win Min Than in the lead roles.
It was based on the novel ‘The Purple Plain’ by H.E. Bates. It is a tale about a Canadian pilot serving in the Royal Air Force and set against the backdrop of World War II. The fantastic thing about the film was that it had been shot almost entirely on location in Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon.
What was thrilling for me then was the discovery that the film had been shot in Sri Lanka. When I went to see the film, I had no idea that it had been filmed in Ceylon/Sri Lanka. Imagine my excitement as the scenes unfolded and I began to recognise familiar surroundings though decades had passed since the scenes were first filmed. The 100 minute film according to the story line was in Japanese occupied Burma (now Myanmar) and Singapore, but the filmmakers had preferred to shoot the film in lovely Lanka.
Gregory Peck acted as Squadron Leader Bill Forrester who is forced to crash-land his plane in Japanese-controlled territory in Burma due to engine trouble. A Burmese woman helps him to escape. Subsequently I read up as much as possible on how the movie was made in Ceylon.
A large part of the film was shot in Sigiriya. Among other Lankan locations were Kitulgala (where David Lean filmed ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ a few years later), Puttalam, Wilpattu, Dambulla, Colombo and the Mt. Lavinia hotel.
The present Katunayake International Airport was then a British air base. The British Royal Air Force stationed in Katunayake cooperated extensively in the making of the film. Katunayake was “transformed” into Singapore. The British aircraft were re-painted with appropriate World War II markings. A number of RAF personnel figured as extras in the film.
Inguru kothamalli saves the day
While shooting for the film in the jungles of Dambulla, Gregory Peck came down with a severe attack of flu. Peck did not want to upset the shooting schedule and gamely battled on relying mainly on plain tea with ginger and coriander. He recovered soon and was highly-impressed by the medicinal properties of “inguru/inji” and “kothamalli/kothamalli”.
Later at a press conference in Colombo Gregory Peck spoke highly of the curative powers of this home remedy. The local newspapers gave much prominence to Gregory Peck praising ‘inguru kothamalli’. The Westernised elite in Colombo were positively surprised by Gregory Peck’s revelations about the virtues of ginger and coriander. It used to be said in lighter vein those days that many upper class ladies of Colombo 7 began drinking ginger/coriander tea only after Gregory Peck told them about it.
Win Min Than
The lead female role Anna was played by Win Min Than, a Burmese woman who was also in Sri Lanka with Peck to shoot for the film. She was not a professional actor and ‘The Purple Plain’ was the only film she has acted in.
Win Min Than was born as Helga Johnston. Her father was an Australian and mother Burmese. She was married to Burmese businessman cum politician called Thakin Aung alias Bo Set Kya. Years later when Gen. Ne Win seized power in Burma through a military coup, Bo Set Kya fled from Rangoon in fear and went underground. He died in 1969. Win Min Than became a Buddhist nun and adopted the name Daw Wanthalamar.
Acting bug bites Peck
More now about Gregory Peck! Eldred Gregory Peck was born on April 5, 1916 in La Jolla, California as the only son of a San Diego-based druggist. Peck lived with his grandmother who took him to the movies every week. His earliest movie memory is that of being scared by ‘Phantom of the Opera’ when he was nine years old. In deference to his father who wanted him to be a doctor, Peck enrolled as a pre-med at Berkeley. He switched later to English literature.
The acting bug bit him when he was picked by the Berkeley Drama Director to act Capt. Ahab in the Herman Melville classic ‘Moby Dick’. Later he played the same role in film and television too. After graduation he moved to New York in 1939 and joined the neighbourhood playhouse to study histrionics.
He dropped Eldred and became known as Gregory. He debuted on Broadway in 1942 in the Emlyn Williams play ‘The Morning Star’. After a stint on stage he moved back to California to star in his first movie ‘Days of Glory’ in 1944. Peck played Vladimir, a Russian resistance fighter.
Gregory Peck became the most promising star of the ’40s as he blazed across Hollywood playing many powerful characters. Interestingly enough, four of the five Oscar nominations Peck received were for films in the ’40s.
His first was for ‘Keys of the Kingdom’ in 1944 where he portrayed a Roman Catholic priest. Next came ‘The Yearling’ in 1946 with Peck playing an understanding and devoted father. The third was as a courageous newspaper reporter in ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ in 1947. The fourth was as an air corps colonel on the verge of a nervous breakdown in ‘Twelve O’ Clock High’ in 1949. Thereafter he was not nominated for an Oscar till 1962. It was a case of fifth time lucky and Gregory Peck tasted Oscar success for the first time for ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.
There was however a lost opportunity. Gregory Peck had one great regret about his career, turning down Gary Cooper’s lead role in the classic 1952 Western ‘High Noon’ opposite Grace Kelly. “I might have had two Oscars on the mantelpiece instead of one,” he told journalists later.
Other remarkable roles
Other remarkable roles played by Gregory Peck were the amnesia victim in ‘Spellbound,’ the lawyer in ‘The Paradine Case,’ killer for hire in ‘The Gunfighter,’ romancing foreign correspondent in
Roman Holiday,’ advertising executive in ‘The Man in the Flannel Suit,’ the diplomat in ‘The Omen,’ and a would-be romantic Ambrose Bierce in ‘Old Gringo’.
He has also played the American General Douglas McCarthur, the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Nazi scientist Joseph Mengele on screen. Another great portrayal was that of Abraham Lincoln in the TV mini-series ‘The Blue and the Gray’.
“A biblical face”
Gregory Peck had, according to Darryl. F. Zanuck, “a biblical face”. This was the reason for the Hollywood producer to pick him for the lead role David in the 1951 blockbuster ‘David and Bathsheba’.
Biblical or not, there was never ever any doubt that the famous thespian had exceptionally good looks.
Classically chiselled bone structure, deeply-penetrating eyes and a regally majestic smile made Gregory Peck the Hollywood heartthrob in his time.
This romantic image was coupled with an even more lasting impression. Whether by accident or design, Peck’s screen persona exuded an aura of honesty, decency and integrity. He played mature and sober roles with an air of serious sincerity.
Peck had an earnestness and sense of dignity in portraying these characters with tremendous power and strength. With his commanding yet graceful screen presence and measured speech, there was a cultivated stability about him that rendered the dividing line between ‘reel’ and ‘real’ almost invisible.
A case in point would be the role for which he won his solitary Oscar as best actor. It was that of the lawyer Atticus Finch in the film version of Harper Lee’s novel ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ about a white lawyer in the US deep south who agrees to represent a black man wrongly accused of rape.
“That’s my favourite role,” he said later in a press conference. “I suppose, although it’s flattering to say that about oneself, it’s pretty close to the real me.” It may have pleased Peck immensely when the American Film Institute announced Atticus Finch as the top hero of all time in 100 years – 100 Heroes and Villains.
In the same film, which incidentally was also produced by him, Peck playing Finch says on screen: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it.”
According to some film critics this more or less summed up Peck’s approach to the characters he essayed in films. Whether it was conveying complex emotions or playing the gallant hero, Peck got into the skin of his role and connected with his audience.
Peck married his first wife Greta Rice in 1942 whom he divorced in 1955. He then married on 31 December the same year, the French journalist Veronique Passani who passed away in 2012.
“You made the right choice, kiddo” was Peck’s tongue-in-cheek response when he discovered that Veronique had passed up an opportunity to interview Albert Schweitzer at a lunch hosted by Jean Paul Sartre in order to go out on a date with him.
Peck had three sons, Jonathan, Stephen and Carey, from his first wife Greta; Peck and Veronique had two children, Anthony and Cecilia, both actors. His eldest son Jonathan, a TV reporter, committed suicide at the age of 30. This was the greatest sorrow of his life. He was a devoted family man who spent most of his time with them.
Gregory Peck’s legacy
The legendary star passed away at the age of 87 on June 12 2003.He was one of those select Hollywood celebrities untouched by scandal or controversy. Like many of the screen roles he played to perfection Peck remained a gentleman in real life too. “Gentleman Gregory” was how the media described him once.
Peck died as he had lived – in quiet dignity – with his second wife of 48 years, Veronique holding his hand while he slept peacefully. As Steven Spielberg said of him, Gregory Peck’s “legacy not only lies in his movies but in the dignified, decent and moral way in which he worked and lived”.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article written for the “Spotlight” Column appears in the “Daily FT” of May 9, 2015. It can be accessed here: