In Roman Holiday, Audrey Hepburn’s woozy runaway princess asks Gregory Peck’s American reporter Joe to help her undress. “I’ve never been alone with a man before,” she sweetly slurs. Instead of taking advantage of the situation, Joe hands her a pair of his own pajamas and says he’s going out for coffee. “You’re sleeping on the couch, not the bed,” he warns her.
In a career that spanned a half-century, Gregory made a specialty of playing gentlemen of dignity and strong moral character, like Joe or Atticus Finch, his Oscar-winning role in To Kill a Mockingbird. “There’s a quiet power in his being that is almost awesome,’’ Angie Dickinson once said. Yet in his private life, Gregory knew personal sorrow and struggled to live up to his own high expectations. The suicide death of a son in 1975 left him wracked by feelings of regret and guilt. “If I had been here in Los Angeles, he would most certainly have called me,” said the star, who was in Europe with his wife, a native of France, at the time.
Gregory’s belief in the importance of family grew out of the breakup of his parents’ marriage when he was just 5. “He was born in La Jolla, a small town in California,” Gregory’s son Stephen Peck, a former Marine who is the president and CEO of U.S. Vets, a nonprofit serving veterans, tells Closer. “His parents were divorced when he was young, so he spent many lonely days as a kid.” Raised primarily by his grandmother, young Gregory, who was then known by his real first name, Eldred, was sent to a military boarding school at age 10. There, he realized nearly all the other students were also from broken homes. “He had bits of insecurity, being from a divorced family,” says Stephen. “That kind of sticks with you.”
In 1939, Gregory moved to New York to study acting. He appeared in three Broadway plays before he was whisked back west for his film debut in 1944’s Days of Glory. Around the same time, he wed Greta Kukkonen, a hairdresser. They had three sons together, Jonathan, Stephen and Carey Paul, and Gregory embraced fatherhood. “When we were very young, we went to Yosemite because he had done that with his dad,” recalls Stephen.
In Hollywood, Gregory’s talent, strong work ethic and leading-man good looks set him apart from the pack. “He had that magic,” says Lynn Haney Trowbridge, a friend and author of Gregory Peck: A Charmed Life. “Women were just flocking in droves to the movie theaters to see him. He represented the kind of man that you could count on, who was gracious and old fashioned but also adventurous.”
In the heady years when he was building his career, Gregory’s commitment to his work was complete and cut into his family time. “He was a good father, although he was gone a lot of the time. For a kid, that’s always a challenge,” admits Stephen. His wife Greta also found it difficult to have an absentee husband. Their marriage was already in trouble when Gregory met Véronique Passani, a French journalist sent to interview him in 1952. “Six months later, [while] filming Roman Holiday, he called her up at her newspaper and found her,” their daughter, Cecilia Peck, says.
The pair married the day after Gregory’s divorce was finalized in 1955. “Despite the 17-year age gap, they had a true partnership,” says Trowbridge, who notes that the couple became very active in the National Council for the Arts, the nuclear disarmament movement and other worthy causes. “I’m not a do-gooder,” said Gregory. “I simply take part in activities that I believe in.”
Véronique and Gregory had children Anthony and Cecilia, but they also worked to create a strong blended family with Greta and Gregory’s older sons. “He liked bringing us all together,” says Stephen, who remembers his father as a dispenser of well-considered advice. “He was always present and a really good listener,” he says.
The suicide death of his son Jonathan, at age 30, left Gregory, who had been traveling in France with Véronique, shocked and devastated. Jonathan, a TV newsman, had been dealing with health issues, a bad breakup, the loss of a friend and work troubles when he died by a gunshot wound to the head. “I’d have told him, ‘If the job is too much pressure, quit it, tell ’em to stuff it,” said Gregory, who never got over the loss.
In his later years, Gregory settled contentedly into the life of a character actor and remained active at the La Jolla Playhouse, which he helped found. Friends from his early days, including Frank Sinatra, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, were poker buddies. He also maintained strong friendships with many of his leading ladies. “Ava Gardner loved that she could be just a small-town girl around him. She didn’t have to put on a front,” says Trowbridge. Audrey Hepburn remained a close friend until her death. Gregory also stayed loyal to Ingrid Bergman, his Spellbound costar, when her affair with director Roberto Rossellini made her a pariah.
When Gregory died in 2003 at age 87, Véronique was holding his hand. The world mourned the loss of a great actor and one of Hollywood’s last true gentlemen. “Inside all of the character and makeup, it’s you. I think that’s what the audience is really interested in,” Gregory said. “And how you’re going to cope with the situations, the obstacles and the troubles that the writer puts in front of you.”
—Reporting by Louise A. Barile
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