Remembering Gregory Peck

By CHRISTIAN NEWTON Special to the Planet
Friday June 20, 2003

I met Gregory Peck once. And of course he did not remember it. That’s how it is for famous people— the moment you meet them is blazoned into your mind, and for them, they cannot remember your face the minute they let go of your hand. This must be doubly true for legends, and Gregory Peck was a legend. 

Gregory Peck moved to Berkeley in 1935, took a place on Haste Street and enrolled at UC in the English department, until, in his second year, he was approached by a drama coach on campus who insisted Peck appear in his play. And the rest, as they say, is history. 

However, Peck’s first run in a Berkeley play was not all glory and roses. In fact, his performance was trashed by the critic who reviewed it. But that critic has long since been forgotten, while Gregory Peck went on to become Gregory Peck—this was always a little source of pride for Peck when he thought of it— which was probably rarely. I know this because, well, as I said, I was lucky enough to meet the man. 

In the late eighties, Peck returned to Berkeley and gave a talk to a film class I was in—hence the brief handshake. 

In 1989 anything in cinema not Spike Lee did not show up on the radar of anyone under the age of 21, and as such it was difficult to get some people to come see the man who was Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the conniving reporter opposite Audrey Hepburn’s first major role in “Roman Holiday.” But after sitting and listening to the man who was nominated for an Academy Award for four of his first five films, the hip-hop kids became silent, aware that they were sitting in the presence of greatness. That’s probably what makes a legend a legend—the ability to command awe from each succeeding generation. And that’s what Peck did. 

During that afternoon in Berkeley, he told us the story of that critic who panned his first performance; he told us of his amused frustration that most of the scripts he got had his “good friend” Cary Grant’s thumbprints all over them; he talked about working with Hitchcock; he talked about working with Audrey Hepburn, and of working on “The Milagro Beanfield War” with “Bob” Redford. 

And as he talked about working with and being part of film projects that are known to everyone, he seemed to grow in stature right before the eyes of the kids in that room. When he rose to leave he seemed eight feet tall. And as he talked about his fondness for Berkeley and his happiness about having lived here for awhile, Berkeley itself seemed to grow taller, too. 

Gregory Peck died last week at the age of 87. 

I like to think that on that day in 1989 he was happy to be back in Berkeley, happy that there is no other place like it, happy to be there with us students of a medium that he had mastered. But something tells me that we got more out of it than he did.