Gregory Peck Always Makes Me Cry

Gregory Peck

Alright, Jill. You can do this. DEEP BREATH.

It’s Gregory Peck day on Turner Classic Movies and like any normal, well-adjusted individual, I’ve been digging through online image archives for sexy photos of the man. Don’t judge, you know you’re guilty too.  There’s a goldmine of gorgeous ranging from his film debut in The Days of Glory (released by RKO in 1944) and Hitchcock’s Spellbound, (1945) to Vincente Minnelli’s Designing Woman in 1957. Needless to say: I’ve been a very happy woman today.

And it never fails that in my search for “Sexy Peck,” Atticus Finch eventually makes an appearance. And I burst into tears. Hell, I’m crying right now. Then after the tears dry a bit the awkward sets in. One minute I’m lusting over one of the most handsome leading men in Hollywood, and the next I’m staring into the eyes of America’s favorite movie dad. But for everyone’s sake let’s not focus on the awkward, because it’s…awkward. Let’s talk about the tears, shall we?

It’s true: just a glimpse of a picture of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird is enough to send me into an emotional tailspin. Add in little Mary Badham as Atticus’ daughter Scout, and I’m a blubbering, convulsive, pathetic mess. So you can only imagine my reaction when I found an assortment of Atticus photos staring back at me. I decided to put together a small photoset on Tumblr of images solely of Peck and Mary Badham during the filming of Mockingbird: some production stills, others candids taken on the set. Five minutes into my task, and I was already wiping away the tears.

Mary Badham hugs Gregory Peck in a candid shot taken by photographer Leo Fuchs.
Mary Badham hugs Gregory Peck in a candid shot taken by photographer Leo Fuchs.

And it’s not even seeing photos from the film. It can be just talking about it. Thinking about it. Just last year, my husband Thomas and I had the opportunity to see the 50th Anniversary presentation at The Fox Theatre in Atlanta. I always jump at the chance to see any classic films on the big screen and especially at The Fox. The two of us had the grandparents come into town to watch our daughter so we could have a night out: a little dinner and To Kill a Mockingbird. At the last minute we changed our minds and didn’t go. Why? We both looked at each other and decided we couldn’t handle it. We both love the movie, love the performances, love the story. But the idea of seeing this film in a public place where we  would both completely lose our shit? It just couldn’t happen. The film has also gotten harder to watch as we’ve become parents. We look to Atticus as the perfect model of what a parent should be, but there’s also a theme of the loss of innocence that we know will come one day for our daughter.

That intense emotional response is a testament to Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus Finch. He is genuine, real, down-to-earth. He’s someone you are truly proud to “know.” To a Southerner like me, To Kill a Mockingbird is one of our most sacred texts. It’s aspirational: it represents what we want to become. Atticus is a symbol of the good that mankind can be, even when faced with unspeakable hatred. Atticus teaches his children the hard lessons of truth, respect and the importance of treating everyone with dignity.

 

“To Kill a Mockingbird is about bigotry…. For me the most beautiful scene is the moment when the Judge drops by to ask Atticus to take the case in defense of Tom Robinson. Casually put and casually answered, the question needed no answer. The judge knew it would not be possible for Atticus to say no. As for Jem and Scout, they learn a sense of honor from Atticus.”

-Gregory Peck

Here come the tears.

Atticus with his daughter, Scout
Atticus with his daughter, Scout

It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role of Atticus Finch other than Gregory Peck, but Universal Studios had another actor in mind at first: Rock Hudson. Now I love Rock Hudson, and he definitely had his share of amazing performances (John Frankenheimer’s Seconds, for example). Atticus Finch would not have been right for him, and I don’t think his performance would have made the same impact. Producer Alan J. Pakula and director Robert Mulligan obviously felt the same way. We have them to thank for standing their ground and fighting for Peck.

Why is Gregory Peck perfect for the role of Atticus Finch? Well, you can’t quite put a finger on it. Yes, he is an exceptional actor. But it’s also his incredible stature and his distinct voice. His charisma. It’s also knowing his personal beliefs on civil rights and social issues, and that he was a great father to his own children…all of that comes together in his performance. Most importantly, he had the chance to meet and spend time with Harper Lee’s father, Amasa Lee, the real-life Atticus. That meeting had a profound effect on Peck.

After reading this, you may think I’m a little crazy for all this crying nonsense, but I’m in good company. The story goes like this: when Harper Lee first saw Gregory Peck in costume as Atticus Finch, she burst into tears, too.

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About Jill Blake 39 Articles

Jill Blake is a co-founder & senior editor at  The Retro Set and the film editor at the pop culture website CC2K. In 2012, she was interviewed on-air by Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz, and a featured guest on the TCM podcast in 2013. In her spare time, Jill is a stay-at-home mom, wife, fried okra connoisseur, and the neighborhood’s own L.B. Jeffries. Follow Jill on Twitter at @biscuitkitten

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