Introducing Gregory Peck (1944) 🇺🇸

Gregory Peck |

December 09, 2021

Be among the first to meet this newcomer, a man who may set a new standard in movie actors.

by Jack Holland

For a gent who has been in Hollywood only a short time, Gregory Peck is doing all right. When he was cast in the lead in one of Hollywood’s most unusual pictures, “Days Of Glory,” there was a faint ripple of interest. But when he was assigned the coveted role of Father Chisholm in the forthcoming The Keys of the Kingdom, Hollywood took off its sun glasses, looked at Mr. Peck more closely, nodded its head, and decided that here was someone worth watching.

Gregory Peck has achieved prominence in rapid fashion, especially for a newcomer who has never been seen in a picture as yet and who never had a hit show on Broadway, despite his extensive stage work. His success here is notable for the complete reversal of the accepted Hollywood formula for stardom.

  1. He is not the handsome leading man — let’s say he has the rugged, chiseled features of a guy who looks as though he didn’t know what grease paint was;
  2. No effort is being made to make him look handsome via make-up;
  3. He is not being cast opposite an established screen star as is the usual case — his co-star in “Days Of Glory” is Tamara Toumanova, world-famous ballerina who is also making her screen debut.

I met Gregory first at RKO on the set of his first picture, a film cast entirely with unknowns, among them Allen Reed, the famous Falstaff of the Fred Allen radio show. Gregory struck me as quite a hunk of man. Standing six feet two and a half, weighing 170, he was definitely on the robust side. Yet he is 4-F because of a ‘spinal injury acquired in rowing. His hair was hanging down on his neck — all for the picture, of course. His voice was deep and obviously a product of the theater. But the most impressive thing about him was his straightforwardness and lack of pretense.

“The one thing I am grateful for in this town,” Gregory began as we were discussing his Hollywood career, “is that nobody is trying to make a pretty boy of me. When I first came here, of course, I was put through the paces. The make-up man assumed that I would have to be made to look handsome, so he pinned my ears back, plastered my hair down, and did, some extensive decorating of my features so I would fall into the ‘type.’ But Casey Robinson, the man who gave me my chance in Hollywood and who wrote ‘Days Of Glory,’ nixed that deal in a hurry. I was to be let alone to be myself. And that’s the way I’m going to stay.”

That is no gag, dear readers. When you see Gregory Peck on the screen and in the movie magazines, you’ll see the real McCoy and not the product of the makeup and retouching department.

“I don’t think I’ll ever forget the first test I made for pictures in New York,” Gregory went on. “I was told to walk up and down and to display my profile — both of them. I was as stiff as the proverbial board. Finally, the director said, ‘For Pete’s sake, be casual.’ So I decided I’d look casual if I nonchalantly took a puff of a cigarette. Well, when I saw the test, my hand was wobbling like a loose wheel. I don’t care how much experience on Broadway an actor may have, there’s something about the camera that makes the nerves dance. I’m still amazed I got a contract after that test.”

When Gregory left New York to come to Hollywood, he got the usual advice. One of the choice pearls of wisdom dropped in his lap by those allegedly “in the know” was: Take the director and the cameraman out to dinner — the sooner the better.

“I’ve been here several months now, and I haven’t taken either the director or the cameraman out to dinner,” Gregory commented. “And I’m still in the picture.

“But nothing in Hollywood is quite what you expect. For one thing, I naturally thought excitement and glamor would run rampant on every Hollywood street corner. But when my wife and I arrived, we had our eyes opened. Everything was quiet here. In York, you see, we had an apartment practically next door to the theater. Near all of our friends. We were always doing something. Here, however, it’s just the opposite. We have a home on a hill overlooking the Sunset strip, and our main excitement is our victory garden plus our dog, cat, and our car that we recently bought.

“We don’t have time to go out now. When I get home from the studio, I usually fuss around in the dark looking over my victory garden. Then I have to water the lawn. Greta, my wife, is cooking the meals now, too. We used to eat out, so this is a real change. We’ve even been spending evenings working on a budget — which is something that never worried us before because we didn’t have enough money to budget. Now, my agent takes my check, gives us a certain amount each week, puts some in a checking account, earmarks part for income tax, and saves the rest for us for war bonds. I usually end up — on this deal — with a couple of bucks in my pocket and my wife gets the checkbook. Yes, we have definitely gone domestic, much to our surprise.

“We’re funny people, though, when it comes to finances. We used to spend so much time trying to make a dime or a quarter go a long way that we now quibble over spending small change. But when a big item is involved, we think nothing at all of buying it. This is because we never had large sums of money before, I guess. For example, I’ll hedge and hedge about buying a suit. I only have two now. But I’ll go out and buy a phonograph — when I can find one — without any hesitation.

“Recently, we’ve cut down a lot on almost all types of buying, however. Our entertainment is limited to two movies a week and the fights on Friday. You see, we’re saving for one special reason — we’re planning on starting a family in the very near future. Then, too, we also want to buy a ranch some day when the war is over. My wife and I love to ride, so we’re going to have plenty of horses — and a pony for the expected addition. This ranch, and our family — well, that’s our dream. And it’s a dream we’re going to realize!”

Gregory met Greta when he was with Katharine Cornell in the road show of “The Doctor’s Dilemma.” She was Cornell’s hairdresser and make-up supervisor. Gregory took one look at her. Then another. A week went by and he decided that this hesitancy and looking weren’t getting him anywhere, so he asked her for a date. This was in Pittsburgh.

“We had dates after that in all of the key cities for the rest of the tour,” Gregory laughed. “When the show ended in San Francisco, my home town, I felt that, the time had come for me to put the idea up to her, so I asked her to marry me. She agreed. Then we both became cautious and decided to wait until I had the assurance of a hit show. We waited eight long months.

“After Doctor’s Dilemma closed, I went into Cornell’s Rose Burke. This closed before it reached New York. Then I did Punch and Julia with Jane Cowl. It didn’t get to New York either. Several months went by. Then I got the lead in Morning Star. I was sure this would be the hit and we could get married. It closed in three weeks. Finally, I said to Greta, ‘Look, we can’t go on being practical. We may wait for years until I land a hit show. This waiting is getting monotonous.’ So we got married the day after the show closed.”

Two more plays on Broadway followed — neither of them a hit — and then came Hollywood. So the newly weds weren’t wrong in becoming — well, impulsive.

Gregory started out with every intention of becoming a doctor. His father, a druggist in San Francisco, thoroughly approved. So Gregory went to the University of California and studied — haphazardly, anyway. But doctoring and Peck didn’t mix.

“I spent so much time rowing with the crew, doing janitor work with a friend of mine to pay for our rent, and being a waiter in a fraternity house — what a job! — that doctoring suffered. My career in medicine really began to blow up, however, when a friend of mine asked me one day to take a small part in a one-act play that was being done on the campus. Suddenly, I found I liked acting. I followed this show with the part of the leader of the chorus in Lysistrata and then with the role of Matt in Anna Christie, my first lead. I knew then I was going to act!

“When I told my father I was giving up medicine, he was very disappointed. We had quite a falling out over this. In fact, it was only recently that he relented. I knew I was right, though. I could see no point in going after something at which I would have been mediocre — if not a complete failure.

“I decided to go to New York and try my luck after I had graduated. A man I knew in San Francisco gave me a letter to a friend of his. As soon as I reached New York, I contacted this friend. He read the letter, ‘hmmed’ a bit, and said, ‘Well, all I have is a concession over at the World’s Fair. Maybe I can find something for you there.’

“I wanted to ask him what he thought I could do in a concession, but I decided to keep my mouth shut. I was introduced to the man who was running the affair, and the first thing he said to me was, ‘Can you bark?’ Not wanting to show my complete surprise, I gulped and very confidently said, ‘Sure!’

“For the next six weeks, I roared the virtues of the concession to all and sundry, taking half an hour off whenever possible to load myself with cough drops. At the end of the six weeks and in spite of the cough drops, my voice wasn’t what it had been.

“My next job was acting as a guide for tourists through Radio Center in Radio City. I was given two days to learn all the details about Radio Center, quite a job for a guy who was a complete stranger to the town. For two days and nights I didn’t sleep. I stayed up cramming all the data I could learn.

“The first trip I guided was something, all right! I really had some weird questions thrown at me. One lady asked, ‘Is Brooklyn part of the United States?” Another lady came up with, ‘What does the Music Hall weigh?’ I don’t remember what I said, for I don’t think I have ever been so dead on my feet and so sleepy as I was on that first trip.

“After walking the tourists around for a long time, I finally took them into the Center Theater. Fredric March and Florence Eldredge were playing there in The American Way. I told the tourists that they could go upstairs — where there were some empty seats — and they could see about five minutes of the show. It was a matinee. They sat down. So did I. I woke up a half an hour later. My tourists were having a wonderful time.”

During the World’s Fair career and part of the Radio Center session, Gregory lived with three of his pals who had come to New York from the University of California. They talked about getting jobs in the theater and ate hamburgers and beans. One day, the Neighborhood Playhouse was brought into a discussion. The subject of the scholarships offered there was raised. So Gregory decided to audition in the hopes that he’d be given one of the coveted scholarships.

“I was put through all kinds of tests. First, I had to do my acting. I did scenes from about three plays. Then I was tested for speech — and even for dancing. I felt like a guy being inspected by the draft board. But I got the scholarship. This was the biggest break in my entire career. I can’t say enough for this Playhouse and for the fine work it is doing for those who have talent but who lack the necessary money to pay for the course.”

At the end of the first year at the Playhouse, Gregory got another break. He was sent, on an award, to the Barter Theater for stock.

The Barter Theater is one of the most unusual theaters in America. It is located in Abbington, Virginia — in a farming and mining district. It was founded some time ago by Bob Porterfield on the premise that farmers and miners could see up-to-date shows by using their barter for admission. For example, two bushels of potatoes would be worth approximately two or three tickets; three gallons of milk brought two tickets; a goat, a pig, or a cow was worth a season ticket. And the actors are paid with the barter collected.

And how did Gregory get this chance? Each year the Barter Theater makes an award for the best actress on Broadway. That year Dorothy Stickney got the prize for her work in Life With Father. Besides being given a plaque, she was given a Virginia ham, an acre of land in Virginia, and was allowed to choose two talented newcomers to go to the theater for a season of stock. Gregory auditioned for her and was chosen.

“It was hard work at the Barter,” Gregory remarked, “but it was great experience. We rehearsed a show all day, played another at night, and often went on tour to such neighboring towns as Big Stone Gap and Grundee. The actors had to do all of the moving and loading of props, lights, and furniture, and we had to set them all up for each performance in each town. I learned a lot in those twelve weeks.”

He went back to the Playhouse for his next year. When he graduated, he appeared, as was the custom, in a series of one-act plays. This was an important occasion, for all of the big Broadway producers attended. On the particular .night that Gregory graduated, Guthrie McClintic and Katharine Cornell were in the audience watching the show. They were impressed by Gregory’s work as a cowboy. The next day, McClintic sent for him. He was offered, oddly enough, the role of the art dealer in the road show of The Doctor’s Dilemma.

After Rose Burke and Punch and Julia flopped, Gregory returned east to do some stock at Dennis. Here he did everything from You Can’t Take It With You, shows with Ruth Chatterton, to a musical in which he “sang” — no, he hasn’t a voice — with Jimmy Savo.

Then came the call from Martha’s Vineyard and from Guthrie McClintic. He was to do the lead in Morning Star.

One night after a performance of Morning Star, he received word that Casey Robinson, Hollywood scenarist visiting New York, called him and asked him to come to the hotel for a talk.

“I hadn’t thought much about Hollywood,” Gregory admitted frankly, “but I was interested in what Mr. Robinson had to say. He told me that he wanted to use me in a picture soon, but he agreed with me when I said I thought I wasn’t ready yet and that I should wait until the right thing came along.

“I thought about Hollywood after that — but not too much. I was too busy working in two other plays after Morning Star closed. The shows were ‘The Willow and I’ with Martha Scott and ‘Sons And Soldiers’ with Geraldine Fitzgerald.

“Not long after my first visit with Robinson, he called me from Hollywood and said he had the right part for me. He asked me to come to Hollywood to discuss the picture, so I did. When I learned all about the part I was to play, I signed the contract immediately. I hope I’m here to stay now.”

There is one interesting story about “Days Of Glory” that is worth telling. To keep the feeling authentic, the cast was served real Russian borscht for a dinner scene. The scene took a week to film. By the sixth day, the borscht was practically nothing but grape juice and water. So Gregory rose to the defense of the over-borschted cast and said, “So this tastes like grape juice and water — well, let’s have grape juice and water instead.” Just as that was settled, the cast trouped to the cafe for lunch. The special of the day — in honor of Tamara Toumanova — was Russian borscht. Not a single order was placed, much to the cafe manager’s chagrin.

Speaking personally, Gregory loves most sports; he likes to follow politics; he prefers steaks and salads; he likes sloppy clothes; his choice in music runs toward symphonies and lately even to chamber music and soloists; he loathes opera, “probably because I had to stand for four and a half hours to hear my first opera, Lohengrin,” he explained to me; his favorite actors are Gary CooperHumphrey Bogart, and Jimmy CagneyJean Arthur and Ingrid Bergman are his top actresses.

Such is Gregory Peck, a tall guy heading up. A gent who is apt to blast a lot of Hollywood formulas before he’s through.

Below, Gregory Peck’s first picture: “Days Of Glory,” opposite Toumanova, for RKO. Next, 20th Century-Fox presents him as Father Chisholm in Keys of the Kingdom, the A. J. Cronin best-seller.

Vintage advertisement: Lana Turner (Marriage is a Private Affair)

Vintage advertisement: Joan Blondell

Vintage advertisement: Ann Sheridan (Shine on Harvest Moon)

Collection: Screenland MagazineJune 1944