American actor Gregory Peck was on of the world’s most popular film stars from the 1940s to the 1960s. He was born in La Jolla, California on this day in 1916.
Peck won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Atticus Finch in the 1962 To Kill a Mockingbird. In 1969, President Lyndon Johnson presented Peck with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his lifetime humanitarian efforts. In 1999, he was named among the Greatest Male Stars of All Time by the American Film Institute and he was named to the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame in 1983.
Peck began acting while attending Berkeley and graduated from there with a degree in English. From there he went to New York City to study at the Neighborhood Playhouse. Being a starving actor he often slept in Central Park. He polished his acting craft at the famed Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia.
He began in his actual stage career in 1941 in San Francisco production of George Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma. Unfortunately the play opened just a week before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Due to a back injury from a dance lesson, Peck was ineligible to serve in the military during World War II. Twentieth Century Fox claimed the accident was while rowing at the university but Peck said “In Hollywood, they didn’t think a dance class was macho enough, I guess. I’ve been trying to straighten out that story for years.”
Peck made his film debut in Days of Glory in 1944. During his first five years of film acting he was nominated for Best Actor four times for The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), the Yearling (1946), Gentleman’s Agreement (Best Picture in 1947) and Twelve O’Clock High (1949). He won his Academy Award for To Kill a Mockingbird which was released during the height of the U.S. civil rights movement.
Peck served as the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1967, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the American Film Institute from 1967 to 1969, Chairman of the Motion Picture and Television Relief Fund in 1971, and National Chairman of the American Cancer Society in 1966. He was a member of the National Council on the Arts from 1964 to 1966.
A lifelong Democrat, Peck made Richard Nixon’s enemies list after signing a letter deploring the House Un-American Activities Committee of alleged communists in the film industry. He was suggested as a possible Democratic challenger to Ronald Reagan for the office of Governor of California in 1970 but indicated he had not interest in being a candidate for public office.
On June 12, 2003, Peck died in his sleep at home from bronchopneumonia. He was 87.