Gregory Peck: The Lost Interview
I conducted this phone interview with the great Gregory Peck on Dec. 12, 1995. He was gearing up for his cross-country show, An Evening With Gregory Peck, in which he’d screen a half-hour of film clips and then, as he told me, “spin yarns.” Peck got the idea from his good friend Cary Grant, who’d done something similar and told his fellow Hollywood legend how much he’d enjoyed the experience, getting out and meeting the public.
I spoke with Peck for just under an hour.
The tape had never been fully transcribed; the original newspaper story used perhaps five percent of the things he says in this amazingly candid interview.
After such a long career, do you feel like you’ve got nothing left to prove as an actor?
I guess you could say I’m on the sidelines now. The last thing I did was a nice little television movie with Lauren Bacall and my daughter Cecilia, called Portrait. That was early in ’93. Then I did a thing which didn’t come off too well, called Other People’s Money. And then before that it was Old Gringo. So I haven’t been working all that much lately, but then I didn’t expect to after 50 years! It’s like ‘Fifty years already, whaddaya want?’
Can you sit back in your chair and say “I just don’t need to do this any more”?
That’s an interesting question, because I got so used to using my energy in a special way, as a kind of specialist. I’m a storyteller on film, is what I am. I think my main interest was usually – I think always – directed toward the story as a whole. Beginning, middle, end. And how I would fit into it, and further it. And hold the audience’s attention.
That was my craft, and I did it for a long time. Do I miss it? No, I have a lot of things to do, a lot of things that interest me. What would interest me would be to make another outstanding film, another very, very good film. I don’t say a work of art, but a very, very good film. That would be a challenge, and that would be fun.
So many films … can you remember something about every one of them, or is it all kind of a blur? If I said, for example, Only the Valiant.
That one is on the negative side. That’s probably the worst film I ever made. Although it’s negative, I think it’s sort of funny at the same time … so I will tell it to you. At that time, I had some commitments with David O. Selznick. I was never under exclusive contract to anybody; I sort of parceled myself out here and there. I was a freelance.
David had a commitment for a picture, and the contract said he was to pay me $65,000. It sounds like small potatoes today; people who are in one or two hits are suddenly getting seven million. But those were different times.
Suddenly I got a call from his number one aide-de-camp, a fellow named Danny O’Shea, who said “Greg, you’re to report to Warner Brothers next Tuesday for costume fittings for a Western they’re making there.” And I said “What do you mean, Danny, I haven’t read it. I have to read this. This is very sudden.”
He said “Look Greg, David is a little short on cash. He has sold you to Warners for $150,000.” I said “David Selznick is that short on cash?” He said “I’m giving it to you straight, kid.” I called my lawyer, he said “Well, you’ve got a contract …”
Everybody was surprised. David avoided me. And I went and made the damn thing. And the crowning insult was, when I went to the wardrobe fittings, I was a cavalry man. It was an Indian-fighting picture. They had pants and a shirt and a hat, boots, ready for me. And as I was pulling on the pants, I saw somebody’s name inside. And it was “Rod Cameron.” He was an old-time leading man, sort of a Western type. Big tall guy. Mostly he played tough guys, and he played in Westerns.
So I wore a second-hand wardrobe. And well, that’s enough about the negative!
How did you manage to avoid becoming a studio player? You did move around quite a bit. You remained a free agent.
Well, I was. It started because I was on Broadway. I had three shows on Broadway, and once I calculated about 30 shows, either summer stock or road companies before that. And so they began to come backstage, during my first Broadway show. It was called The Morning Star by Emlyn Williams. And it was a big-time production. It didn’t last very long, just a couple of months, but it was a top-notch Broadway production.
So I began to get movie offers, and they were all for exclusive, seven-year deals. Well, a fella came back whose name was Casey Robinson. He was breaking away from Warner Brothers to go on his own. I told him my philosophy of remaining my own boss, so to speak, and having time to come back to the theater. And he said “I’ll make a one-picture deal with you.” And we did. So I ran out one summer, I think it was ’43 or ‘44, and made that picture in 10 weeks. And went back and did another play. Then there were more offers.
I had a famous agent named Leland Hayward. And I said “no exclusive contracts.” He brought me in, at his expense, and we made the rounds of the studios. The story that I’ve told before – sorry if you’ve already heard it – is that he took me to L.B. Mayer. We went to L.B. Mayer’s office, which was the absolute prototype of a mogul’s office: It was all white, and it was immense. White carpet, and a huge desk, and there was the great man. And he said “I want to put you in my family of stars. And I want you to rise to the very top. I can see you as the brightest star of MGM!”
Well, that was a mouthful, because they had Clark Gable, and Robert Taylor and Spencer Tracy, and Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, they had a whole bunch of people under contract there.
And I thought that was a little bit of an overkill. I said “Mr. Mayer, I would certainly like to make some pictures here. It would be an honor. But I want to go back to the theater from time to time, and I don’t want to be tied up exclusively.”
He went again into his pitch. He would look after me and select my roles, and guide my publicity, and nurture me. He really laid it on thick, like for 15 minutes! He boasted about MGM’s great history, and roster of stars, he talked about Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney and all the glory of MGM. And I said “I’m just terribly impressed, Mr. Mayer, but I’m determined not to sign a long-term exclusive contract.”
And, believe or not he started to cry. I couldn’t believe my eyes! Tears came down his face, and he said “Please think it over. Think carefully. You may be making a terrible mistake.” The tears were dropping off his chin. Really a comic but strange, bizarre scene. So I said “Mr. Mayer, thank you very much, I hope you’ll ask me over to make a picture sometime.”
And with that, he mopped his face, he picked up his phone and called his secretary and started talking business to her, and he ignored us. So Leland Hayward and I, we sorta backed out of the room. And when we got outside the door I said to Leland “Boy oh boy, that was something, to see a man like that cry.”
He said “Oh, he does that all the time.”
You were a tremendous success almost right out of the gate, without signing up.
Well, it was it was a streak of independence, I guess. I was a little bit of a maverick at that time. But it didn’t do me any harm. I may have missed out on some good pictures, on the other hand I may have been in some that I wouldn’t have been in, had I been tied up to MGM.
They must have been waving money at you the whole time.
In those days? Well, they were waving money, but it wasn’t very big money. In those days, nobody got very big money. Clark Gable never got more than $3,500 a week. And I think he had a contract for 48 weeks a year, which was a month’s vacation. They didn’t pay him for four weeks! Pictures cost less to make, and they went out and grossed less at the box office. And the net profit to the studio was less. It was all in the neighborhood of a million dollars, or a little bit less or a little bit more, except for a few exceptions, like Gone With the Wind I think was four million. Nowadays, they spend four million on publicity for a big movie.
So everything was on a more common sense, reasonable level. Including the salaries of the biggest stars in the business. And they weren’t rich. They were comfortable. They were well off. But by today’s standards, you wouldn’t consider people like Gable, Bogart, Cagney, you wouldn’t consider them rich at all.
When did you move, permanently, back to California?
In ’44. I had done Days of Glory, then I went back to New York and did another play after that. I grabbed the $10,000, which is what they paid me – seemed like a lot of money to me – and I went back to New York and did a play of Irwin Shaw, which was called Sons and Soldiers. With a wonderful actress, Geraldine Fitzgerald. And Karl Malden was in it.
And after that I got an offer from Darryl Zanuck to do The Keys of the Kingdom, and I couldn’t resist it. So I came back out, and pretty much settled down here ever since, although we’ve done an enormous amount of traveling, and picture-making just about all over the world.
How did you develop your style of acting? There’s so much of what we out here perceive as you in your characters. Are all these guys just different facets of you?
Well, in my mind they are. Maybe other people wouldn’t agree, but I feel I’ve been fairly versatile in the things that I’ve done. And played different types. Because of my stage training, that was my ambition, not to be a movie star but to be an actor.
So yes, I think there’s a great deal of difference between let’s say some of the Westerns I made … I’ll tell you something funny about that. I was elected the “Cowboy Star of the Year” in 1950. I had made several, Duel in the Sun, Yellow Sky, The Gunfighter and so on. And I bumped into John Wayne. He kind of growled at me and said “Ah, for Christ’s sake. You? The Cowboy Star of the Year? Oh, for Christ’s Sake, who elected you to that?” I said well, those guys in Reno that give the Silver Spurs Award every year. “Oh, Christ – you, the Cowboy Star of the Year.”
I said “Listen, Marian, you can’t win it every year.”
Did you all watch what the others were doing? Would you call Jimmy Stewart and congratulate him?
Absolutely. I never felt any of that intense rivalry, ever. I admired Hank Fonda and Jimmy Stewart, and Duke Wayne for what he did. No, there was room for all of us. I think that kind of thing, that dog-eat-dog rivalry among actors, is a myth. I think it’s largely invented by the press. I’m sure there have been a few people who were envious, who wished each other bad luck! But I never ran into it, and I never felt it.
Can I ask you about Roman Holiday? Is that a happy film for you to remember?
Probably the happiest time making a film that I can think of. Six months in Rome, 1952, working with Audrey and a wonderful director, William Wyler. It was exciting to be there. We were the first international film after the war. The Italian neo-realists, I think they used to call them, had been filming all over Rome, and Rossellini and De Sica were making some pretty great Italian films, but we were the first American company to come in with a major film. So there was excitement.
We filmed all over the streets, and we always had a big, big crowd. There’s a scene on the Piazza di Spagna – I think Audrey is eating an ice cream cone, and I come down on purpose by accident, I find her there. I know she’s the princess, but she doesn’t know I know. And we had about 10,000 people at the bottom of the stairs watching us. It was like we were playing in an amphitheater.
But they knew “silencio,” because of these Italian films all over the streets of Rome. They knew what “silencio” and “azione” meant. So they would be silent while we were speaking our lines. They could hear us. And Willy Wyler would say “cut,” then he’d say “let’s do it again,” and if they liked it they’d say “No, no, no, no, va beni!” Or if he liked it and said “That’s good, print that,” they might say “no, no, no, encore una volta!” Let’s do it again. So you can imagine what fun it was, and romantic and exciting and funny. Funny all the time.
You went from there right into Moby Dick. It isn’t a perfect film.
I’d say that film is a little bit like John Huston’s career: In and out. He was an in-and-outer. He made some great films and he made some bad films. And I think that film was in and out. It had great moments, but as a whole it’s not one of my favorites. Although there are some scenes and some moments in there that I’m certainly not embarrassed by. But as a whole, the thing did not come off, and it showed at the box office.
It’s hard to translate something like that into film, I think.
Well, you’re exactly right. Incidentally, we looked at the two that were made before, both with John Barrymore. One was called The Sea Beast, and I think the other one may have been called Moby Dick. One was silent, and one was an early talkie, I think. And they gave Captain Ahab a love story! With a beautiful woman named Dolores Costello, who was waiting for Captain Ahab to return from the sea. They’re both pretty silly.
If it could be done, if it were ever to be done and I could in any way be connected with it, I would say “Do it a la John Ford. Make it an action picture, and let the philosophy come through between the cracks. Don’t stand there on the deck and talk for five minutes, about Melville’s philosophy about if there is a god, he must be a malevolent god.” I think we talked too much. I think it should have been one long chase with moments – moments – of Melville’s philosophy seeping through.
I have to ask the logical question here: What’s your favorite? What’s the best? I think I already know the answer.
Well, it has to be To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s the one that has had the most longevity, you might say. In that it’s still being played all over the country in schools, for schoolkids around the ages of 13, 14, 15. In their civics class. Or their American history class. They tie it in with the Civil Rights movement of the ‘60s, and the kids write essays. Mostly, though, they don’t write about the civil rights, they write about father and kids. They write about the family relationship.
Bob Mulligan and Alan Pakula had acquired the rights to Harper’s book – they were in great demand because it was a Pulitzer Prize winner – and I think Harper let them have the rights on instinct, on her own judgment, having met them. They were a young producer and a young director. They had made a picture, which I liked, calledFear Strikes Out, about the baseball player Jim Piersall, who had mental problems, and a domineering father, and was carrying a lot of baggage from his childhood which followed him. And he kind of went crazy on the field a few times. And had to have psychiatric counseling.
They’d made a very sensitive, good film with Tony Perkins. I liked that film. I’d never met these two.
They called me and they’ve said “We’ve got a book and we think you’re exactly right for it. Will you read it?” I said “Send it over.” I sat up most of the night; I finished it at 2 or 3 in the morning.
So you were reading it and thinking of yourself as Atticus the whole time?
Sure, sure. And I called them at 8 o’clock in the morning and said “Absolutely, I want to do it.” There was no script. So at that time, I had a tie-up with Universal – I had an office bungalow, and I had produced a couple of pictures there. Mirage was one of them; I think one called Pork Chop Hill, and Cape Fear, the original with Bob Mitchum. So I had a kind of association with them where they would get first look at any property than I wanted to do. They call it a first-look arrangement.
So I said to Mulligan and Pakula, I think we can make a deal at Universal. And they said “Well, we want to have the final cut.” Mostly, you cannot get that at a major studio. In those days, at least. I said “Let me see what I can do.” Like Harper, I had an instinctive trust in these two young guys.
So I went over there with my agent, and at first they said “Oh, no, no, these are young guys, we have an expert editorial staff here, blah blah blah.” I said “Well, then the book’s gonna go somewhere else, and me with it.” Then they began to think it over, because here they had a Pulitzer Prize winner, and they had a star. And they had a promising young director and producer. So they must’ve had a meeting of the suits, up in the black tower, because they came back and the answer was “OK. We’ll finance it, and we’ll give the final cut to Mulligan and Pakula.” In a way, they were taking in a risk, but in a way they were not. It was obvious that this was a wonderful book, and that these were very talented young guys, and everybody thought I was right for Atticus, so they weren’t taking much of a risk. They would have been extremely dumb to have passed up that deal.
What was it about Atticus Finch that, when you read it, you knew you could get under his skin?
I just knew it. It was instinct. I felt it, I felt the emotions of the piece. Of course I liked what it had to say about racial bigotry, and I liked the relationship with the kids.
I liked the man. I liked what he had to say, what kind of a man he was. I felt I could be him on the screen. They say sometimes the hair goes up on the back of your neck. I just felt it. And I did all the way through. When we got started, we were like on a rail where we couldn’t get sidetracked. We were in a kind of a state of pretending that this was all really happening, and feeling the emotions those characters felt, and speaking as the character.
And yet, it was me. It was me, but I guess it’s a side of me that I was glad to be able to put to work in that part.
That sense of being with a singleness of purpose – cast, crew and everyone – had that ever happened before, or since? Was that something you were used to on a really good project?
I think we felt that on Roman Holiday. Maybe it was more intense on To Kill a Mockingbird than any other film. But to a degree, on Roman Holiday and on a little picture that I like very much, The Gunfighter. And from time to time on others.
By the same token, do you know when you’re in the middle of a dog? You said there were some you’d like to forget.
(laughing). You’re swimming upstream, and you swim all the harder. You pull out every trick in the book to try to cover up a bum script. You delude yourself. You don’t allow yourself to think that way. You know it, in the back of your head, that this is liable to turn out to be a bummer! But you come to work every morning determined to make it look as good as you possibly can.
And also, there’s a matter of self-preservation involved. You try not to be in a bummer. So it’s the old “silk purse out of a cow’s ear” – and there are times when you actually sort of get away with it. You call on something that you can bring to it, some experience you can draw on, something you’ve learned about life. And you kinda inject that into a scene, to give it some solid footing, some reality and truth behind it. Even though it’s not a very well-written scene. And sometimes you manage to make a badly-written scene look better. You can’t make it look great, but you can make it look better. And in those cases, that’s your job. That’s what they’re paying you for, to make it look as good as you can make it look.
The Omen was – I was surprised to learn – your highest grossing film. I was in high school when it came out. What’s your feeling on that one?
Well, it was a commercial film, and it was a scare picture. I kind of felt like it would be a hit, and I liked the director, Dick Donner, and Lee Remick was a favorite of mine. And I said well, hell, I’ll make a scare picture. And it turned out that way, and it made me a packet of money! So I have no regrets. I sort of enjoyed doing it.
You were one of the founders of the American Film Institute in ’67. Why is that sort of thing important to you? A lot of actors never get involved in anything political, or anything other than their craft. Was the film restoration thing especially important to you? Or were you a figurehead for them?
No, no, I was a working chairman. Founding chairman. No, I worked at it. I gave quite a lot of time, maybe more than I should have in the middle of my career, to a year of research with the Stanford Research Group on what an American Film Institute ought to be. And what the whole, let’s say constituency of people interested in film, all the way from avant-garde to documentary to educational to entertainment film, what they expected from an American Film Institute. Endless, endless, countless meetings. And a certain amount of travel, going around to talk to colleges and independent filmmakers.
We didn’t have a large staff at the beginning. The National Arts Endowment commissioned an American Film Institute, and in fact LBJ said when he signed the bill to create an Arts Endowment, he said “There will be an American Film Institute, which will encourage young artists to express themselves in film, and elevate the quality,” so forth, so on. And I was on the board of the National Endowment. It was called the National Council on the Arts. And LBJ blurted this out, and the people who were involved in film who were on the council at the time, we looked at each other and said “What the hell is this?” Somebody put that into LBJ’s speech.
I wonder if he knew that he said it.
Oh he knew all right. He and I talked about it many times.
So anyway, there it was, and it was a mandate for the National Council on the Arts. So it was largely George Stevens Sr., and William Parrera and I, we organized a few more people, Sidney Poitier, George Stevens. Jr. who was head of the USIA at that time. We got a committee together and Jack Valenti sat in. We decided on the Stanford Research Institute. It was just too much legwork for any of us to do.
Although I did some. I stayed in New York a couple of weeks one time looking at avant-garde film. The most far-out, the better. I wanted to see everything. I remember going in the Village to see a guy by the name of Jonas Mekas, an avant-garde filmmaker. He had a little studio in the Village. I made an appointment, I went in there … he looked at me suspiciously. To him, I was a Hollywood star, and what the hell was I doing calling on him? And I explained about the Film Institute, that we meant to be of service to every kind of film. All kinds of people interested in film as a career. I explained all this, and the Stanford Research, and that it was beginning to be clear that a big part of our interest should be restoration. That there may well be an institute for young filmmakers. And that we would be interested in grants to promising filmmakers from across the board, including the avant-garde.
He listened to me for about 10 minutes, and I said “Well, what do you think?” He said “That’s a lot of bullshit.”
I said “Well, thanks for your time.” And I took off. I don’t know whether he ever got a grant from the AFI, but I wouldn’t have stood in his way if he did. I could understand how we represented establishment. And some of the other people said “Oh, hell, it’s just gonna be a farm school for the Hollywood industry.” They were very cynical about it.
Over the years, I still think that restoration has been their greatest accomplishment. Not only the money that they’ve been able to give, themselves, through the Library of Congress, but in coordinating the various efforts at the Museum of Modern Art, out at the Pacific Archives in Berkeley, at Eastman House in Rochester, coordinating the whole effort. And also making a grant each year to the Library of Congress for preservation, restoration, cataloguing. That may be the most important thing they’ve done.
What about the state of the art today? What’s your general feeling on it?
You know, I’m not about to knock my friends and knock the industry. In print. I have private opinions but I’m not a crusader, and I don’t want to deplore the state of the art. I would rather put it this way, that there are films that are being made that are purely commercial, you could say conglomerate-type films. They’re product. And sometimes, because that sort of thing has been big at the box office, they will ratchet up the violence and the sex a little more each time. I don’t particularly like that kind of machine-made film. My own taste runs to things that are a little different, and a little bit more offbeat.
I like some Hollywood product. I thought The Fugitive was a wonderful film, for example. I liked very much a year ago an Irish film, In the Name of the Father.
The Fugitive is the kind of film you would have made.
(chuckles) That’s right, in my day and age I would have played Harrison Ford’s role.
Did you like Schindler’s List?
Yes, I did, I liked it very much. And I liked certain offbeat films, like Like Water For Chocolate and that sort of odd film which is completely original, and takes you by surprise. There’s no formula stuff in there.
So I guess I do tend to like the independent, offbeat films, but at the same time I enjoy a good, well-made commercial film.
I’ll close with essentially the same question I started with. Are you finished? Do you feel like you’re on top of the hill, looking backwards?
I’d rather sit on the side of the road and watch the parade go by, than sit on the hill and look backwards. But there is, now and then, a hankering to jump back in the parade. But it has a little proviso attached: I wouldn’t do it unless I thought the script had a great, great chance of being very, very good.
I don’t do weekly TV. I’m not pining to go to work so much that I’ll do any old thing. So if I do another one, it’ll be something that I think has a very, very good chance of being terrific.
If it doesn’t turn out that way, well, blame it on me. It’ll be, my judgment wasn’t quite right.
Thank you so much for giving me all this time.
I gotta finish with a tiny anecdote. We talked about Only the Valiant, that was my worst film. One time, Ruth Gordon read an interview with me, where someone asked me about the films I liked the least, and damned if I didn’t tell them! They wrote a whole interview about it.
She said “Gregory … never, never, never talk about your failures. They were failures because nobody went to see them, and nobody went to see them because they were failures. So why should you remind people?”
A lesson that I took to heart. So Only the Valiant is the only one I’m gonna knock.
* Gregory Peck was 79 at the time of this interview. He appeared in one more film – the 1998 TV adaptation of Moby Dick with Patrick Stewart as Ahab (Peck had a cameo as Father Mapple, who’d been played in the John Huston original by Orson Welles).
He died on June 12, 2003.