Skip to main content


June 2024
2min read


When Gregory Peck died this past June, he was mourned and praised as the actor who created the archetypal father and husband figure, exemplified by his idealistic lawyer Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird . But earlier in his career there was another Gregory Peck, one with the range to illuminate a wide range of American types from the simple to the sardonic to the sinister.


(1945)—Peck reportedly wasn’t enthusiastic about Alfred Hitchcock’s cold and calculating directorial techniques in this thriller, which Hitch later derided as “just another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis.” Well, yes, just another one, but one directed with Hitchcock’s style and flair, enlivened by dazzling and amusing special effects from Salvador Dali, and anchored by the chemistry between Ingrid Bergman and the 29-year-old Peck, whose stern chin and chiseled profile conceal undercurrents of fraud. Hitchcock and Peck were both wrong: Spellbound is terrific fun.

Duel in the Sun

(1946)—Or Lust in the Dust , as some critics mocked it. The pretensions of King Vidor’s sprawling, self-important epic are undermined by the heavy breathing every time Jennifer Jones’s half-breed bad girl and Peck’s licentious bad brother narrow their eyes at each other. (Joseph Gotten plays the good brother, the role Peck would have gotten had the film been made 10 years later.) It’s an overwrought, half-baked, thoroughly enjoyable Western with Peck having what appears to be the time of his life in the role of a total wastrel.

The Yearling

(1946)—This film, directed by Clarence Brown from Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s great novel—perhaps the consummate coming-of-age story in American literature—is a too-little-seen masterpiece. At first glance, Peck’s role as the father of the boy Jody, who must come to accept the death of his pet deer, seems like an early variation on his later domestic roles. But the father in The Yearling , a dirt-poor farmer trying to keep his family alive in the Florida swamp, is light-years from the high-toned characters Peck would later become famous for. Never far from the father’s affability is his sad acceptance of the pain the boy must endure in his passage to manhood and a parent’s powerlessness to mitigate it. For one of the few times in his career, Peck was able to soften his patrician voice and bearing to play a common man.

Yellow Sky

(1948)—Peck got a chance to be sly and sexy in this offbeat Western version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest . Flanked by Anne Baxter as the love interest and Richard Widmark as the villain, he artfully holds back for about two-thirds of the picture, then steps in and steals both the movie and the girl.

Twelve O’clock High

(1949)—Peck was never darker or more vulnerable than as the bomber flight commander who cracks under pressure during daylight raids against Germany in World War II. This may have been Peck’s greatest performance; he manages to create a profound empathy for his character and his plight without descending into pathos or playing for audience sympathy.

Moby Dick

(1956)—As Peck settled into romantic comedy leads and impeccable good-guy roles, he was often accused of being a bit wooden as an actor. If his Ahab, though, in John Huston’s often majestic Moby Dick is wooden, the wood is hickory. It’s the one performance in Peck’s career that approached the Shakespearean in depth and emotional power.

—Allen Barra

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.