Mary Badham (above) and Phillip Alford (below) both looked up to Gregory Peck in Mulligan's "To Kill a Mockingbird." So did the audience in those days.Growing up, I paid scant attention to Gregory Peck. He wasn't my favorite movie star. I thought him too stiff and reserved, emotionally distant. What can I say? I was young and stupid.
But these days, when I look at what Hollywood passes off as men, Peck looks and sounds pretty good. Watching one of his films now, I see a genuine grown up - a fully formed, mature man. You don't see much of that on screen anymore, not even in the work of an elder statesman like Jack Nicholson.
It made me wonder - why aren't there any actors who want to be like Gregory Peck, who want to be "the next Gregory Peck" or who remind us, even slightly, of Gregory Peck? A few years ago, I read an article in which contemporary actors were asked what actors from the past they appreciated the most and hoped to emulate and the name invoked the most was Steve McQueen, a fine, commanding actor who shrewdly couched a certain immaturity into his performances. It was novel and appealing when the person in question was Steve McQueen, less so when it's (well, fill in the space with a young actor, almost any young actor, today).
Cary Grant, of course, is also a big reference point for most of today's actors. George Clooney is "the new Cary Grant," don't cha know.
But no one ever calls forth the name of Gregory Peck.
Tom Cruise is currently 48, although he seems like an eternal boy. Peck was actually three years younger than Cruise when he played his most defining character - Atticus Finch in Robert Mulligan's film of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" in 1961. (The film was released in 1962.)
No one would ever mistake Atticus Finch for a boy.
And I, for one, have given up on the idea of Cruise ever playing a character even remotely like Finch, even remotely mature.
By the way, Peck is currently being honored by Turner Classic Movies as its Star of the Month, via 26 titles. Tune in and see what it means to be a man, to be a grown up. Then go see Cruise in "Knight and Day."
Note in Passing: As another point of reference, Clark Gable was 37 - 11 years younger than Cruise - when he appeared in "Gone with the Wind."