Now We Really Need Him

"I put everything I had into it -- all my feelings and everything I'd learned in 46 years of living, about family life and fathers and children. And my feelings about racial justice and inequality and opportunity." -- Gregory Peck on the role of Atticus Finch.

Gregory Peck was my father.

We might not have been bound by the strictures of biology -- my biological father more closely resembles Clint Eastwood -- but we were nevertheless knit together by a persistent ideology, one that pursued benevolence and fairness, domestic calm, a feeling that one person could make a difference even as s/he was trampled beneath the steamrolling machine of oppression and unmitigated violence. In an image industry continually obsessed with constructing screen icons that are larger-than-life, Gregory Peck was a comforting departure: a humble, quiet giant who never seemed to abuse his cultural capital.

Peck fulfilled the same paternal function for countless Americans who grew up watching the weary but principled Atticus Finch fight for the rights of the poor, the marginalized, the voiceless in Robert Mulligan's timeless adaptation of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Finch's Sisyphean task created not only existential crises for mature and young viewers of that Oscar-winning character -- that is, everyone knew that the trial of the innocent Tom Robinson would end, as This Mortal Coil sang, in tears -- but it caused them to look around the house and see if their biological fathers exhibited the same moral fortitude, especially in the face of inevitable tragedy. Peck's turn as Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird was that powerful a performance; it simply overwhelmed cinema, literature, reality itself. And whether it was fair or not -- life, as that brilliant movie so capably illustrated, is anything but -- every father in the world had to stand toe to toe with the six-foot-plus actor to see if he measured up.

My own father knew the value of a preemptive strike, and brought my sisters and me to the film before we could discover it on our own. He knew he had nothing to worry about -- he served time in Vietnam, broke his forebears' cycle of racism (his own father was a guard at Manzanar, a Japanese internment camp in the U.S.), and helped undocumented immigrants achieve their rights in a bitter Los Angeles labor strike -- but he figured the time would come eventually, so it might as well happen sooner rather than later. And it worked like a charm, because it became a movie the entire family watched ritually in consensual comprehension of the continuing dangers of ignorance, hate and violence. And Atticus Finch was the figure we all hung our hopes on, even though we knew that hope was never rewarded with results.

Without Peck's stalwart, intelligent calm, To Kill a Mockingbird might not have ever carried such gravitas; other actors of the time would probably have turned the role into a reason to grandstand, right before they went home to their black maids and butlers. But Peck was different, mostly because he walked the walk. His agent cautioned him against accepting the controversial role of Philip Schuyler -- who himself, in a clever metafictional moment, played the role of a Jew in order to learn the harsh realities of anti-Semitism -- in Elia Kazan's Gentleman's Agreement, but Peck went ahead anyway, and helped the film win an Oscar for Best Picture. Although its issue-heavy prose seems dated and tired today -- especially considering Kazan's notorious sellout to Joe McCarthy and HUAC -- Gentleman's Agreement nevertheless fulfilled Peck's modest rationale for almost everything he did. "I'm not a do-gooder," he explained after receiving the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1967. "I simply take part in activities that I believe in."

And he believed in kindness, fairness and justice -- for everyone, regardless of race, color or creed. When he learned of Martin Luther King's assassination, he used his power as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to postpone the Oscar ceremony. Realizing, in 1980, that 600,000 jobs could be saved at Chrysler if the troubled corporation's profile could be upgraded, he agreed to become their unpaid pitchman. Besides winning the Hersholt Humanitarian Award, Peck was also given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor a civilian can receive, by Lyndon Johnson. Up until his death, he was championing that most unfortunate casualty of the New Economy, libraries, as energetically as he had opposed the Vietnam War in the '60s. The list goes on.

After growing up on a steady diet of Atticus Finch, I turned to Peck himself when it came time to go to college, and chose Berkeley and English, as he once had done. My biological father never had the opportunity to go to college, but one thing he wanted for me was a chance to use education against the type of ignorance and hatred that sent innocents like Mockingbird's Tom Robinson wildly into their doom. And by that time, Peck's accidental role as America's paternal figure had been self-consciously skewered in his role of Nazi Germany's -- the "fatherland", they once called it -- most infamous figure, Dr. Josef Mengele, in the underrated Boys From Brazil, which I saw at a young age (it scared the hell out of me). No dummy, Peck knew well enough that fathers could easily become monsters -- see his turn in The Omen for more on that -- and that the line between good and evil (he matched up brilliantly with another icon, Sir Laurence Olivier, in Brazil) they continually reinscribed shifted back and forth all the time. That is the cost of personal responsibility, after all, the core theme at the center of Hitchcock's Spellbound and J. Lee Thompson's Cape Fear, both films that starred Peck in roles of the maligned innocent at the mercy of powerful forces arrayed against him (Hitchcock, in a stroke of brilliance, signed on Salvador Dali to help provide Peck's character with his surreal revelation).

Gregory Peck, in what may have been divine justice (if you believe in that sort of thing -- I don't) died comfortably in his sleep, old age finally having caught up with him. His soul, like his formidable legacy, was one of peace, so it is poetic that he left this world in such a manner. But the times he has left behind for his unknown sons and daughters resembles the dystopia of Boys From Brazil more each day. War and paranoia, demons and demonization, racism and prejudice -- none has convincingly waned since Mockingbird, Boys or Gentleman's Agreement, making the question I used to ask myself when I was a kid and needed to get out of a moral dilemma -- "What would Atticus do?" -- harder than ever to answer.

But "it is customary for the son to have his father's watch," as Atticus explained to Scout in Mockingbird, when she wondered why she had to give the damaged Boo Radley his possessions back. He was speaking of a material item, but I prefer to think he meant the noun that describes the act of vigilance, protection, observation, the same Atticus exercised as he sat outside Tom Robinson's cell, in hopes of derailing the lynch mob marshalling against the collective rule of law. Vigilance and observation takes courage, time and, most importantly, a selflessness that is far too alien in today's so-called "Reality"-driven mediascape.

Which is why Gregory Peck will be sorely missed. Who among his sons -- or daughters -- will execute that watch so capably, so persistently, so quietly?

Opinionated? Nominate your favorites from this year for the Alties, AlterNet's Second Annual Alternative Movie Awards.
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