U.S. President Lyndon Johnson honored Peck with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969 for his lifetime humanitarian efforts. In 1999, the American Film Institute named Peck among Greatest Male Stars of Classic Hollywood cinema, ranking at No. 12.
Eldred Gregory Peck was born on April 5, 1916, in La Jolla, San Diego, California, the son of Gregory Pearl Peck, a New York-born chemist and pharmacist, and his Missouri-born wife Bernice Mary "Bunny" (née Ayres). His father was of English (paternal) and Irish (maternal) heritage and his mother of English and Scots ancestry. She converted to her husband's religion, Roman Catholicism, when she married his father, and Peck was raised as a Catholic. Through his Irish-born paternal grandmother Catherine Ashe, Peck was related to Thomas Ashe, who participated in the Easter Rising less than three weeks after Peck's birth and died while on hunger strike in 1917.
Peck's parents divorced when he was five and he was brought up by his maternal grandmother, who took him to the movies every week. At the age of 10 he was sent to a Catholic military school, St. John's Military Academy in Los Angeles. While he was a student there, his grandmother died. At 14, he moved back to San Diego to live with his father, attended San Diego High School, and after graduating enrolled for one year at San Diego State Teacher's College, (now known as San Diego State University). While there he joined the track team, took his first theatre and public-speaking courses, and pledged the Epsilon Eta fraternity. Peck however had ambitions to be a doctor and the following year gained admission to the University of California, Berkeley, as an English major and pre-medical student. Standing 6 ft 3 in (1.91 m), he rowed on the university crew. Although his tuition fee was only $26 per year, Peck still struggled to pay, and took a job as a "hasher" (kitchen helper) for the Gamma Phi Beta sorority in exchange for meals.
At Berkeley, encouraged by the acting coach, who saw in him perfect material for university theatre, Peck became more and more interested in acting. He was recruited by Edwin Duerr, director of the university's Little Theater, and appeared in five plays during his senior year. Peck would later say about Berkeley that, "it was a very special experience for me and three of the greatest years of my life. It woke me up and made me a human being." In 1997, Peck donated $25,000 to the Berkeley rowing crew in honor of his coach, the renowned Ky Ebright.
After graduating from Berkeley with a BA degree in English, Peck dropped the name "Eldred" and headed to New York City to study at the Neighborhood Playhouse with the legendary acting teacher Sanford Meisner. He was often broke and sometimes slept in Central Park. He worked at the 1939 World's Fair and as a tour guide for NBC's television broadcasting. In 1940, Peck learned more of the acting craft, working in exchange for food, at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia, appearing in five plays including Family Portrait and On Earth As It Is.
His stage career began in 1941 when he played the secretary in a Katharine Cornell production of George Bernard Shaw's play The Doctor's Dilemma. Unfortunately, the play opened in San Francisco just one week before the attack on Pearl Harbor. He made his Broadway debut as the lead in Emlyn Williams' The Morning Star in 1942. His second Broadway performance that year was in The Willow and I with Edward Pawley. Peck's acting abilities were in high demand during World War II because he was exempt from military service owing to a back injury suffered while receiving dance and movement lessons from Martha Graham as part of his acting training. Twentieth Century Fox claimed he had injured his back while rowing at university, but in Peck's words, "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."
In 1947, Peck co-founded The La Jolla Playhouse, at his birthplace, with Mel Ferrer and Dorothy McGuire. This local community theater and landmark (now in a new home at the University of California, San Diego) still thrives today. It has attracted Hollywood film stars on hiatus both as performers and enthusiastic supporters since its inception.
Peck's first film, Days of Glory, was released in 1944. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor five times, four of which came in his first five years of film acting: for The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), The Yearling (1946), Gentleman's Agreement (1947), and Twelve O'Clock High (1949).
The Keys of the Kingdom emphasized his stately presence. As the farmer Ezra "Penny" Baxter in The Yearling, his good-humored warmth and affection toward the characters playing his son and wife confounded critics who had been insisting he was a lifeless performer. Duel in the Sun (1946) showed his range as an actor in his first "against type" role as a cruel, libidinous gunslinger. Gentleman's Agreement established his power in the "social conscience" genre in a film that took on the deep-seated but subtle antisemitism of mid-century corporate America. Twelve O'Clock High was the first of many successful war films in which Peck embodied the brave, effective, yet human fighting man.
Among his other films were Spellbound (1945), The Paradine Case (1947), The Gunfighter (1950), Moby Dick (1956), The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), On the Beach (1959), which brought to life the terrors of global nuclear war, The Guns of Navarone (1961), and Roman Holiday (1953), with Audrey Hepburn in her Oscar-winning role. Peck and Hepburn were close friends until her death; Peck even introduced her to her first husband, Mel Ferrer. Peck once again teamed up with director William Wyler in the epic Western The Big Country (1958), which he co-produced.
Peck won the Academy Award with his fifth nomination, playing Atticus Finch, a Depression-era lawyer and widowed father, in a film adaptation of the Harper Lee novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Released in 1962 during the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the Southern United States, this film and his role were Peck's favorites. In 2003, Peck's portrayal of Atticus Finch was named the greatest film hero of the past 100 years by the American Film Institute.
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 physically powerful man, he was known to do a majority of his own fight scenes, rarely using body or stunt doubles. In fact, Robert Mitchum, his on-screen opponent in Cape Fear, told about the time Peck once accidentally punched him for real during their final fight scene in the movie. He felt the impact for days afterward. Peck's rare attempts at villainous roles were not acclaimed. Early on, he played the renegade son in the Western Duel in the Sun and, later in his career, the infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele in The Boys from Brazil co-starring Laurence Olivier.
In the 1980s, Peck moved to television, where he starred in the mini-series The Blue and the Gray, playing Abraham Lincoln. He also starred with Christopher Plummer, John Gielgud, and Barbara Bouchet in the television film The Scarlet and The Black, about Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty, a real-life Catholic priest in the Vatican who smuggled Jews and other refugees away from the Nazis during World War II.
Peck, Mitchum, and Martin Balsam all had roles in the 1991 remake of Cape Fear directed by Martin Scorsese. All three were in the original 1962 version. In the remake, Peck played Max Cady's lawyer.
His last prominent film role also came in 1991, in Other People's Money, directed by Norman Jewison and based on the stage play of that name. Peck played a business owner trying to save his company against a hostile takeover bid by a Wall Street liquidator played by Danny DeVito.
Peck retired from active film-making at that point. Peck spent the last few years of his life touring the world doing speaking engagements in which he would show clips from his movies, reminisce, and take questions from the audience. He did come out of retirement for a 1998 miniseries version of one of his most famous films, Moby Dick, portraying Father Mapple (played by Orson Welles in the 1956 version), with Patrick Stewart as Captain Ahab, the role Peck played in the earlier film. It would be his final performance, and it won him the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor in a Series, Miniseries or Television Film.
Peck had been offered the role of Grandpa Joe in the 2005 film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but died before he could accept it. The Irish actor David Kelly was then given the part.
In 1947, while many Hollywood figures were being blacklisted for similar activities, Peck signed a letter deploring a House Un-American Activities Committee investigation of alleged communists in the film industry.
A lifelong supporter of the Democratic Party, Peck was suggested in 1970 as a possible Democratic candidate to run against Ronald Reagan for the office of California Governor. Although he later admitted that he had no interest in being a candidate himself for public office, Peck encouraged one of his sons, Carey Peck, to run for political office. Carey was defeated both times by slim margins in races in 1978 and 1980 against Republican U.S. Representative Bob Dornan, another former actor.
In an interview with the Irish media, Peck revealed that former President Lyndon Johnson had told him that, had he sought re-election in 1968, he intended to offer Peck the post of U.S. ambassador to Ireland – a post Peck, owing to his Irish ancestry, said he might well have taken, saying "[It] would have been a great adventure". The actor's biographer Michael Freedland substantiates the report and says that Johnson indicated that his presentation of the Medal of Freedom to Peck would perhaps make up for his inability to confer the ambassadorship. President Richard Nixon, though, placed Peck on his enemies list owing to his liberal activism.
Peck was outspoken against the Vietnam War, while remaining supportive of his son, Stephen, who fought there. In 1972, Peck produced the film version of Daniel Berrigan's play The Trial of the Catonsville Nine about the prosecution of a group of Vietnam protesters for civil disobedience. Despite his reservations about American general Douglas MacArthur as a man, Peck had long wanted to play him on film, and did so in MacArthur in 1976.
In 1978, Peck traveled to Alabama, the setting of To Kill a Mockingbird, to campaign for Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Donald W. Stewart of Anniston, who defeated the Republican candidate, James D. Martin, a former U.S. representative from Gadsden.
In 1987, Peck undertook the voice-overs for television commercials opposing President Reagan's Supreme Court nomination of conservative judge Robert Bork. Bork's nomination was defeated. Peck was also a vocal supporter of a worldwide ban of nuclear weapons, and a lifelong advocate of gun control.
In October 1942, Peck married Finnish-born Greta Kukkonen (1911–2008), with whom he had three sons, Jonathan (1944–1975), Stephen (b. 1946), and Carey Paul (b. 1949). They were divorced on December 31, 1955.
During his marriage with Greta, Peck had a brief affair with Spellbound co-star Ingrid Bergman. He confessed the affair to Brad Darrach of People in a 1987 interview, saying "All I can say is that I had a real love for her (Bergman), and I think that's where I ought to stop... I was young. She was young. We were involved for weeks in close and intense work."
On New Year's Day in 1956, the day after his divorce was finalized, Peck married Veronique Passani (1932–2012), a Paris news reporter who had interviewed him in 1952 before he went to Italy to film Roman Holiday. He asked her to lunch six months later and they became inseparable. They had a son, Anthony Peck (b. 1956), and a daughter, Cecilia Peck (b. 1958). The couple remained married until Gregory Peck's death. His son Anthony is an ex-husband of supermodel Cheryl Tiegs. His daughter Cecilia lives in Los Angeles.
Peck's eldest son, Jonathan, was found dead in his home on June 26, 1975 - which authorities believe was a suicide.
Peck had grandchildren from both marriages. One of his grandsons from his first marriage is actor Ethan Peck.
Peck owned the thoroughbred steeplechase race horse Different Class, which raced in England. The horse was favored for the 1968 Grand National but finished third. Peck was close friends with French president Jacques Chirac.
Peck was Roman Catholic and once considered entering the priesthood. Later in his career, a journalist asked Peck if he was a practicing Catholic. Peck answered, "I am a Roman Catholic. Not a fanatic, but I practice enough to keep the franchise. I don't always agree with the Pope... there are issues that concern me, like abortion, contraception, the ordination of women...and others." His second marriage was performed by a justice of the peace, not by a priest, because the Church prohibits remarriage if a former spouse is still living and the first marriage was not annulled. Peck was a significant fundraiser for a priest friend of his (Father Albert O'Hara), and served as co-producer of a cassette recording of the New Testament with his son Stephen.
On June 12, 2003, Peck died in his sleep at home from bronchopneumonia at the age of 87. His wife, Veronique, was by his side.
Gregory Peck is entombed in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels mausoleum in Los Angeles. His eulogy was read by Brock Peters, whose character, Tom Robinson, was defended by Peck's Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. The celebrities who attended Peck's funeral included Lauren Bacall, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Shari Belafonte, Harrison Ford, Calista Flockhart, Mike Farrell, Shelley Fabares, Jimmy Smits, Louis Jourdan, Dyan Cannon, Stephanie Zimbalist, Michael York, Angie Dickinson, Larry Gelbart, Michael Jackson, Anjelica Huston, Lionel Richie, Louise Fletcher, Tony Danza, and Piper Laurie.
Peck was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning once. He was nominated for The Keys of the Kingdom (1945), The Yearling (1946), Gentleman's Agreement (1947), and Twelve O'Clock High (1949). He won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Atticus Finch in the 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird. In 1968, he received the Academy's Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
Peck also received many Golden Globe awards. He won in 1947 for The Yearling, in 1963 for To Kill a Mockingbird, and in 1999 for the TV miniseries Moby Dick. He was nominated in 1978 for The Boys from Brazil. He received the Cecil B. DeMille Award in 1969, and was given the Henrietta Award in 1951 and 1955 for World Film Favorite – Male.
In 1969, 36th U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson honored Peck with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. In 1971, the Screen Actors Guild presented Peck with the SAG Life Achievement Award. In 1989, the American Film Institute gave Peck the AFI Life Achievement Award. He received the Crystal Globe award for outstanding artistic contribution to world cinema in 1996.
He received the Career Achievement Award from the U.S. National Board of Review of Motion Pictures in 1983.
In 1986, Peck was honored alongside actress Gene Tierney with the first Donostia Lifetime Achievement Award at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain for their body of work.
In 1987, Peck was awarded the George Eastman Award, given by George Eastman House for distinguished contribution to the art of film.
In 1993, Peck was awarded with an Honorary Golden Bear at the 43rd Berlin International Film Festival.
In 1998, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts.
In 2000, Peck was made a Doctor of Letters by the National University of Ireland. He was a founding patron of the University College Dublin School of Film, where he persuaded Martin Scorsese to become an honorary patron. Peck was also chairman of the American Cancer Society for a short time.
For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Gregory Peck has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6100 Hollywood Boulevard. In November 2005, the star was stolen, and has since been replaced.
On April 28, 2011, a ceremony was held in Beverly Hills, California, celebrating the first day of issue of a U.S. postage stamp commemorating Peck. The stamp is the 17th commemorative stamp in the "Legends of Hollywood" series.
On April 5, 2016, the 100th anniversary of Peck's birth, Turner Classic Movies, cable/satellite TV channel honored the actor by showing several of his films.
The moving image collection of Gregory Peck is held at the Academy Film Archive. The film material at the Academy Film Archive is complemented by material in the Gregory Peck papers at the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library.