A Fond Farewell

Gregory Peck: America's Quintessential Leading Man

Sooner or later in his long, illustrious career Gregory Peck had to play Abraham Lincoln. It was a role he seemed destined for, with his lanky, 6-foot-3 frame, his dark, formidable eyebrows, his aura of decency, judiciousness and flinty conviction. He finally did, in 1982, in a TV movie called "The Blue and the Gray." But a Lincolnesque spirit inhabits many of his characters, none more so than Atticus Finch, the widowed Southern lawyer who defends a black man accused of rape in "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962). The role not only won him an Oscar, it crystallized Peck's noble image in the public's imagination.

On screen and off, Peck was the epitome of a gentlemanly dignity that was peculiarly American--or what was once considered American--in its mixture of beauty and bashfulness. His moral heroism was saved from insufferableness by his innate diffidence. You think of Peck with his gaze turned downward, not just because of his height. There was an unwillingness, rare among movie stars, to unleash the full force of his personality upon us. With Peck, there was always something held in reserve. The tension was there in his deep, rich, unmistakable voice: a mellifluous baritone that conveyed a grave authority, while a strangled quaver hinted at vulnerability and doubt.

We saw the sturdy hero in "Captain Horatio Hornblower" (1951), "The Guns of Navarone" (1961) and "Cape Fear" (1962). Peck's potential for agony and neurosis came out in such movies as "Spellbound" (1945), "Twelve O'Clock High" (1949) and "The Gunfighter" (1950). He rarely ventured into all-out villainy, and when he did--as Nazi Josef Mengele in "The Boys From Brazil" (1978)--the strain showed. He was more at home playing reporters, which suited his wary idealism and resulted in two of his most acclaimed films--Elia Kazan's groundbreaking movie about anti-Semitism, "Gentleman's Agreement" (1947), and William Wyler's delightful "Roman Holiday" (1953), with newcomer Audrey Hepburn. This was Peck at his most relaxed and charming, a romantic leading man with more than a touch of the paternal in his appeal.

Peck became a star in 1944 playing a saintly, and unusually gorgeous, missionary in his second film, "The Keys of the Kingdom." Helped by the fact that much of the competition was off fighting in the war--Peck was 4-F due to a spinal injury--his career took off like a rocket and remained in orbit for six decades. But off-camera, he never reveled in his celebrity. A family man, he devoted himself to liberal causes and humanitarian efforts, and played a prominent role within the movie industry, serving as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. His second wife, the French journalist Veronique Passani, who was at his bedside when he died last week at 87, used to tell Peck that he was less an actor off the set than anyone she had ever known. But for a modest man, he cut a huge, iconic figure. If there were a Hollywood Mount Rushmore, Peck's face would be carved alongside those of Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart, the actors who represented our ideal notions of decency and integrity. His death brings the end of not only an era, but an ethos.


David Ansen

David Brinkley: The Wry Reporter Redefined TV News

The trouble with writing an appreciation of David Brinkley, who died last week at 82, is that it will inevitably be inferior to how Brinkley would cover himself. It can't possibly be as well-written--Brinkley was a master of the cogent, closely observed sketch. Nor could it capture the laconic, jerky speaking style that allowed him to chuckle gently at his own skeptical bons mots, assuring us that he didn't take the world--or himself--too seriously.

Brinkley began as a print reporter but became famous in 1956 when NBC News paired him with the more traditional Chet Huntley for "The Huntley-Brinkley Report." Brinkley later said he despised its trademark closing--"Goodnight, Chet. Goodnight, David." He "thought it dubious for two men to say goodnight to each other" instead of to the audience. The show marked a coming-of-age for TV news, and Brinkley's relaxed, conversational approach set a new standard.

But by 1981 NBC thought he was washed up. Roone Arledge didn't, and hired Brinkley to anchor a new kind of Sunday talk show at ABC News. "This Week With David Brinkley" revived the tired Sunday format, with Brinkley as the Beltway's genial emcee. By the time he retired in 1997 (after calling Bill Clinton "a bore" on election night when he thought his mike was off), he had appeared on TV in six decades and had covered 22 conventions, which he dubbed "cruel and unusual punishment."

In his forthcoming memoir, "Brinkley's Beat," he seems content enough with being appreciated as "wry": "I was always attracted to the comical, even the ridiculous. And although much of what I covered over the years was serious, and even tragic, I tried never to lose sight of the pretension and folly that was always there, even in the gravest situations." Thanks, David, you did say it better. And aren't you glad I didn't end with "goodnight"?

Art Cooper: Built the Modern Men's Magazine

Since he was a connoisseur of good writing, Cooper would have cast a cold eye on a sentence as trite as "He went out in typical style." But when Art Cooper died last week, after suffering a stroke at his favorite restaurant, the Four Seasons, he'd just retired as editor of GQ, the once marginal magazine he'd turned into a moneymaker. Cooper, a onetime NEWSWEEK writer, had been a legend for years because of his lunches with supermodels, his parties--but above all, the writers he sponsored. It seems too soon for him to become a memory.

-David Gates