GREGORY PECK AND ME
THE IMPECKABLE GREGORY
In tribute to the late Gregory Peck who died last week at 87, Andrew L. Urban tells for the first time how he pursued the great actor for an interview at the second Tokyo Film Festival, how Peck showed his impeccable good grace, and how fate played a cruel practical joke on the excited journalist.
He stood head and chest above the crowd of eager Japanese film fans milling about him in the enormous lobby of the NHK complex in Tokyo, a stone’s throw from my humble hotel in Shibuya. Gregory Peck was there as President of the international jury, and I was there as one of the media covering the 1987 Tokyo Film Festival. We were destined to meet, but neither of us knew it just at that moment.
This was only the second Tokyo Film Festival, but only the first to programme an international competition for features, and as it turned out, a Chinese film called Old Well won the Grand Prix, and a British director, Harry Hook, won the $200,000 first prize in the Young Cinema (directors under 35) section. Australia's Rachel Ward won the Best Actress award for her role in The Umbrella Woman, against some very stiff competition.
"one of the greatest living stars and a personal
Although I was in Tokyo as the Australian representative of London based film industry weekly, Screen International, I was also a busy freelance (based in Sydney) specialising in film. I made an opportunistic bee-line for Peck. Here was my chance to at least request an interview with one of the greatest living stars and a personal favourite; and I could do so directly, without the usual palaver of intermediaries like publicists and press agents. I didn’t rate that chance highly. For one thing, as jury President he would have little spare time. For two thing, I was one of a thousand journalists covering the festival, and all of them would be (or should be) trying the same thing.
I managed to wrestle through the adoring crowd around him, all smiling and jabbering and wanting bits of him, and caught his eye, possibly because I was pretty excited even to be in the same room as him and 2000 other people. I blurted out my journalistic credentials, throwing in that I was from Australia thinking this may differentiate me from the herd, and asked if I could interview him while in Tokyo, well aware he had a busy schedule.
Gregory Peck smiled and said “Sure, that would be fine. Let’s see if we can arrange something.” Like other VIP guests, he was staying at the fivest star hotel in Tokyo, across the city from mine. I was to call him sometime to make arrangements. I walked giddily out of the lobby, like a kid promised ice cream. Had it been anyone else, I would have kept the giddiness in check, never sure whether it was genuine or a polite brush-off. But not Peck; in the few moments talking to him, I had confirmed to myself that he was indeed a decent man, as was his screen persona (nasty Nazi Josef Mengele in The Boys From Brazil notwithstanding) and the personification of all that’s right with the American psyche.
"like a puppy with slippers"
That evening, there was a huge reception for festival guests and media, where I stood in a small group of fellow journalists around a table laden with delicacies as the room buzzed with excitement. This was all new to Tokyo, an international film festival with visiting stars of the calibre of Gregory Peck, studio heavies and glamorous women of the screen. As Peck and his wife Veronique jostled around the room greeting guests, they came within eye-catching distance of my little group. I smiled a greeting at him like a puppy with slippers, and he smiled back. “I’ll give you a call,” I said as casually as I could, a) to make sure he remembered and b) to make sure my colleagues saw the exchange and were suitably psyched out, in awe of my range of contacts so high on the megastar A list. My pal Greg nodded with a smile and pressed more flesh.
That was Sunday. Over the course of the next few days, I rang several times, as you can imagine, working myself into a state of nervous exhaustion, anticipating returning to Sydney with a prize catch of an interview that I would never otherwise get. I failed to find Peck in his suite. By Friday, my mood was less cocky. Despair was setting in. A sense that a golden prize was just out of my reach. Good fortune was turning to refined torture. I took a cab to his hotel and worked myself up to go to his suite and knock on the door. I doubted he would be there at 11 am, so I took a note with me, with my name, a brief reminder that I was the guy from Australia to pinpoint me, and the name and number of my Shibuya hotel. (A place where travelling salesmen usually stay, a hotel which has refined the economies of hotel room space to an artform. I got bruises from bumping into fixtures when getting dressed or trying to shower. They must specialise in Japanese clientele of small stature.)
The large door echoed emptily to my timid knocking. I slipped the note under the door and returned to festival covering duties. The festival ends on Sunday night. Everyone leaves on Monday, including me. The window of opportunity for the star interview of my career was closing. Fate, it seemed to me as I got into another spick and span cab with its white-gloved driver, was playing a practical joke on me. What I didn’t know was that fate’s biggest joke was yet to come.
By Sunday mid-morning I was ready for therapy. I had phoned my wife, Louise, who was and is the world’s leading Gregory Peck fan, and told her to stop being excited; we were just about out of time. I sat on my minimalist bed and clipped my toenails, a pedestrian activity in preparation for another long walk to the final festival events of the day.
"Mr Urban? This is Gregory Peck..."
At 11 am, the phone rang. "Mr Urban? This is Gregory Peck..." It was a humbling moment, a simple but clear demonstration of Peck’s impeccable good grace, his enviable good nature. (And an example I wish others might follow . . .)
Yes, I could make it at 1pm. Fact was, I could have made it anytime he wanted. I jumped (with care) into the shower recess and figured if I could be in a taxi by 12.15, I’d make it across town in good time. There was a cab cruising past my hotel minutes after I got downstairs, and he opened the door with that lever gadget they all have, enabling the driver to work the rear door for his passengers. It was only 12.00.
Arriving early, I sat in the lobby for 20 minutes, then took the lift to the heavens and knocked on the door. After a minute it opened a fraction, and a pyjama-clad Gregory Peck opened the door with a blank stare at me. “Um…er….I….we….” I said with as clear diction as I could muster. “Not today!” he said from behind the door slightly ajar. “I’m writing my closing night speech. Tomorrow…”
It’s amazing how empty and lonely and desolate and lifeless a hotel corridor can be. I trudged back to the lift and returned to Shibuya, all the adrenalins and anticipation juices now souring to a sickening hollowness not even a sushi plate could fill.
Exactly 24 hours later, I returned to the site of my ignominy, to be greeted by Veronique on her way out to do some last minute gift shopping. And as Gregory Peck ushered me into the palatial suite, I began to feel the taste of success. We sat across from each other at the dining table covered with his publicity photos and festival papers. He had stipulated we had to finish by 1.30 so he could have a bite of lunch before a 2 pm departure for a meeting with the Japanese Prime Minister.
"generous and eloquent and gently humorous"
But when 1.30 came, he waved aside the time and we talked for another 20 minutes. It was a rare pleasure to sit face to face with a man who embodies decency without making it boring. As warm and as intelligent as his many memorable characters on the screen, Peck was generous and eloquent and gently humorous.
There was a new film, The Silent Voice (aka Amazing Grace and Chuck), directed by Mike Newell, coming out later in the year, in which he plays the US President. How did he prepare for this role? After all, he has been admired as a man of principle and honesty, and with all due respect to the Oval Office, politicians do not enjoy such dizzy heights of esteem.
"Yes, I did think a lot about that. How this man's ambition to make his mark as the man who helped put into effect nuclear disarmament - how did a man of such principles and integrity get through the political machinery...
"I decided he wasn't anything like Billy Carter or Ronald Reagan .... I decided he was a lot like Gregory Peck..." At this we both smile, he self consciously, I at being let in on a secret.
What, then, is Gregory Peck's system of beliefs? Where does the decency and morality come from? "I am a Roman Catholic," he says disarmingly. "Not a fanatic, but I practice enough to keep the franchise," he says with a modest laugh. There, in that laugh, is the essence of the man, that natural, unaffected warmth, a laugh that carries no threat, no self doubt and no humbug.
Then he becomes serious: "I don't always agree with the Pope...there are issues that concern me, like abortion, contraception, the ordination of women.... and others. I think the Church should open up. But I don't usually talk about these things, it's only that you asked me."
"I let the emotions be the motor"
We talk about other things, including his acting. "I work out of emotions....I read (Laurence) Olivier's book, and he tries to start with the externals. A lump on the nose, a peculiar moustache, or a piece of wardrobe. What I do ends up as what's called Method Acting, although I'm not a notable proponent of it. But using emotions as a starting point, I find acting is often quite easy. I let the emotions be the motor, and then it happens naturally..."
He knows he has an effect on screen, and he puts it into context: "I don't want to
over-inflate the power of film. I don't think a film will change the world, but if someone goes home from a film thinking perhaps he is being too prejudiced, too intolerant, because a film has made him think, then we will have done something worthwhile."
And that, perhaps, is the reason why his role as Atticus in To Kill A Mockingbird is regarded so highly. It may just have made a positive difference to “someone”.
As I leave him to scoff a hurried sandwich before the limo arrives to pick him up, I walk down the hotel corridor and hit ‘Rewind’ on my small cassette recorder. I’m satisfied that I have a pretty decent interview with Peck, touching on personal, professional and political subjects. I scurry across the lobby and hop into my umpteenth cab, and settle back to replay the interview on the trip across Tokyo.
There is a vague hiss on the tape. No Peck. Not one word. Then I notice the little red spot which I shouldn’t notice. It’s the sign that the pause slide has been ‘on’ the entire time. This is the practical joke fate had been planning, a vicious last twist to the saga of Gregory Peck and Me.
It’s difficult to think. Tokyo flashing by me on either side, my life rushing past in front of my shocked eyes. I consider throwing the recorder out of the window but can’t find the strength to lower the window.
"I begin to hear Gregory Peck’s unique voice in my
Two dull, lifeless hours later, I am sitting in the coach to the airport, my battery-powered portable typewriter on my lap. It’s a long trip to the airport, and I push through my inertia and try recalling the interview, subject by subject, question by question. I jot them down for easy reference. As if tuning in to a radio, I begin to hear Gregory Peck’s unique voice in my head, responding to my questions.
I come to the question I ask about the one film (The Boys From Brazil) in which Peck plays a baddie – “loathsome", he calls it - Josef Mengele, a Nazi brute, heartless scientific experimenter, who tried to clone Adolf Hitler. He co-starred with Laurence Olivier: "Towards the end of the film we have a fight," I hear Peck say with a certain glee. "Before we did it, I told Olivier about a trip to Greece when in a small village I was walking along and two old men came tumbling out of a bar, fighting...really viciously. They must have been in their 60s or 70s, but it was very serious. They were trying to kill each other, I'm sure. One pulled out a sock with a hammer head in it, and started swinging at the other, hitting him about the head. Blood spurted everywhere. The other man started to run, and people held down this man with the sock. It was amazing to see these really old men fight...to the death, almost. Yes, said Olivier, that's how we must do it.
"We choreographed about four moves at a time. He would try and tear off my ear....I would try and gouge out his eyes...cut...then some more moves. And all the time we were trying not to laugh.
"But in the end, I am savaged by the dogs...a just end, far more just than the real ending: Mengele drowned I think, or something peaceful."
"the human complexities of Everyman"
There it is again, his exceptional openness, mixed with the human complexities of Everyman: it may seem incredible, but his sensational success never corroded his real self.
Rest in peace, Gregory Peck. And thanks again for the interview.
(The interview ran in The Weekend Australian, October 17/18, 1987)
Published June 19, 2003
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... in To Kill A Mockingbird
... in Roman Holiday
... in Cape Fear
... in The Big Country
... in Captain Horatio Hornblower
Gregory Peck ... on the set of The Big Country