At the movies · Home life · Memories

Gregory Peck and my father

If you grew up watching Hollywood films from the 1950s and 60s, as I did, you will be familiar with the actor Gregory Peck. You might have seen him in any or all of the following: “The Guns of Navarone”, “To Kill a Mockingbird” (for which he won an Oscar, as the lawyer Atticus Finch), “The Gunfighter” and “Roman Holiday” (alongside Audrey Hepburn, who won an Oscar for her performance).

He continued to star in major features during the 1970s, such as “The Boys from Brazil” and “The Omen”. I was too young to see the latter at the cinema when it came out, but, as with all the films mentioned in this piece so far, I caught it on TV some years after its theatrical release. Of the half-dozen films listed above, the only one that I saw on the big screen was “The Guns of Navarone”, revived at some point in the 10 years after it was made. It gets a mention in this brief memory about the Hammersmith Odeon, which I have linked to before, and which mentions the two things my father usually did when he took us to the cinema.

All of this came to mind last weekend while watching “The Big Country”, another great Gregory Peck film, on BBC2. I also recalled the last time I saw it all the way through, in a bar in Spain in the early 1980s. It was my first visit to the country. My brother was coming to the end of his year there, as part of his degree course. We hadn’t planned to spend the whole 160 minutes’ running time watching events unfold, although there was every chance that we would be spending three hours (including ad-breaks) in a bar somewhere. The movie was dubbed into Spanish, but I already understood enough of the language to follow what was going on, and my brother could translate any bits that were beyond me.

Last Sunday afternoon I watched “The Big Country” the modern way (and not dubbed into Spanish), pausing live TV and rewinding to hear favourite lines, such as this exchange between the characters played by Chuck (“The Rifleman”) Connors and  Burl Ives as his onscreen father:

“You want me, Pa?”
“Before you was born I did.”

There is major trouble between father and son before the end of the film. Ives won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role, though he could just as easily have won it for playing Big Daddy in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, released the same year. If you’re in the UK, you can catch “The Big Country” for another three days (until Sunday 21 June) on the iPlayer, here.  I recommend it.

My 15-year-old son was in the room most of the time the film was playing, though not paying as much attention to it as I was. A week earlier we had watched “Guys and Dolls” together, also when it was shown live on BBC2. It makes a change from watching repeats of “The Tipping Point” and “The Chase”. Both films feature great performances by Jean Simmons (who never won an acting Oscar). As far as I know, my son had never seen Gregory Peck onscreen before. While telling him most of the things that have been outlined in this piece so far (the films that Peck starred in, which of them won Oscars, how I saw “The Big Country” in Spain) I remembered what my father told me about the actor’s stay in Ireland in the 1950s.

Peck played Captain Ahab in John Huston’s 1956 film of “Moby Dick”, filmed off the south coast of Ireland.  (IMDb has just informed me that it also had a screenplay by Ray Bradbury.). My father was in the Guards, stationed not far from the movie location. There was great excitement in the town at the presence of a film crew and a real live Hollywood star. Crowd management was an issue, and (as I recall it) my father spent some of his time keeping people out of sight of the cameras. Many of the women-folk were particularly taken by seeing Gregory Peck in the flesh. Maybe his Irish ancestry, and the fact that he was a Roman Catholic (two things that I have only just learnt) added to his appeal. Either way, my father told me many times of one memorable exchange with a local woman who was studying cookery and was a big fan of the actor. She said that she would like to be “casseroled” by Gregory Peck. Casseroles were not a major part of Irish cuisine in the 1950s, so my father asked for clarification. “Casseroled,” she said, “Done slowly for two hours”.




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