Gregory Peck Dead at 87

June 12, 2003 -- Oscar-winning actor Gregory Peck, star of Roman Holiday and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, has died, just just days after his character in To Kill a Mockingbird was voted the greatest hero in Hollywood history. He was 87.

Peck brought quiet strength and dignity to so many larger-than-life roles, but he was probably best known for his 1962's To Kill a Mockingbird. He won a best actor Oscar for his portrayal of Atticus Finch, a genteel Southern lawyer defending a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman.

Peck died overnight at his Los Angeles home, with his wife, Veronique, at his side, said family spokesman Monroe Friedman.

"She told me very briefly that he died peacefully. She was with him, holding his hand, and he just went to sleep. He had just been getting older and more fragile. He wasn't really ill. He just sort of ran his course and died of old age," Friedman said.

On Monday, the American Film Institute announced that Peck's turn as Atticus Finch had earned him the top spot on the group's list of top 100 movie heroes. He edged out Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones from Raiders of the Lost Ark and Sean Connery's James Bond from Dr. No, who were second and third on the list.

Tall, Dark and Handsome Activist

Peck, a five-time Oscar nominee, had been known as an activist and served as a producer of Mockingbird. He frequently parleyed his star power to support progressive movies, and the film, adapted from Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, became a milestone in the civil rights movement.

"There's a lot of ugly things in this world, son," Peck says as Atticus Finch. "I wish I could keep 'em all away from you. That's never possible."

In another daring career move, Peck starred in Gentlemen's Agreement, one of the first films to dealt with anti-Semitism. He received an Academy Award nomination for his role as a reporter who pretends to be Jewish in order to expose bigotry.

Peck always seemed to be playing the tall, dark and handsome good guy who battled adversity or confronted a moral dilemma. In The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, he played a World War II vet trying to provide for his wife and children as he grapples with ethical questions and wartime memories.

He starred in countless Westerns and war movies, including Twelve O'Clock High, The Gunfighter and The Guns of Navarone.

He proved himself in comedy, most notably working with Audrey Hepburn in her film debut, Roman Holiday. Later in life he also tried his hand in darker films, playing the notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele in The Boys From Brazil, and the adoptive father of the Antichrist in The Omen.

Still, Peck always seemed to be playing the role of hero off-screen, too. He served as chairman of the American Cancer Society and was a charter member of the National Council of the Arts. In 1968, Lyndon Johnson presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award.

"I'm not a do-gooder," he insisted after learning that he was the recipient of the 1967 Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, a special Academy Award. "It embarrassed me to be classified as a humanitarian. I simply take part in activities that I believe in."

In 1980, when Chrysler teetered with corporate ruin and 600,000 auto workers feared losing their jobs, Peck even volunteered to be an unpaid TV pitchman.

War, Politics and a Sense of Humor

In private life, Peck avoided controversy. He and his first wife, Greta, divorced in 1955 after 13 years of marriage. They had three children. The oldest, Jonathan, committed suicide at the age of 30. Peck had two children from his second marriage, to French journalist Veronique Passani.

Born in La Jolla, Calif., Eldred Gregory Peck was a pre-med student at the University of California, Berkeley, when he tried acting. His parents had divorced when he was only 5 and he was sent to live with his grandmother. He later credited her for instilling in him his love of movies.

After a short stint on the Broadway stage, he arrived in Hollywood and quickly established himself as a star, receiving a 1946 Oscar nomination for his second film, The Keys of the Kingdom.. He earned four Oscar nominations in his first five years in Hollywood.

A back injury prevented Peck from serving in the military in World War II. But in his later years, Peck was almost drafted — to run for political office. The political success of another actor, Ronald Reagan, prompted former California Gov. Pat Brown to joke, "If they're going to run actors for governor, maybe the Democrats should have run Greg Peck."

"Vote for Peck" T-shirts and buttons are now collector's items.

"I never gave a thought to running," Peck said. "Not even in my heart of hearts do I have an ambition to do that."