Gregory Peck—a versatile Western actor

The Westerns of Gregory Peck
By Henry C. Parke

Looking back 50 years to when he costarred with Gregory Peck in Billy Two Hats, Desi Arnaz Jr., son of Desi Sr. and Lucille Ball remembers, “I was raised in this business. Rock Hudson and Doris Day would walk in the door when I was a kid. Dean (Martin) and Frank (Sinatra)—he was Uncle Frank to me—so you’d figure I’d gotten used to it. But I was in awe of Gregory Peck.” Everyone was. Peck wasn’t just a wonderful actor; he looked perfect without being pretty, with piercing eyes, high cheekbones, jet-black hair, a deep and resonant voice, and a wry grin—he exuded decency and confidence without arrogance.

If an actor is lucky enough to have one great film role, his fame can go on generations after his passing. Because every year middle schoolers are shown To Kill a Mockingbird, millions of kids have seen Gregory Peck in his Oscar-earning performance as lawyer Atticus Finch. And that’s an excellent excuse to show them more—from psychiatrist Ingrid Bergman’s haunted patient in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, to the reporter romancing royal runaway Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. And that doesn’t even touch on his Westerns—Peck made a dozen, many of them excellent.

A leading man from his very first movie, 1944’s Days of Glory, two years later he made his first Western, more of a Southeastern, being set in post-Civil War Florida. The Yearling, from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is a tear-jerking classic. Claude Jarmon Jr. plays a lonely 11-year-old who adopts a baby fawn, Peck is his poor but noble farmer father, and Jane Wyman is his permanently disappointed mother. A good man but not a goody-two-shoes, Peck gets the best of Forrest Tucker, trading a worthless hunting dog for Tucker’s shotgun. As Gregory admits to his son, “My words was straight, but my intentions was as crooked as the Ocklawaha River.” It garnered him the second of his five Oscar nominations.

That same year, producer David O. Selznick took advantage of Peck’s looks and charm to make him the cad Lewt, whom “half-breed” Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones) can’t resist in Duel in the Sun, Selznick’s attempt to make a Western epic as big as his masterpiece, Gone with the Wind. It’s a wonderful showcase for Peck as a villain, but director King Vidor worried that they were making him too evil. He wrote, “[After] the episode in which Gregory Peck blew up a freight train, killing the engineer and fireman … [then] sang ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,’ as he rode away from the scene of destruction, nothing he could do thereafter would restore him to the good graces of the audience.” But it was the No. 3 box-office hit for 1946, and The Yearling was No. 6.

Two years later, Peck starred in his first great Western, The Yellow Sky, directed by ‘Wild’ Bill Wellman. A sort of Desperate Hours meets Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Peck’s gang robs a bank and escapes into Death Valley, barely surviving until they reach a ghost town, home to a grandpa (James Barton) and his granddaughter (Anne Baxter). When the gang deduces that the residents have struck a gold vein, there’s a power struggle, pitting Peck, who wants to steal half of the gold, versus Richard Widmark, who wants to take it all.

According to Wellman Jr., his father was concerned that with Peck’s nice-guy image (maybe he hadn’t seen Duel in the Sun), audiences wouldn’t accept Peck as tough enough to run the gang and added bits of action to harden his image—Peck’s forever kicking the others and knocking them around. When an outlaw who foolishly filled his canteen with whiskey is struggling through Death Valley, gasping, “If I don’t get me some water soon, I’m gonna fall down and die.” Peck replies, “Looks that way.” Wellman didn’t have to worry about Peck’s actual toughness: just before the shoot began, Peck broke his left ankle. Refusing a cast that might show on camera, he wore a small brace, did all of his own riding, running and fighting, only using a stuntman for one scene.

“How come I gotta run into a squirt like you everyplace I go these days?” Those are the words of frustrated Jimmy Ringo (Peck) to wannabe gunman Richard Jaeckel in Henry King’s The Gunfighter. A moment after dismissing Jaeckel, he dispatches him as well. Twenty minutes later, in another saloon, he has nearly the same discussion with Skip Homeier. Often imitated, this is the original grim yet fascinating study of a fast-draw whose reputation precedes him everywhere, making it impossible for him to settle down. He’s so patient, so slow to anger, so optimistic that it seems all-the-more tragic that the simple act of moving to another town with his wife, son, and a new name, are so beyond his reach.

In the cavalry story, Only the Valiant, Peck plays a lieutenant hated by his troops after he’s unfairly blamed for sending another officer, portrayed by Gig Young, on a dangerous mission that leads to his death. The troops are convinced he sent Young’s character to his demise out of jealousy over a woman, played by Barbara Payton—but there’s more than meets the eye there. However, the strangest character and casting in the film is Lon Chaney, Jr. as an Arab cavalryman who addresses Peck throughout as “Effendi.”

In the 1950s, Peck started his own production company, and brought Donald Hamilton’s novel, The Big Country, to his Roman Holiday director, William Wyler, suggesting they co-produce it. It’s the story of sea captain Peck, who comes to Texas to marry Carroll Baker, daughter of wealthy rancher Charles Bickford. But he will not be drawn into manhood-proving fights, or blindly side with his prospective father-in-law in battles between ranchers which, Peck’s son Carey explains, “was very like Greg in real life. He didn’t find it necessary to prove himself to anyone except himself. He simply did what he believed in.” An experienced rancher, Peck not only had a say in the casting, he also hired the wranglers and selected the horses, even casting Slim Pickens’ comic stunt horse, Dear John, as the horse he struggles to tame. Despite script problems that led to eight writers, and shooting without a finished script, the end product is remarkable, winning Burl Ives an Oscar, and providing powerful early roles for Charlton Heston and Chuck Connors.

Eight years after The Gunfighter, Peck and director Henry King would reunite for another exceptional Western, The Bravados. It’s both a revenge melodrama and a cautionary tale, with Peck hunting down the four men who robbed his ranch, killed his baby, and raped and murdered his wife. Two of them are Lee Van Cleef and Henry Silva, in exceptional and unusual performances, and Peck couldn’t be better. Like Gunfighter, it has been frequently imitated, usually by filmmakers who don’t understand the point of the film.

Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, Peck starred in How the West Was Won, The Stalking Moon, Mackenna’s Gold, Shoot Out, and in 1974, he signed on for Billy Two Hats. It was the story of a Scottish outlaw, Peck, who escapes after a botched robbery, but returns to rescue his accomplice, half-breed Desi Arnaz, Jr., from lawman Jack Warden. It was directed by Ted Kotcheff, in Israel. Arnaz remembers, “We shot outside of Tel Aviv. Then we shot in Ashkelon, Beersheba, Elot, in a place called the Valley of the Moon by the Red Sea, which looked like the Grand Canyon. Gregory Peck was one of the most extraordinary people I ever met. He was all into being the old Scottish guy; he had this thick Scottish accent. He was really method. I think he did a great job. He couldn’t have been more supportive of me.” Arnaz had to be literally supportive of Peck, once his character is wounded. “He weighs like 220 pounds. And I remember having to pick him up and carry him around. But I loved him.”

Eight years later, Peck got to fulfill a life-long dream, to play Abraham Lincoln, in the miniseries The Blue and the Gray. He told journalist Judy Flander, “Abraham Lincoln was the greatest American who has ever been. My greatest hero all my life, it’s just as simple as that. Without him it is unlikely the Union would have been preserved.”

Although he would live until age 87, and make a few more films, in 1989, at age 73, Peck made his final Western, The Old Gringo. Playing literary giant Ambrose Bierce, who, in 1913 and at age 71, abruptly disappeared while revisiting Civil War battlefields; the movie suggests that he went, incognito, to Mexico, and joined in Pancho Villa’s Revolution. We’ll never know if it was true, but it’s a satisfyingly romantic way for Bierce to go out, and not a bad way for Peck to go out as well.

About Henry C. Parke

Henry’s new book, The Greatest Westerns Ever Made, and the People Who Made Them, published by TwoDot, is now available. The Brooklyn-born, L.A.-based writer has contributed articles to the INSP blog since 2016, been Film Editor for True West since 2015, and has written Henry’s “Western Round-up,” the online report on Western film production, since 2010. His screenwriting credits include Speedtrap(1977) and Double Cross (1994). He’s the first writer welcomed into the Western Writers of America for his work in electronic media. He’s done audio commentary on nearly thirty Spaghetti and domestic Westerns.