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Gregory Peck conveyed courage of his convictions as he bravely tackled challenging roles

Gregory Peck died peacefully in his sleep Wednesday night, the week after his famous character Atticus Finch from "To Kill a Mockingbird" was named by the Ameri-can Film Institute as the greatest movie hero of all time. The veteran star, who won an Oscar for that performance and was nominated for four others, was 87. His wife, Veronique, was holding his hand when he died, family spokesman Monroe Friedman told the Associated Press: "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.

"He seemed somewhat frail when I saw him last, at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000, when he attended the glittering annual benefit for AmFAR, the AIDS charity. He and Veronique, a French journalist who became his second wife in 1954, sat near Elizabeth Taylor and greeted friends and admirers with the same quiet courtesy he brought to the role of Atticus Finch.

A star during five decades, the tall, ruggedly handsome actor was also a Hollywood leader off-screen, as the president of the Motion Picture Academy and the first chairman of the AFI. He was a liberal activist who produced a film opposing the Vietnam War in 1972, four years after Presi-dent Lyndon B. Johnson awarded him the Medal of Freedom.

It was as the courtly, righteous small-town lawyer in "To Kill a Mockingbird" that Mr. Peck found the role of a lifetime. Released in 1962, set in Alabama in 1932, it ranks 35th on the Internet Movie Database's vote for the best films of all time. Atticus Finch is a lawyer picked to defend a black man accused of raping a poor white girl, and he stands up against the racist fury of the town in crafting his defense--while at the same time leaving indelible memories for his daughter Scout and her brother Jem.

Oddly enough, his very first role as an actor was one he would return to in one of his most famous movies. While he was an English major at the University of California at Berkeley, he was recruited by a campus theater to play Captain Ahab in "Moby Dick."

"I wasn't any good," he told critic Bob Thomas some 50 years later, "but I ended up doing five plays my last year in college.

"After graduating, he headed for Broadway to try his luck as an actor, broke into Hollywood in 1944 and was a great star almost from the first, winning four Oscar nominations for best actor in five years, for "Keys of the Kingdom" (1944), "The Yearling" (1946), "Gentleman's Agreement" (1947) and "Twelve O'Clock High" (1949). In 1956, director John Huston cast him once again as Ahab in "Moby Dick."

"The movie was not entirely successful--maybe the novel resisted adaptation--but it became a hit, and one of his most famous roles, not least because he insisted on doing some of his stunts himself and was nearly drowned while strapped to a prop whale that held him too long underwater. Fittingly, he rounded out his career in the Melville classic; his final role came in a 1998 TV version of "Moby Dick," where he played Father Mapple, the preacher who paints a fearsome portrait of the deep in a sermon.

Mr. Peck's last leading role in a movie was in "Old Gringo" (1989), where Yankee spinster Jane Fonda travels to Mexico and meets a mysterious stranger (Peck) she doesn't realize is Ambrose Bierce, an author thought to have died years earlier.One of the films that he was proudest of was "Gentleman's Agreement" (1947), a pioneering attack on anti-Semitism. Hollywood had traditionally been reluctant to tackle the issue, and Mr. Peck was warned that his stature as a movie hero could be endangered by playing the role of an investigative reporter who poses as a Jew, but he went ahead anyway. The film won Oscars for director Elia Kazan and supporting actress Celeste Holm and was named best picture.

For viewers of the movie channels and home video, the four films for which Mr. Peck is probably most familiar are "To Kill a Mockingbird"; Alfred Hitchcock's "Spellbound" (1945), with Mr. Peck as the possibly sinister new head of a mental asylum with Ingrid Bergman on the staff; "Roman Holiday" (1953), opposite Audrey Hepburn, and "The Guns of Navarone" (1961). In "Roman Holiday," he and Hepburn toured the Eternal City on a Vespa, inspiring countless tourists (myself included) to do the same thing on their first visits there. In "The Guns of Navarone," he helped to establish the modern action "event" picture.

Movie fans also know him from the horror hit "The Omen" (1976), from the title role of "MacArthur" (1977) and from "The Boys From Brazil" (1978), in which he played one of his rare villains, the Nazi butcher Dr. Josef Mengele; the reviews advised Mr. Peck to stick to heroes, and indeed there was something innately courteous and upright about him that fit more easily into heroic roles than evil ones.

Gregory Peck was almost the last survivor among the great Hollywood leading men who came up in the 1940s--the era of Cary Grant, James Stewart, Robert Mitchum and Joseph Cotten, among many others. He looked like a movie star, at a time when stars were expected to; the modern trend toward quirky character-type stars like Jack Nicholson was still in the future.If Atticus Finch was his most famous and successful role, perhaps that is because Mr. Peck and Finch were very much alike in their dignity, their deep convictions, their instinctive humanity.

When he won the academy's Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1968, he said he was embarrassed to be called a humanitarian simply for doing what he believed in. But his stature was such that, like Hersholt, he is one of those few Hollywood citizens who might appropriately have an award named after him.

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