In the last chapter of his life, Oscar-winning actor Gregory Peck tried to make up for lost time with his family. “We’d go over almost every week and play tennis and have lunch,” says son Stephen Peck, who felt gratified that his father built a strong relationship with his grandson Ethan. “I wanted my son to know his grandpa, and he did. They got along really well.”

Much like the characters he played, Gregory “was always viewed as a gentleman, and he was a gentleman,” Stephen, his second eldest of five children, tells Closer exclusively. “He came from a generation that took their careers seriously and took that into their personal life — they didn’t want to be seen doing anything stupid.”

Born in San Diego, Gregory discovered acting in college and spent time on the New York stage before heading west to Hollywood. His star rose as a dramatic actor in the 1940s — his role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound made women swoon — but he also sought out films that were thought-provoking. “He liked playing a part with real conviction, that could potentially have an impact on people,” says Stephen, pointing to Gentleman’s Agreement, in which his father played a reporter who posed as a Jewish man to expose bigotry at a time when antisemitism wasn’t discussed. “Some of the studio heads advised him not to do it, but he did it anyway,” Stephen says. Controversial in its day, the movie became a hit, and the role landed Gregory an Oscar nomination in 1948.

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A little more than a decade later, the part of Atticus Finch, the Southern lawyer who defends a wrongly accused Black man in To Kill a Mockingbird, would hit even closer to home. “He fit so well into that character because those were really his highest beliefs. He was a very moral person, believed deeply in social justice and was very compassionate and kind with people,” says Stephen. “He really didn’t have to stretch very far to be comfortable in that role. He said he was grateful every day that that script landed in his lap.”

A Hard Balance

As a father, Gregory strived to teach his children the same way Atticus tried to guide his daughter, Scout, but the actor’s divorce from Greta, his first wife and the mother of his three eldest children, made it difficult. He wed French journalist Veronique Passani in 1955, and the couple had two children together. “He was a good father, although he was gone a lot of the time, and for a kid that’s always a challenge,” admits Stephen. “When he was there, he was present and was a good listener.”

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But he couldn’t be there all the time. His greatest sorrow occurred in 1975 when his eldest son, Jonathan, committed suicide at age 31 while the actor vacationed in France. “The if that haunts me is that if I had been here in Los Angeles, he would most certainly have called me,” said Gregory, who took a two-year hiatus from acting after the tragedy. “My regret, that I’ll live with for the rest of my life, is that I was in France instead of California.”

In his later years, Gregory strived to create a closer union between his first and second families. “My children are the most rewarding part of my life,” he said. “Movies are a sideline.”

Stephen noted that his father, who had also been a child of divorce, “had a real appreciation for family. He liked bringing us together. He wanted us to all be one big happy family.”

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