Gregory Peck: The Lost Interview
May 27, 2014
I conducted this phone interview with the great Gregory Peck on Dec. 12, 1995. He was gearing up for his cross-country show, An Evening With Gregory Peck, in which he’d screen a half-hour of film clips and then, as he told me, “spin yarns.” Peck got the idea from his good friend Cary Grant, who’d done something similar and told his fellow Hollywood legend how much he’d enjoyed the experience, getting out and meeting the public.
I spoke with Peck for just under an hour.
The tape had never been fully transcribed; the original newspaper story used perhaps five percent of the things he says in this amazingly candid interview.
After such a long career, do you feel like you’ve got nothing left to prove as an actor?
I guess you could say I’m on the sidelines now. The last thing I did was a nice little television movie with Lauren Bacall and my daughter Cecilia, called Portrait. That was early in ’93. Then I did a thing which didn’t come off too well, called Other People’s Money. And then before that it was Old Gringo. So I haven’t been working all that much lately, but then I didn’t expect to after 50 years! It’s like ‘Fifty years already, whaddaya want?’
Can you sit back in your chair and say “I just don’t need to do this any more”?
That’s an interesting question, because I got so used to using my energy in a special way, as a kind of specialist. I’m a storyteller on film, is what I am. I think my main interest was usually – I think always – directed toward the story as a whole. Beginning, middle, end. And how I would fit into it, and further it. And hold the audience’s attention.
That was my craft, and I did it for a long time. Do I miss it? No, I have a lot of things to do, a lot of things that interest me. What would interest me would be to make another outstanding film, another very, very good film. I don’t say a work of art, but a very, very good film. That would be a challenge, and that would be fun.
So many films … can you remember something about every one of them, or is it all kind of a blur? If I said, for example, Only the Valiant.
That one is on the negative side. That’s probably the worst film I ever made. Although it’s negative, I think it’s sort of funny at the same time … so I will tell it to you. At that time, I had some commitments with David O. Selznick. I was never under exclusive contract to anybody; I sort of parceled myself out here and there. I was a freelance.
David had a commitment for a picture, and the contract said he was to pay me $65,000. It sounds like small potatoes today; people who are in one or two hits are suddenly getting seven million. But those were different times.
Suddenly I got a call from his number one aide-de-camp, a fellow named Danny O’Shea, who said “Greg, you’re to report to Warner Brothers next Tuesday for costume fittings for a Western they’re making there.” And I said “What do you mean, Danny, I haven’t read it. I have to read this. This is very sudden.”
He said “Look Greg, David is a little short on cash. He has sold you to Warners for $150,000.” I said “David Selznick is that short on cash?” He said “I’m giving it to you straight, kid.” I called my lawyer, he said “Well, you’ve got a contract …”
Everybody was surprised. David avoided me. And I went and made the damn thing. And the crowning insult was, when I went to the wardrobe fittings, I was a cavalry man. It was an Indian-fighting picture. They had pants and a shirt and a hat, boots, ready for me. And as I was pulling on the pants, I saw somebody’s name inside. And it was “Rod Cameron.” He was an old-time leading man, sort of a Western type. Big tall guy. Mostly he played tough guys, and he played in Westerns.
So I wore a second-hand wardrobe. And well, that’s enough about the negative!
How did you manage to avoid becoming a studio player? You did move around quite a bit. You remained a free agent.
Well, I was. It started because I was on Broadway. I had three shows on Broadway, and once I calculated about 30 shows, either summer stock or road companies before that. And so they began to come backstage, during my first Broadway show. It was called The Morning Star by Emlyn Williams. And it was a big-time production. It didn’t last very long, just a couple of months, but it was a top-notch Broadway production.
So I began to get movie offers, and they were all for exclusive, seven-year deals. Well, a fella came back whose name was Casey Robinson. He was breaking away from Warner Brothers to go on his own. I told him my philosophy of remaining my own boss, so to speak, and having time to come back to the theater. And he said “I’ll make a one-picture deal with you.” And we did. So I ran out one summer, I think it was ’43 or ‘44, and made that picture in 10 weeks. And went back and did another play. Then there were more offers.
I had a famous agent named Leland Hayward. And I said “no exclusive contracts.” He brought me in, at his expense, and we made the rounds of the studios. The story that I’ve told before – sorry if you’ve already heard it – is that he took me to L.B. Mayer. We went to L.B. Mayer’s office, which was the absolute prototype of a mogul’s office: It was all white, and it was immense. White carpet, and a huge desk, and there was the great man. And he said “I want to put you in my family of stars. And I want you to rise to the very top. I can see you as the brightest star of MGM!”
Well, that was a mouthful, because they had Clark Gable, and Robert Taylor and Spencer Tracy, and Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, they had a whole bunch of people under contract there.
And I thought that was a little bit of an overkill. I said “Mr. Mayer, I would certainly like to make some pictures here. It would be an honor. But I want to go back to the theater from time to time, and I don’t want to be tied up exclusively.”
He went again into his pitch. He would look after me and select my roles, and guide my publicity, and nurture me. He really laid it on thick, like for 15 minutes! He boasted about MGM’s great history, and roster of stars, he talked about Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney and all the glory of MGM. And I said “I’m just terribly impressed, Mr. Mayer, but I’m determined not to sign a long-term exclusive contract.”
And, believe or not he started to cry. I couldn’t believe my eyes! Tears came down his face, and he said “Please think it over. Think carefully. You may be making a terrible mistake.” The tears were dropping off his chin. Really a comic but strange, bizarre scene. So I said “Mr. Mayer, thank you very much, I hope you’ll ask me over to make a picture sometime.”
And with that, he mopped his face, he picked up his phone and called his secretary and started talking business to her, and he ignored us. So Leland Hayward and I, we sorta backed out of the room. And when we got outside the door I said to Leland “Boy oh boy, that was something, to see a man like that cry.”
He said “Oh, he does that all the time.”