Gregory Peck, as I Knew Him
by Norman O. Olsen, 3/12/2016
I went to a wonderful event called A Conversation with Gregory Peck at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Tampa, Florida in the late 1990’s. Introducing Greg to the packed audience was George Steinbrenner. During the course of relating humorous and significant events in his life, a little girl in the third row raised her hand and at his invitation, asked a question. In the process of answering the question, George Steinbrenner was fidgety and wanted him to conclude his gentle remarks by trying to interrupt what he was saying to this little girl and move forward with the program. Greg quietly turned toward Steinbrenner and said, “ Would you please excuse us, we are having a conversation.
This kind of behavior was typical of Gregory Peck’s demeanor. He was always standing up for the little person, always treating people, who were less fortunate than he, as kind and gentle as he knew how.
In a similar incident, I was working for Greg as the Marine Director on a film he was producing called “The Dove.” It is a story of a 16-year-old boy, Robin Lee Graham, who sails around the world alone, a true story featured in National Geographic back in the 1960’s. Greg was intrigued with the accomplishments of such a young person and wanted to show the world that young people were capable of being responsible, resourceful and did not fear adversity.
There was a problem about the release of some equipment from bond and it required Greg and I to go together to the office of the Minister of Finance in the city of Suva on the island of Fiji in the South Pacific. As we approached City Hall, you could see it was known we were coming because the City Hall office corridor was lined with secretaries each with pad and pencil dressed mostly in saris, beautiful Fijian women who wanted Greg’s autograph.
As he walked down the hall to the Minister of Finance’s office, there were about 15 secretaries and office workers waiting for his autograph. He took time to talk to each one, asking their name and passed the time of day with them in some fashion. I patiently waited at his elbow listening and learned how to treat people, the Gregory Peck way. It took probably 20 to 30 minutes to get down the hall to the Minister’s office but it was more typical than not of his natural behavior.
Quite often when we traveled together and exited his private car, someone on the sidewalk would say, Greg, how are you?, as if he had just been in touch with him, but most likely remembering him on his television screen at home last evening. He would stop and smile, as if they were old friends, and ask, “How are you?” Veronique, his lovely wife would nudge me with her elbow and say, “We will give him two minutes.” At the end of two minutes Veronique would remind Greg that we have an appointment to keep and he would excuse himself, letting the person know that it was nice to see him. He would ease out of the person’s space and on to the next appointment.
I often admired this characteristic and practiced it myself where it fit in with what I was doing. In this modern world, I think it is called bucket filling, which is a characteristic of giving positive thoughts to others and you get positive thoughts back. Greg was a master of this wonderful kindness.
In the making of the Dove Film, my principal assignment was to take the core film unit offshore in the traditional gale force winds that blew off Perth, which is on the West Coast of Australia in the Indian Ocean. In August, which is Western Australia’s wintertime, there is a fresh gale every seven days, blowing 40 to 70 Knots.
To do this, we were exposed to very strong winds to get out to sea, far enough so no sign of land was evident when the cameras panned. It was, therefore, necessary to travel perhaps five or ten miles, so I picked a small man-made harbor called Yanchep, Sun City that belonged to Alan Bond (an Australian 12 meter America’s Cup challenger) who helped me with the special equipment. His harbor had a small entrance but we were able to get in and out of it quickly in rough weather with a 65 foot trawler to where the ocean depth was about 2000 feet with enormous seas. The captain of the boat I chartered was competing with many others to be the boat that was to go out and film the rough weather scenes for The Dove.
When we exited the harbor mouth, the Lighthouse Service showed up (Australian version of US Coast Guard) and said that we were not licensed to go to sea further than 50 miles out from Perth and we were 52 miles from Perth in Yanchep, Sun City. Considering the shelter of the harbor, however, I felt it was a good choice. It was probably one of the other charter boat captains competing for the job, who called the Lighthouse Service to complain that we were out of compliance.
Unfortunately, the film unit was not able to film that day and we lost a day of filming or maybe $15,000 if you looked at it that way. Back in Perth, I later learned that Greg was coming in from London that evening so I sat down and wrote a personal letter to him, explaining the day’s setback for which I took full responsibility and that the boat was licensed 2 miles short of its authorized operating geography. That evening Greg came in from London and went to dinner with Charles Jarot, the Dove’s film director. But upon retiring, the hotel desk clerk gave Greg my hand written letter.
The next morning I got a call from the front desk saying that Mr. Peck would like me to come up for coffee in his room, it never even entered my mind that he might be firing me for making such an expensive mistake. I knocked on his hotel room door and Veronique ushered me in. Greg was sitting at a table in his dressing gown with a cup of coffee and invited me to sit down and talk. I poured myself some coffee and sat down at the table. He looked over at me, with sort of a half-smile and said, I guess you and I have a lot to talk about that does not even need discussing. I understand that you chartered a new camera boat and we will be filming out of Rottnest Island? I said, yes, that’s my recovery operation plan. Greg said he heard that the film crew liked my new choice. Greg thought a moment and said, You know what really bothers me? I spent a day in London looking for a wig for Joe Bottoms to wear so he would look more like Robin Lee Graham at that stage of his journey in sailing around the world and guess what? The first thing they do was to lose it in the high winds offshore! That really ticked me off. With that he asked if I would like some more coffee. I sat there in awe of how gracious this great man was, to be so kind to someone who made a mistake and a costly one at that. Once, when he was explaining his reason for doing something to me, he told me that he was two people, himself, and then, there is Gregory Peck. He said, And I manage Gregory Peck. I repeated that over and over to myself and thought, what a brilliant remark! One final story. Greg remembered me telling him that when the audience watched the rough weather scenes in The Dove, I hope they would be reminded of the rough weather scenes in the 1937 film, Captains Courageous. That would make me very happy, I told him. Captains Courageous is the story of a Bluenose schooner racing another schooner in very rough seas, carrying a large load of fish back to it’s home port. It starred Lionel Barrymore, Spencer Tracy, and Freddie Bartholomew. The Dove opened in London in the middle 1970’s and about two weeks later, I received an envelope in the mail at my apartment in Chicago that was addressed in Greg’s handwriting. I opened it up to find a clipping from the London Times. The article was written by a film critic reporting on The Dove’s opening night and his comment was underlined with Greg’s handwritten notation. The London Times critic commented that the strong wind and rough water sailing scenes were the best since Captains Courageous. Greg wrote, I thought you would like to see this.
As you can see, there was a thoughtful strain that ran through this wonderful man. He was a role model for me over these many years. How fortunate we are to celebrate Gregory Peck on this One Hundredth Anniversary of him being in our hearts and minds.
Gregory Peck, as I Knew Him