It was a Sunday night, in either the fall of 1995 or the spring of 1996. At the moment I can’t remember which semester it was. Either way, it was my last year at grad school – that much I do remember.
I had some pretty cool celebrity experiences in my time at UT. The year before, I’d met the Dave Matthews Band, just a few months before they became THE DAVE MATTHEWS BAND. The next fall, I saw Marvin Hamlisch perform at Bass Concert Hall (and trust me, he was a Consummate Showman). And in the spring, I saw Jeff Buckley at Tower Records (if I only knew…).
And then there was the night I’m writing about today.
When UT announced that Bass Concert Hall would be hosting “A Conversation with Gregory Peck,” I didn’t hesitate to buy my ticket. Peck was one of the last giants of Old Hollywood. In his own way, he was a man of style and grace (seriously, just look at the man), intelligence and integrity, and most of all nobility. For so many of us, the man IS Atticus Finch, but in that long and glorious career, he was so much more.
I had the foresight to buy my seat early, because when I arrived that evening, the place was packed (and we’re talking about a couple of thousand seats there). For all the cliches that go with the word, there really was a kind of electricity in the air. How often do you get to bask in the presence of cinema royalty?
Of course, the show began with a montage of highlights from Peck’s career. All the obvious films were represented – To Kill a Mockingbird, Roman Holiday, a fair number of war films and Westerns – but the clips also revealed a lighter side that you always knew was there, including a variety show appearance that left the whole crowd laughing together. And there was a big moment from MacArthur: Peck as the Supreme Allied Commander, marching ashore as Jerry Goldsmith’s majestic score plays him on, keeping that famous promise of “I shall return.”
Then the real Gregory Peck walked onstage. And after the standing ovation, he introduced an outtake of that same scene, in which Peck trips over himself and falls in the water almost immediately upon exiting the boat. (To this day, I wish I could see THAT clip set to Goldsmith.)
And it only got better from there.
Though it was billed as a “conversation” – and there was some Q&A at the end – we were all really there just to listen as Peck told the stories of his life and career. And he told them with his typical wit and grace, and a lot of good humor (his story of being stuck on Moby Dick – both the film and its mechanical whale – still cracks me up).
One thing that I still remember so strongly was that Peck frequently singled out his wife, who was there with us that night. Veronique seemed rather shy about the attention, but it was clear that the two genuinely loved each other.
There’s often a vast difference between the legend and the man. But that night, I realized that Gregory Peck was both. He was first a man, but a man of great talent, great passion, and most of all great gratitude. And when he turned those gifts to acting, they made him a legend.
To put it another way, we always hope the people we admire are truly admirable. And Gregory Peck was.
I hadn’t thought about that night in so long. And I don’t even know why it came back to me yesterday. But looking back, I realize that was one of the experience that defined me and shaped me for the better. And I’m grateful for its influence.
Thank you, Gregory Peck.
And thank you, readers, for letting me share my story of his stories. Until next time…