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San Diego Acting Legend Gregory Peck Gets a Stamp

The nod to a career of one of Hollywood's greatest screen stars

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The late acting legend Gregory Peck had won an Oscar. He was named the greatest screen hero of all time by the American Film Institute and they named him 12th biggest male star of all time. The long time La Jolla native even cofounded the La Jolla Playhouse. Now he’s accomplished something only 16 other actors have. He got his mug on a stamp.

The Postal Service’s Legends of Hollywood series added his Atticus Finch lawyer, from 1962s To Kill a Mockingbird, to their Forever stamp.

Stamps are a really sticky issue (no pun intended). When Queen singer Freddie Mercury was put on a stamp in the UK, a lot of people complained that he didn’t represent the type of character that should appear on postage. Those same complaints came when Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe were put on stamps in America; since they had “reputations,” it went against the type of people that were initially put on stamps – former heads of state, literary figures, etc. After hundreds and thousands of Mercury stamps were printed, they ended up not being distributed. That’s because drummer Roger Taylor was seen in the background, and no living person is allowed to be shown on a stamp (unless, of course, it’s the real Queen).

There are lots of rules with stamps.

Gregory Peck had his share of controversy, but it was a bit on the mild side. He was involved in some anti-war protests, and workers’ rights protests. On screen and off, he was always known as a real class act. He got an Oscar nomination for The Keys of the Kingdom in 1944 and a few years later, he got another nomination (for a Golden Globe and Oscar) for The Yearling. He did his first classic novel on the big screen -- Moby Dick in the mid-50s. Peck was there when Audrey Hepburn made her film debut in Roman Holiday. After four Oscar nominations, he got the win with his second classic novel brought to the big screen – To Kill a Mocking Bird. It’s the role that also won him a place on the stamp.

This Harper Lee novel dealt with a racially divided town in Alabama. Peck’s character defends a young black man accused of raping a white woman. Peck is one of those rare actors that was in both the original (in 1962) and remake of a film (1991) with Cape Fear (Martin Scorsese used a few of the actors from the original). In 1967 – the Summer of Love – the Academy showed Peck more love, awarding him the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. He also got a U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969.

Eldred Gregory Peck (a name that really fits his deep voice), was born in San Diego. His dad was a chemist and pharmacist in La Jolla. His parents divorced when he was 6-years-old and he spent a few years being raised by his grandmother. When he was 10, he made his first trip to the city that would steal him from us – Los Angeles. It was to attend a military school. His grandmother died while he was there and it was back to San Diego, to be raised by his father.

He attended San Diego High School, and followed that with a year at San Diego State Teacher’s College (as SDSU was known then). He was on the track team and took his first theatre courses. After a year, he went to Berkeley. He jumped from the track team to rowing on crew.

He also drove a truck for a short time.

San Diegan Wayne Ballinger, who managed movie theatres locally for years, told me “When we had a premiere of The Omen in 1976, he stood around signing autographs for hours afterwards. I told him my dad was his roommate at Berkley, but wasn’t sure how much of that he would remember. He seemed so excited, and asked me all about my father. Since he hadn’t told me much about Peck and his college days, I was surprised when Peck informed me that they were not only roommates, but that they worked as janitors for the building, in order to live there for free.”

At Berkeley, an acting coach decided the 6’3” student would be perfect for the theater. He appeared in a handful of plays his senior year (in the late 90s, he would donate $25,000 to the Berkeley crew in honor of his coach Ky Ebright). Peck picked up his BA in English and headed to the Big Apple. He got into TV with NBC, but that was merely as a tour guide.

He had the horrible luck of having his first play open in San Francisco, a week before the attack on Pearl Harbor. His luck changed when he got a lot of acting gigs, since he was exempt from the military due to a back injury he got during dance and movement lessons for his acting training.

Hollywood, which had a history of changing actors names and stories, decided that it would sound cooler to say he hurt his back rowing in college. Peck was never shy about correcting that story in numerous interviews. In the late 40s, Peck returned to San Diego and co-founded The La Jolla Playhouse with Dorothy McGuire and Mel Ferrer.

Peck did many popular films, but I think it’s more interesting to list some of the credits you don’t hear as much about. He was a member of the National Council on the Arts in the mid ‘60s. He was the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1967, and from 1967 until 1969, the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the American Film Institute. He was Chairman of the Motion Picture and Television Relief Fund in 1971, and National Chairman of the American Cancer Society in 1966. He got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (6100 Hollywood Boulevard). In 2005, the star was stolen (it’s been replaced).

Peck had retired from acting years before his death in 2003, but rumor has it – he was going to take the role as the grandfather in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In a very touching ceremony, his eulogy was read by Brock Peters, whose character Peck defended in To Kill a Mockingbird. Peters would pass away two years later. It would’ve been nice to have seen Peters with Peck on that stamp (no African-American actor has been on a stamp).

And, the only other Hollywood duo’s that appeared together on stamps are Clark Gable/Vivien Leigh (Gone with the Wind) and Judy Garland/Toto (The Wizard of Oz).

Some of the other Hollywood stars to have gone from the big screen, to the small square on envelopes, include James Dean, Alfred Hitchcock, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Lucille Ball, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Judy Garland, James Stewart, Gary Cooper, Bob Hope, and Grace Kelly. A few years ago the Postal Service even released a “Canadians in Hollywood” series, which had four actors, including Raymond Burr and Norma Shearer.

On April 28, the post office held a ceremony to celebrate the first day of issue for the stamp commemorating Gregory Peck.