Gregory Peck bows in a presidential TV debut
New York — Captain Ahab of ''Moby Dick'' has finally arrived on television as Abraham Lincoln.
That's a cryptic way of saying that Gregory Peck, veteran of more than 50 motion pictures, including ''Moby Dick,'' has chosen to portray Abraham Lincoln in his dramatic television debut: ''The Blue and the Gray'' (CBS, Nov. 14, 16, 17).
''The greatest of American heroes'' is the way Mr. Peck describes Abraham Lincoln. ''My part is just a cameo,'' he explains. ''In eight hours, I'm in there only 25 minutes. Long enough to recite the Gettysburg address, though.''
We are chatting in his hotel suite. He loosens his tie and makes himself comfortable in shirt sleeves. The Gregory Peck who was once a tall, slim young man has grown into a tall, slim distinguished man, still almost as lithe as he was in his first starring role in ''Keys of the Kingdom'' more than 40 years ago.
He is quiet and thoughtful, answering questions carefully in almost a whisper , often leaning toward the interviewer and the tape recorder to make certain, professional that he is, that the machine is picking up his familiar voice.
Peck has just returned from filming a TV miniseries in Europe in which he plays a priest who saved Jews during World War II. Why is he doing television now, after having refused for so many years?
''They were the best scripts offered me. Some of the movies offered were terrible. I didn't want to use up all that energy for something I knew wouldn't turn out well. That's humiliating. I think these television things have a better chance of amounting to something. The old line of demarcation between film and film for television is disappearing. A vast part of the audience is sitting home watching TV, so why should I be a snob and make a bad feature film rather than a good TV show? I just decided to go along with the times.''
Has Lincoln always been of special interest to him?
''Isn't Lincoln of special interest to everybody?'' he says, and laughs.
''I can't see any other candidate for the Greatest American Who Ever Lived. I have an idea that most people would agree with me.'' he adds. ''He did preserve the Union. It could have been splintered. Not only into a Confederacy and the Northern states, but into the Southwest, a religious kind of country where the Mormons ruled. We could have ended up like the Balkans, with five or six countries on this continent.
''Lincoln knew that; he foresaw that. He had that vision. And he prevailed against a lot of opposition. He did it with the sheer force of intellect and persuasion and character.
''We all know what a lovable figure he was. Physically homely, and yet somehow with a beautiful expression, according to all I've read. He loved funny stories and homely anecdotes and even a gamy story now and then for relaxation.''
Peck researched Lincoln (he has a collection of books on him) and read several Civil War histories to prepare for this role. ''I've always been interested in the man, not just with the idea of playing him. He just fascinates me.
''However,'' he says, ''I guess I have always wanted to play Lincoln. But the opportunity never really presented itself until now.''
Does he use lots of makeup to play Lincoln?
''That's a latex nose and latex appliances to give those deep furrows. And a latex lower lip, because Lincoln had rather a thin lip. The beard is false, of course. And then I wore special cupped blue contact lenses. . . .''
Reciting the Gettysburg address presented some problems for Peck: ''Trying to get beyond a recitation, get to the meaning of the words was difficult. . . .
''There are some funny things about the Gettysburg address. Even though it is revered in our history, there are many faults in its composition. You wouldn't use the word 'dedicated' seven times in a short piece, but Lincoln did. . . . That's a lot of dedication.
'It's peculiar, isn't it? But it works, it works.
''Of course, we all know that he didn't write the address on the back of an envelope riding to Gettysburg as they used to teach in schools. He had begun it 10 days before in the White House and worked it over several times. But, it certainly doesn't look as if it was ever proofread, because there are some awkward phrases there. The repetition of that word 'dedicate' just about drove me crazy in trying not to sound as if I had memorized it or practiced it.''
Peck also says he had to ask himself: ''Why is this little piece of prose regarded by some as the supreme utterance of any American leader so far? Why is it so full of meaning?
''Well, Lincoln was genuinely distressed and wounded by the terrible casualty lists of the Civil War, which he brought on. It was he who decided that the Union had to be preserved. That meant war. He took that burden on himself.
''It bothered him terribly - he was a man of flesh and blood, of compassion. He was for real. He was so gentle. But that doesn't mean he didn't have the determination and also the shrewdness of a politician. He had to prevail.
''They say that a people needs heroes. I believe that is true. And I believe Abraham Lincoln was a genuine hero. While he had character flaws and weaknesses and failures, in the long run he did not have feet of clay.''
Has Mr. Peck ever been asked to run for office?
''Yes. In 1964 I campaigned for Pat Brown for governor against Richard Nixon. We won. Then in 1968 we campaigned again against Ronald Reagan for governor. And we lost. Pat Brown said ruefully to the press, 'Maybe the Democrats should have run Gregory Peck against Reagan. Peck might have beat him.' It was a joke about actors selling themselves on TV. The implication was that Reagan was a lightweight, but was able to sell himself on TV, and that therefore the Democrats should have run another lightweight, namely me.
''Well, I began getting calls from all over the country, asking me to run. I said no then, and I said no every time I have been asked. I never had the slightest inclination to run.''
Peck has been married for the past 27 years to Veronique Passani, a French journalist whom he met when she interviewed him. His eyes glow with pleasure as he tells that story.
''Veronique was doing personality pieces for France-Soir. She interviewed me when I was going through Paris on my way to Rome to shoot 'Roman Holiday.'
''When I got back to Paris I remembered that attractive journalist and called her at France-Soir. I had to say who I was. Then, I heard over the amplifier 'Mademoiselle Passani, c'est Monsieur Gregory Peck sur le telephone.' All the typewriters stopped clacking and I gather the whole staff watched and listened. I asked her to lunch, but she seemed to hesitate. I asked her again and again, and finally I said, 'Last chance, how about lunch?'
''She was quiet for a moment and then agreed. Many many months later I found out she had to pass up an assignment to interview Albert Schweitzer at the apartment of Jean-Paul Sartre in order to have that lunch with me. She got demoted and a cut in salary, and from that time on they never let up on her. So, eventually, I had to take her away from all that.''
Although the Pecks used to have a villa in the south of France, they now live year-round in California, but travel quite a bit. A native of La Jolla, Calif., Peck was educated in the California school system, including the University of California at Berkeley.
He says the Irish brogue he spoke for a recent role was easy for him because of his father, who grew up on a farm in County Kerry, Ireland.
''My father always referred to me as his son, the film star. He liked to play jokes on people. You know I'm a 'Junior' - he was Gregory Peck, too. When he was quite old, he got a kick out of handing his credit card to gas station attendants, who'd look at the card, peer into the window at this white-haired gentleman, and ask 'You're Gregory Peck of the movies?'
'' 'Yes,' he'd say in his best Irish brogue. 'I am Gregory Peck. But, you see , I've not been at all well lately.' ''Gregory Peck Jr., however, is doing quite well lately. On television.