A Perfect Gentleman

updated 06/30/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/30/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

By his own estimation, his movie career should have been an uphill struggle. "It's easier to be the bad guy," Gregory Peck once said. "It's harder to make the good guy interesting." He managed to do it with the help of that angled, handsome face, a rich voice and reserves of goodness that never failed to command the screen. On June 3 the American Film Institute named the greatest movie heroes; topping the list was the 87-year-old actor's portrayal of the righteous lawyer Atticus Finch in the 1962 drama To Kill a Mockingbird. Nine days later, at home in Holmby Hills, Calif., with his wife, Veronique, 71, holding his hand, Peck died of natural causes. Says his close friend Monroe Friedman: "He just closed his eyes and went to sleep."

Peck's charisma transcended age and gender. Women responded to the thinking-man's magnetism; men admired his self-confidence and stoic compassion. Says Martin Scorsese, who cast Peck in his 1991 remake of Cape Fear: "He understood the doubts and disappointments of the decent man." That connection was not an actor's illusion. "Whether raising funds for cancer research or getting celebrity pals to read from their favorite books as a means of financing literacy programs, he was humane," says Polly Bergen, who co-starred with Peck in the original Cape Fear in 1962. "He had tremendous empathy for the underdog."

He once was one. The only child of Gregory, a pharmacist in La Jolla, Calif., and Bunny, a housewife, Eldred Gregory Peck was 3 when his parents separated. He entered St. John's Military Academy in Los Angeles at age 10. Later, the University of California, Berkeley, English major found his calling in a school production of Moby Dick (he played Captain Ahab onscreen in 1956). After graduating, he went to New York City and by 1942 was on Broadway in The Morning Star. Later, he recalled his initial stage fright: "Boy, did I ever want to burrow through the cement in my dressing room."

While Peck moved easily from stage actor to movie star, his private life was less smooth. In 1955 he and Greta Rice ended their 13-year marriage; that same year he wed French former reporter Veronique Passani. In 1975 the oldest of three sons from his first marriage, Jonathan, a television journalist, committed suicide at age 30. "It is the most terrible thing that ever happened to me," he told PEOPLE. Over time, the bad was made bearable by much good. He and Veronique had two children—Tony, now 46, a writer and producer, and Cecilia, 45, a documentary filmmaker—and the marriage spanned 48 years. "Everything about him is magnanimous," Veronique has said. "There is nothing small about him, ever."

That larger-than-life quality came through in Mockingbird, in which Peck played a southern lawyer who faces down angry bigots while defending a black man against rape charges. On the set, recalls Mary Badham, 50, who played Peck's daughter Scout, Peck's presence "gave me a sense of strength and security. He really tried his best to show us a way." Peck himself marveled at the extent of his influence in the film; in later years, he said, countless people told him he had inspired them to be lawyers. "I still get bundles of essays from schoolteachers," he said, "whose students write about what the movie means to them."

Not everyone admired his largesse. His activism on behalf of nuclear disarmament and gun control landed him on Richard Nixon's enemies list; a cool Ronald Reagan called him "my former friend." But Peck didn't care; he was unimpressed by VIPs—himself included. "We made a lot of bad movies," he said of his own black-and-white heyday. "They weren't all classics." But when Peck graced the screen, it was easier to think they could be.

Champ Clark in Los Angeles
Natasha Stoynoff in New York City

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