Cambrian: Opinion

John Brannon: ‘Within that man is the best of us’

Gregory Peck, at left, and Brock Peters in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird.’
Gregory Peck, at left, and Brock Peters in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird.’ HTTP://STATIC.GUIM.CO.UK

“You could not step twice into the same river;

for other waters are ever flowing on to you.”

—Heraclitus 6th century BCE

Each experience in life is different, no matter how many times we might have repeated it. A drive up Highway 1 is never the same. The seasons change, as does the weather. We are in a different mood; we might be sharing the trip with a different person, and

each trip is unique — sometimes better, sometimes not—but never the same.

I have seen the 1962 classic movie, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” perhaps 10 or 12 times. I place the film in my top five favorites. On a recent Saturday evening, I sat in the familiar embrace of my lounger and savored yet again this marvelous movie.

No matter how many times I have been enthralled with the story and the production, I realized within 15 minutes that some of the lines were not familiar. This gave me the opportunity to experience the film from a slightly different perspective. I concentrated on the dialogue as if I were seeing the movie for the first time. This was a different river from the rest.

After the Los Angeles Central Library was destroyed by two major arson fires, Gregory Peck was so impressed with the new library that he began a reading series and invited “some friends” to read as a reward for those who had signed up for membership at a certain level.

One unforgettable evening included Gregory Peck and Brock Peters reading from “To Kill a Mockingbird,” some 30 years after they starred in the film. Brock also sang a cappella to the audience in his beautiful baritone voice.

In 1995, author Harper Lee was invited to attend a special ceremony in her honor in Los Angeles, but had little to say other than a humble thank you to the gathering.

In a documentary shown to the audience, the late actor told the story of Harper being on the set during the filming of the movie. As he finished a particularly difficult, emotional scene, he turned and saw tears in Lee’s eyes. Feeling a sense of professional pride, he approached her and made a comment about her tears.

“Oh, Gregory,” she said, “you have a little tummy just like my Daddy.” So much for ego.

After the movie, the TV channel followed with a documentary on Peck’s life. It is an enchanting 90- minute collection of images from his childhood and the early years of his entry into the world of make-believe on stage and the silver screen. It was an absolute delight to follow the life of this highly respected actor and human being over his productive and admired career of six decades.

For many years, Gregory toured on a series of speaking engagements in several cities. They were always to a full house, giving the audiences an opportunity to voice questions and to offer words of praise for his many roles. It seems that at every “evening” with Gregory Peck, there were people in the audience who either named a child Atticus (in honor of his role in “To Kill a Mockingbird”), or were motivated to become a lawyer.

There was a poignant scene near the end of the documentary. As his days dwindled down to a precious few, a video cameraman followed the aging actor backstage as he waited for his cue to emerge and greet the audience. While he paced behind a large movie screen, scenes from various movies were visible through the screen; his rich baritone voice filled the darkness with a welcomed familiarity that brought a warmth to my eyes. He was pacing the stage in the darkness because, even after 60 years of being an acclaimed star, he still had a nervousness familiar to most burgeoning actors.

Brock and Gregory had a deep and abiding friendship for 43 years. When his dear friend died in 2003, Peters delivered the eulogy at Gregory’s funeral. Oh, what an extraordinary experience that must have been for all who were there.

The title of this essay is taken from a tribute at his funeral.

Addendum: July 10, 2010 was the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee’s book. This abridged column from 2006 is in tribute to that event.

E-mail John Brannon at jrogb1433@yahoo.com

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