By Ray Bennett
LONDON – Oscar-winning actor Gregory Peck was a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln, who was born 215 years ago today. In 1982, he fulfilled a dream when he portrayed the U.S. president in the TV mini-series ‘The Blue and the Gray’ and his comments then reverberate in today’s political climate in America.
‘I have admired Abraham Lincoln since I was a boy,’ he told me. ‘I learned the Gettysburg Address when I was 12 and recited it in school. I first read Carl Sandburg’s “Lincoln” in university at Berkeley and I was totally absorbed by it.’
Over the years, he accumulated more than two hundred books about Lincoln and many items from the man’s life. ‘That doesn’t make me a top-of-the-line collector of Lincolniana; I’m somewhere in the middle,’ he said. ‘But, often, when I have a moment at any time of the day or night, I’ll reach for one of my Lincoln books, open it anywhere and have a visit with him. He is my ideal.’
During a lengthy interview for Canadian TV Guide at Peck’s lovely home in the Holmby Hills in L.A., he said he’d always wanted to play Lincoln and recite the Gettysburg Address, which Lincoln delivered in Pennsylvania on Nov. 19 1863, four months after the Union army defeated Confederate forces in the Battle of Gettysburg, the deadliest battle in the conflict that ran from April 1861 to May 1865
Peck spoke at length – unhesitating and in great detail with no resort to a book or notes – about Lincoln and his admiration for the man. After I transcribed my recording of our conversation, I asked him if the magazine could run his comments under his name, to which he agreed. He later sent me a note of thanks for giving him his first byline.
He said, ‘Abraham Lincoln is the American hero. He is what we think we are, or would like to be, in terms of character, shrewdness, intelligence, compassion and humour. He is the greatest American of all time.
‘The Civil War was the most critical event in U.S. history and the most tragic. With the deaths of more than 620,000, it was a horrific slaughter of young men at a time when the total U.S. population was around thirty-four million.
‘It was a terrible sacrifice and Lincoln bore the responsibility for it. We’ll never know but, in my mind, it was Lincoln – with his intuition, his talent, his logic, his character and his vision – who took on the full responsibility for that conflict, because he was able to see ahead that if he did not, if someone did not, then the United States might split into two or four or six countries. We might have had the equivalent of the Balkan states on this continent.
‘Lincoln worked on his Gettysburg address for a couple of weeks before he went there. It’s a myth that he scribbled it on the back of an envelope on the train. He had worked on it several times at the White House knowing he had that engagement. In fact, he went to Gettysburg that day, Nov. 19, 1863, with a purpose in mind: not merely to dedicate the cemetery where men from the terrible battle of the previous July were buried but to restate for the North and for the South what the war was all about.
‘The issue was not slavery although morally Lincoln was against it. He often said that if he could preserve the Union all-free, he’d preserve it; if he could preserve it all-slave, he’d preserve it; if he could preserve it half-free and half-slave, he’d preserve it. Preserving the Union was the primary objective of his administration, and of his life.’
Peck was pleased with ‘The Blue and the Gray’ and most happy to have played his hero. ‘It seemed that I would never have the chance to play him until this came along,’ he said. ‘It was for television, which I had never done before, and it was a cameo appearance, not a lead. But it was a good script. I went over Lincoln’s five scenes a few times and I thought it would be nice to do. At least once in my life I’ll be on film somewhere as Abraham Lincoln.’