Gregory Peck on Abraham Lincoln: ‘A secular saint’

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.’

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How an NHL match led Norman Jewison to make ‘Rollerball’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – ‘Rollerball’, Canadian filmmaker Norman Jewison’s only film set in the future, also is his most action-packed and violent and it was inspired by an experience at a National Hockey League (NHL) game.  Continue reading

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Why Norman Jewison quit Hollywood to work in Europe

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – ‘What do you do?’ asked Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. ‘I make movies,’ said Norman Jewison. The former U.S. attorney general, brother of a slain American president, and the Canadian director ,who was building a successful career in Hollywood making studio feature films with big stars, met by chance in Sun Valley, Idaho, in 1967. Continue reading

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What movies meant to director Norman Jewison


By Ray Bennett

LONDON – ’It kinda scares me,’ Norman Jewison said when I asked him in 2011 about the digital revolution in movies and the future of cinema. ‘Everything I see today is so mixed with violence and action. It’s moving so fast that I don’t know how significant the story is. When I was growing up, film was the literature of my generation. All of a sudden, I can see something else happening. It started with the video cameras and the fact that anybody can make a film now. The quality is good enough. It’s not very artistic. The video image, the television image, is different from film. I don’t think that matters to this generation.’ Continue reading

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Cary Grant, smooth as silk … on the surface.

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – When Cary Grant, born this day 120 years ago, died in 1986, Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel wrote, ‘Some distant day, audiences may come to agree that he was not merely the greatest movie star of his generation but the medium’s sublest and slyest actor.’

That was clouded with rehashes of the private torments of Archibald Leach, the deprived working-class kid from Bristol, England, who grew up to be Cary grant. His marriages and affairs; his alleged tightness with a dollar; his experiments with LSD and the long-rumoured suggestion of homosexuality were paraded in books, tabloids and talk-shows. Continue reading

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How Ben Kingsley dealt with instant fame after ‘Gandhi’


By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Ben Kingsley, who turns 80 today, had spent fifteen years on the English stage with occasional small screen roles when Richard Attenborough changed his life by casting him in the title role of his epic feature film ‘Gandhi’ in 1982.

Two years later, over a pleasant lunch in Hill’s Restaurant in Stratford-upon-Avon, he told me how he had adjusted to instant fame after being named best actor at the Academy Awards and the British Academy Film Awards.  Continue reading

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Norman Lear told me, ‘I hate the word satire’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – American TV producer Norman Lear was heralded as a leading light in political satire but he did not believe it. ‘I hate the word satire,’ he told me, ‘because I don’t know that the level of our work on television is true satire.’

I spoke to Lear, who died on Dec. 5 aged 101, in 1992 when he was executive producer of a series called ‘The Powers That Be’ about a hapless U.S. senator played by John  Forsythe (pictured). It lasted for twenty-one episodes unlike his previous hits such as ‘All in the Family’, ‘The Jeffersons’ and ‘Maude’. Continue reading

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Randy Newman at 80: Part One – songwriter

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Randy Newman, who turns 80 today, has Academy Awards, Grammy Awards and Emmy Awards and he is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s also a very funny man. He told me that he thought once of being a television comedy writer and he would make a great one – his work on ‘The Three Amigos’ with Steve Martin and Lorne Michaels is proof of that – but TV’s loss is music’s gain. Continue reading

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Randy Newman at 80: Part Two – Film composer

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Randy Newman, who turns 80 today,  has Academy Awards, Grammy Awards and Emmy Awards and he is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s also a very funny man. He told me that he thought once of being a television comedy writer and he would make a great one – his work on ‘The Three Amigos’ with Steve Martin and Lorne Michaels is proof of that – but TV’s loss is music’s gain. Continue reading

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Veronica Hamel: When intelligence matches beauty

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – I had the tee-shirt in the photo above made and gave it to Veronica Hamel on the set of the hit American television cop series ‘Hill Street Blues’, in which she played attorney Joyce Davenport. She loved it. ‘I wear it to work,’ she told me. ‘They figure I’ll do a better job than anybody else.’ Continue reading

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