Sunday, June 12, 2011

Gregory Peck, Norma Shearer

Who died on this date:

On June 12, 2003, actor Gregory Peck died. He was born Eldred Gregory Peck on April 5, 1916 in La Jolla, California. One of 20th Century Fox's most popular film stars from the 1940’s to the 1960’s. His notable performances include that of Atticus Finch in the 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird, for which he won an Academy Award. In 1999, the American Film Institute named Peck the 12th Greatest Male Movie Star of All Time.

While attending college at the University of California, Berkeley, Peck developed an interest in acting. After graduating from Berkeley with a BA degree in English, he dropped the name "Eldred" and headed to New York City to study at the Neighborhood Playhouse with the legendary acting teacher Sanford Meisner. Peck made his Broadway debut as the lead in Emlyn Williams' The Morning Star in 1942. His second Broadway performance that year was in The Willow and I with Edward Pawley. Peck's acting abilities were in high demand during World War II, since he was exempt from military service owing to a back injury suffered while receiving dance and movement lessons from Martha Graham as part of his acting training. Twentieth Century Fox claimed he had injured his back while rowing at university, but in Peck's words, "In Hollywood, they didn't think a dance class was macho enough, I guess. I've been trying to straighten out that story for years."

Peck's first film was Days of Glory (1944). He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor five times, four of which came in his first five years of film acting: for The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), The Yearling (1946), Gentleman's Agreement (1947), and Twelve O'Clock High (1949). Gentleman's Agreement established his power in the "social conscience" genre in a film that took on the deep-seated but subtle anti-semitism of mid-century corporate America. While Twelve O'Clock High was the first of many successful war films in which Peck embodied the brave, effective, yet human fighting man. Among his other films were Spellbound (1945), The Paradine Case (1947), The Gunfighter (1950), Moby Dick (1956), On the Beach (1959), which brought to life the terrors of global nuclear war, The Guns of Navarone (1961), and Roman Holiday (1953), with Audrey Hepburn in her Oscar winning role. Peck once again teamed up with director William Wyler in the epic Western, The Big Country (1958).

Peck won the Academy Award for best actor, playing Atticus Finch, a Depression-era lawyer and widowed father, in a film adaptation of the Harper Lee novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Peck served as the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1967, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the American Film Institute from 1967 to 1969, Chairman of the Motion Picture and Television Relief Fund in 1971, and National Chairman of the American Cancer Society in 1966. He was a member of the National Council on the Arts from 1964 to 1966.

In the 1980’s Peck moved to television, where he starred in the mini-series The Blue and the Gray, playing Abraham Lincoln. He also starred with Christopher Plummer, Sir John Gielgud, and Barbara Bouchet in the television film The Scarlet and The Black. Peck retired from active film-making at that point. Like Cary Grant before him, Peck spent the last few years of his life touring the world doing speaking engagements in which he would show clips from his movies, reminisce, and take questions from the audience. He did come out of retirement for a 1998 miniseries version of one of his most famous films, Moby Dick, portraying Father Mapple. On June 12, 2003, Peck died from bronchopneumonia and he is buried at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels mausoleum in Los Angeles, California.

On June 12, 1983, actress Norma Shearer died. She was known as the “First Lady of MGM,” Norma Shearer was born Edith Norma Shearer on August 10, 1902 in Montreal, Canada. She was one of only a handful of actress to successfully transition from silent films to talkies. During a successful film career that lasted from 1919 to 1942, she appeared in sixty films. Known mainly for playing heroic and tragic roles, the versatile actress’ major film credits include; The Stealers (1920), The Actress (1928), The Trial of Mary Dungan (1929), Let Us Be Gay (1930), A Free Soul (1931), Strange Interlude (1932), Riptide (1934), The Barrett’s of Wimpole Street (1934), Romeo and Juliet (1937), and Marie Antoinette (1938).

During her long and storied film career, Shearer was nominated for six lead actress Academy Awards but won only once in 1930 for her portrayal of Jerry Martin in the Divorcee. That same year she was nominated for a second lead actress award for the film, Their Own Desire (1929). Actress Joan Crawford’s alleged reaction to Shearer’s Oscar win was quite catty, “What do you expect? She sleeps with the boss!” Shearer was the wife of MGM executive Irving Thalberg.

Following the death of her first husband, Irving Thalberg, in 1937, Shearer’s film career began to steadily decline. She retired from film in 1942 after marrying Martin Arrouge, a young ski instructor (20 years her junior). Shunning the limelight in her later years, she became anxious, depressed, and suicidal. The former actress spent the last years of her life locked away at the Motion Picture and Television Country Home in Woodland Hills, California. Wheel chair bound and incoherent, she died on June 12, 1983 at the country home from complications of Alzheimer’s disease and pneumonia. She is interred with her first husband Irving Thalberg at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale in the Great Mausoleum, Sanctuary of Benediction in the Thalberg alcove. Her crypt simply reads; Norma Arrouge.

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