Back in 2003, the American Film Institute unveiled its list of the 100 greatest movie heroes of all time. I was impressed by who came out on top: To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Atticus Finch, the passionate, dignified southern lawyer who boldly stands up to Depression-era bigotry by defending a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman.
That’s the role that won Gregory Peck not only an Oscar, but the respect of millions of moviegoers. Peck was touched by the AFI announcement. Then, less than a week later, as if scripted as the denouement in a tender Hollywood biopic, the esteemed and thoroughly validated 87-year-old actor passed away peacefully with his wife by his side.
What a way to go, huh?
It’s worth noting that the heroes immediately following Atticus Finch on the AFI list were Indiana Jones and James Bond. Bigger names. Flashier film franchises. Yet voters decided that quiet integrity and inner decency were more heroic than sexual conquests, skill with a bullwhip or the ability to dispatch enemy agents with a pair of cufflinks. I found that refreshing, though nearly a decade later I wonder if young moviegoers would feel the same way. Is a moral compass even a prerequisite for heroism anymore, or has this generation been conditioned to value action-packed style over substance? I can honestly say that, as an adolescent myself, I didn’t just respect Atticus Finch, I actually wanted to be Atticus Finch.
The year was 1980. I was 15. Next to my own dad and a certain Nazarene carpenter I’d just met, one of the most influential men in my life was Gregory Peck. My friends were into screen idols like Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds. Not me. In the days before VCRs, I was setting my alarm for 2 a.m. to watch black-and-white movies on TV starring a guy old enough to be my grandfather. I took feverish mental notes: How he handled conflict. How he treated women. How he led men. And while Peck played dozens of likable champions, Atticus was always a special role model, as much for his fathering as for his lawyering.
In 1982, as a high-school senior, I decided to let this Hollywood icon know how much I appreciated his example, both onscreen and off. My letter included a request for an autographed photo. Months passed. No reply. I was disappointed, but not shocked. After all, he was a busy, important star. Imagine my amazement when, in the summer of 1989, I received an envelope bearing Peck’s return address. Inside was a signed 8×10 glossy, along with a note from his personal secretary that read, “We apologize. A large carton of mail containing your letter was misplaced. It has just been discovered. Mr. Peck is sorry for the long delay in responding to your request.”
How many celebrities would take time to answer fan mail that had been lost for seven years? But then again, this is the same man who once insisted that a totally unknown co-star (Audrey Hepburn) share top billing on Roman Holiday.
Not everyone will adopt a screen idol the way I did growing up, but whether we admit it or not, we all—especially our children—jot mental notes when we watch movies. The question is, What are we filing away? Which cinematic characters (or the actors who played them) have your respect and admiration? Why? And what have you learned from them that you’ve been able to apply to your life?