Hollywood Heroes


Gregory-Peck-as-Atticus-Finch.jpgBack 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?

Who wrote this?

Senior Editor for PLUGGEDIN.COM. In addition to hosting the weekly "Official Plugged In Podcast," Bob also writes reviews, articles and Movie Nights discussion guides, and manages areas of this website. He has served at Focus on the Family for more than 20 years. Since 1995, Bob has penned "High Voltage," a monthly column that answers children's entertainment questions in Clubhouse magazine. He has co-authored several books, including Chart Watch, Movie Nights, Movie Nights for Teens and, most recently, The One Year Father-Daughter Devotions. Bob is also co-host of "The Official Adventures in Odyssey Podcast."

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  T.K. :

My film heroes are heroic men like Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, as examples of honor and friendship, and heroic women like Eowyn and Mulan (one of my earliest heroines) as examples of bravery while remaining a true lady. Good post with great questions.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Christis:

Thank you for posting this... I just recently watched a biography on Gregory Peck (also one of my favorite actors) and hearing your story seemed to only solidify everything that it said about him.   I have a huge heart to pray for actors and actresses and the other people of Hollywood, so to hear your thoughts about one (giving honor where honor is due) really touched me.   Filmmakers are humans, just like the rest of us- made in the image of God, fallen from Him through sin, and in desperate need of a Savior- and they need our prayers.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  lupinskitten:

Gregory Peck was quite a lot like Atticus in a lot of ways -- or someone who admired his work, read a lot of material about him, and loved his films told me. It was a terrific character, and Peck was a fine man, certainly much nicer than most of his peers.

I've found that the less I know about actors, the more I like them. It's harder now than it used to be to keep a lid on things, since in addition to tabloids and scandals, some of them also like to pen memoirs! I read one book recently that really ripped the wool off my eyes. I assumed classic Hollywood actors were... well, classiser than they are today. Not so. There was just as much foul language, backstabbing, rudeness to fans, total selfishness, and wanton sexual affairs as there is now -- only then, it was with legendary names. After hearing about all the conquests of one older actor I liked, it took me awhile to where I could watch a movie with him in it and not grimace, suspecting what was happening behind-the-scenes. Ugh.

I don't know who my favorite movie hero would be, since most of my favorite heroes were in books first! It's hard to beat Gandalf or Aslan or Sherlock Holmes.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Matthew:

I honestly think my favorite movie hero would be Bolt.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Bob_Smithouser:

Thanks for your comment, Kate.  In general I share your feelings, and have studied film long enough to be very cautious about assuming that performers embrace the same views as the characters they play. That said, if you've read many articles and biographies about Gregory Peck (I strongly recommend those by Michael Freedland and, more recently, Gary Fishgall), it's amazing how many people who knew the actor saw him in Atticus, and vice versa.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  kate:

I hope not to sound cynical but I always wonder why Americans try to equate an actor's onscreen character with their own personal character. It seems really odd to me. Atticus Finch and Gregory Peck are not the same person. There is nothing to show that they hold the same beliefs or attitudes about life. I saw To Kill A Mockingbird (for the first time) this past March and I agree that Finch is heroic in every sense.I admire actors solely for their body of work. I don't know any of them personally, so I can't say that they possess this attitude or worldview based on their onscreen characters. I love Meryl Streep, I think she's one of the greatest actresses ever. She seems humble and down-to-earth, she's beautiful and has been married to the same man for over 30 years (shocker!). I'd love to think she's everything that she appears to be, and maybe she is. But the truth is that I'd never know. I don't know her, or anything about her private life.