Saturday, June 14, 2003

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RIP Gregory Peck, David Brinkley

Gregory Peck and David Brinkley, who both died this week, were in different ways heroes of my early adolescence. I admired and identified with many actors, including some not very good ones, but my favorite was Gregory Peck. He was tall, and I wanted to be tall (and yes, it had something to do with basketball.) But I wanted to be tall as Gregory Peck was tall, looking out over everyone's heads at something only he could see, something only he could feel. It was that something he saw that made him different, wiser, more decent, even when he was troubled and beset.

Of course I identified with him as the hero of "To Kill A Mockingbird," even though it was one of the first movies I saw that I'd read the book first (the Readers Digest Condensed version anyway), so had already formed a hero in my mind. It was an important movie for me at that time. I was about 17 when I participated in the March on Washington.

But I especially admired him in other roles, including and perhaps especially very minor films, like "Captain Newman MD" and "Beloved Infidel," in which he played F. Scott Fitzgerald. In these and other roles ("Roman Holiday" especially) he reassured me that a man can be masculine and still thoughtful, be attractive to women but still gentle and caring. He could be self-deprecating and funny without losing any of his masculine strength and presence. In films like Captain Horatio Hornblower and "On the Beach" and The Guns of Navarone he was a model for leadership in somewhat the same way. His characters could be impetuous and stubborn and they were men of action, but they were also honest and intelligent and sensitive (at least in a rueful masculine sort of way.) His courage was usually quiet, with lots of forebearance. At times his characters could be awkward and stiff, but it came out of an authentic, earned dignity, and so these were idiocyncracies to be noted with affection. What made him angry was intolerance and injustice. When Gregory Peck looks out over the heads of everyone, you know he's taking the long view.

David Brinkley was half of the Huntley-Brinkley Report team around then. His voice and the cadence of his speech were unique, and they fit the unique way he constructed sentences and turned a phrase. I was so enthralled that when I started announcing the news on my college campus radio station as a freshman, I found myself imitating him to an almost embarrassing degree. (That is, I might have been embarrassed if I thought anyone was actually listening, and if I wasn't having so much fun doing it. I had different voices for my jazz show, my folk music show and when I filled in for the classical shows.)

He was held up as a model of wit-something now just about unheard of for a news anchor. That is, genuine verbal wit, not the witless funning around that's become a local and cable staple. I recall Time or Newsweek doing a profile of him and preserving two of his witticisms. He repeated the cliché of the time that if the Democrats won the south it was tantamount to victory. He said that the Republicans were going to try to slay the tantamount. The other was his comment on the controversy over the proposed re-naming of the Boulder Dam to the Hoover Dam. He suggested the problem could be solved if Herbert Hoover would only change his name to Boulder.

Throughout his career he had a way of cutting through the cant and summing up a situation in plain but graceful English. He did tend to fall back on a few expressions, like "What the outcome will one can say." Even when I thought he was oversimplifying, I had to admire the grace with which he expressed it.

I don't know what others are saying about these two men, but these are my memories, and my thanks for their presence.

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