San Diego Int'l Film Fest marks Gregory Peck centennial with cinema excellence award Sept. 29 in La Jolla

The late La Jolla-born actor Gregory Peck once compared his favorite film “To Kill a Mockingbird” (directed by Robert Mulligan in 1962, in which Peck played attorney Atticus Finch) with the village of his childhood.

“In the 1920s, La Jolla was a magical little resort community. … There was even something of a Southern atmosphere to it because many of the people who settled there came from Southern States,” he said in a story published March 12, 1963 in the San Diego Evening Tribune “Front Row” series.

Peck cherished that role because, as his son Anthony Peck put it, “It was the role he was born to play. Through it, he wanted to express his views on racism. … He found a way to express his thoughts in the roles he took on.”

And that, for San Diego International Film Festival (SDiFF) Artistic Director Tonya Mantooth, is the connection between Peck and this year’s Gregory Peck Award recipient, Annette Bening. “I see that in her,” Mantooth said. “She, too, feels that some of the really important topics going on today need to be talked about, and she considers that when she takes a role. In her every role, there’s a passion there, and it comes across in her performance.”

This will be the second time SDiFF honors excellence in cinema with the Gregory Peck Award. The collaboration between the organization and the Peck family came about when Mantooth and Cecilia Peck (the actor’s daughter) met at the screening of one of her documentaries at the festival. Mantooth explained, “It was wonderful to meet her, and I knew that Gregory had been born and raised in La Jolla, so to me it was very natural to give this award.

“I work closely with Cecilia to see who really would represent the award well, and we both knew Bening, and she knew Gregory, and he had tremendous respect for her, really loved her spirit. It’s serendipitous, because she’s also a San Diegan … and the fact the she knew him and he admired her made it feel so perfect and so full circle.”

The award will be presented to four-time Academy Award nominee Bening, Thursday, Sept. 29 during the “Night of the Stars” celebration at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla. The recipient is a two-time Golden Globe-winner, and two-time recipient of the Screen Actors Guild Award. She starred in “The Kids Are Alright” (2011), “American Beauty” (1999) and “Being Julia” (2004).

Peck was born April 5, 1916, and in light of his birthdate centennial this year, La Jolla Light gathered some facts about his impact in the community. His father, Gregory Peck senior, owned Peck’s Drug Store at 7914 Girard Ave from 1913 to 1916. Gregory attended school here and was very happy in La Jolla, his son Anthony said. “However (his parents) divorced, and at that point he was sent to a military school in Los Angeles, but he always maintained the connection to La Jolla.”

In April 1, 1963, the La Jolla Light published the story, “La Jolla’s Peck Wins a Bushel in Santa Monica,” which stated, “Like most of the kids of our town, (he) spent a great deal of time at the beach where he managed to catch more crabs than most of his cohorts. He could also hold his head up among the best when diving for abalone.”

In 1947, Peck founded the La Jolla Playhouse along with actors Mel Ferrer and Dorothy McGuire, and as his son, Anthony, points out, “I believe the idea of opening a playhouse in La Jolla was his way to give back to the community that had been his home, as well as offering Hollywood actors a nearby place to stay in tune with theater. He acted in several productions at the La Jolla Playhouse, but he was acting all over the world … so he was not as involved over the years, after he founded it. But he always maintained the connection, as did my family.”

Anthony said he remembered the summer vacations they spent in La Jolla in the 1960s. The family would stay at the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club. “(We enjoyed) that sense of post-war optimism after World War II … It was sunny, and there was a sunny disposition in the air. I was between the ages of 5 and 10 then, and so happy to be on the beach every August with my family. That had a sense of innocence about it.”

His father, he remembers, was recognized as a famous actor while in La Jolla, but “he was not treated like a famous person, he was treated like a hometown boy. The one thing that my father taught me was to follow my heart. There wasn't a choice or decision in my life that I made without thinking what my father would have done. He was an absolutely amazing man who always kept everyone’s interests at heart, he didn’t know any other way.”

Gregory Peck passed away in 2003 at age 87.

IF YOU GO: The 15th edition of SDiFF runs Sept. 28-Oct. 2 in theaters throughout San Diego. The “Night of the Stars Tribute” starts with a red carpet at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 29 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 700 Prospect St. The tributes begin at 7 p.m. The after-party at 9 p.m. Tickets $120 at sdiff.com

Other ‘Night of the Stars’ honorees:

Jason Mitchell (“Straight Outta Compton,” 2015): Rising Star Award.

Simon Helberg (“The Big Bang Theory” Howard Wolowitz): Auteur Award.

Kate Beckinsale (“Pearl Harbor,” 2001): Cinema Vangard Award.

Humanitarian Award: TBD

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