One of the postwar era's most successful actors, Gregory Peck was long the moral conscience of the silver screen; almost without exception, his performances embodied the virtues of strength, conviction, and intelligence so highly valued by American audiences. As the studios' iron grip on Hollywood began to loosen, he also emerged among the very first stars to declare his creative independence, working almost solely in movies of his own choosing. Born April 5, 1916, in La Jolla, CA, Peck worked as a truck driver before attending Berkeley, where he first began acting. He later relocated to New York City and was a barker at the 1939 World's Fair. He soon won a two-year contract with the Neighborhood Playhouse. His first professional work was in association with a 1942 Katherine Cornell/Guthrie McClintic ensemble Broadway production of The Morning Star. There Peck was spotted by David O. Selznick, for whom he screen-tested, only to be turned down. Over the next year, he played a double role in The Willow and I, fielding and rejecting the occasional film offer. Finally, in 1943, he accepted a role in Days of Glory, appearing opposite then-fiancée Tamara Toumanova.
While the picture itself was largely dismissed, Peck found himself at the center of a studio bidding war. He finally signed with 20th Century Fox, who cast him in 1944's The Keys of the Kingdom - a turn for which he snagged his first of many Oscar nods. From the outset, he enjoyed unique leverage as a performer; he refused to sign a long-term contract with any one studio, and selected all of his scripts himself. For MGM, he starred in 1945's The Valley of Decision, a major hit. Even more impressive was the follow-up, Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound, which co-starred Ingrid Bergman. Peck scored a rousing success with 1946's The Yearling (which brought him his second Academy Award nomination) and followed this up with another smash, King Vidor's Duel in the Sun. His third Oscar nomination arrived via Elia Kazan's 1947 social drama Gentleman's Agreement, a meditation on anti-Semitism which won Best Picture honors. For the follow-up, Peck reunited with Hitchcock for The Paradine Case, one of the few flops on either's resumé. He returned in 1948 with a William Wellman Western, Yellow Sky, before signing for a pair of films with director Henry King, Twelve O'Clock High (earning Best Actor laurels from the New York critics and his fourth Oscar nod) and The Gunfighter.