Karen Cohen's
Gregory Peck Encounter

Gregory Peck and Karen Cohen

Last Updated on June 25, 1998

     May 18, 1998 was a day I won't soon forget. Carrying a gift bag which held a plaque, photographs of my high school students, and an explanatory letter, I headed off to Wilmington convinced I would not only see "A Conversation with Gregory Peck", but that I would be meeting Gregory Peck personally to give him a gift of appreciation. The trick, of course, was to get called on during the question and answer period, which an internet pal named Sydney from Buffalo, who I met on Jeff's website, assured me would happen. As soon as Mr. Peck opened up the show to the audience, my hand shot up in the air. For the next fifteen minutes, I would be "Number 2", as an usher with a lit sign kneeled in the aisle shadowing me until I was called upon. Since I was seated in the orchestra, I had to wait, because the gracious Mr. Peck called on several people in the balcony and mezzanine before returning his gaze to the more expensive seats where I sat. Finally he called my number. That's when I sprang to life!

     "My name is Karen Cohen and I am a high school teacher from Philadelphia. Before I ask my question, I would like to present you with a gift on behalf of my students who just had a wonderful experience with Mockingbird where they scripted, staged and performed scenes from the story. They were so inspired by your presence on the screen!"

     "You'll come backstage, of course," was the astonishing reply from the stage.

     My question, which I stumbled through, still not able to comprehend that I was talking directly into a mike to the man who I had watched adoringly for endless hours on the screen, went something like: "The script is so important to the success of a movie, and yet Hollywood still produces films with faulty scripts. What has been your experience with script weakness, and what did you do to try to make the script better?

     This engendered the response: "This is a three-part question. You will have to break it down for me so I don't have a senior moment up here."

     "What scripts did you have a problem with and what power did you have to change them?"

     "We thought 'Captain Newman, M.D.' and 'Stalking Moon' were going to be successes," was all I recall of Mr. Peck's response.

     Soon the audience participation part was over. Veronique was introduced and appeared briefly on-stage. The audience gave a standing ovation as the show came to a close. My heart began pounding as I anticipated what would happen next.

     I met the usher who would bring me to the stage door. There, the house manager met me and two other people, managers from the Neighborhood Playhouse where Gregory went to acting school in New York, who were also invited backstage. We went through the door and stood in the wings behind the stage. The two gentlemen were led up a narrow stairway to a small dressing room upstairs, where Gregory waited. Two or three minutes later, I was ushered up the same stairway. I stood outside the dressing room door, unable to comprehend that the handsome, older gentleman smiling and talking freely inside was indeed Gregory Peck. Within a few minutes it was my turn to go in. My legs felt wobbly, but I managed to get inside the door. Gregory was seated at his dressing table as I was introduced by the house manager. I quickly took the plaque out of the bag and said,

     "This is from my students who have had an incredible learning experience with Mockingbird." I handed the plaque to Gregory who very quietly and attentively began reading it. At the top was a brass circular disk depicting the three muses of art, poetry and music. The plaque read: "Presented to Gregory Peck - Thank you for inspiring a new generation of learners with invaluable life lessons in courage, integrity, tolerance and nonviolence - With sincere appreciation and best wishes - from the students in Mrs. Cohen's English classes - Abraham Lincoln High School - Philadelphia, PA - May, 1998."

     After what felt like two or three minutes, Gregory looked up smiling and said, "We'll have to tell Harper about this!" (reference to the author of Mockingbird, who still keeps in touch with Gregory.)

     Well, I was absolutely dumbfounded and speechless. Eventually I found my voice and spoke my rehearsed lines, rather than even attempt spontaneous conversation (the hardest thing to do when you are awestruck and terrified!).

     "I feel you are the executor of the Mockingbird legacy; I know you have a basement full of essays from students who have written to you about their experiences with the story."

     Then we posed for pictures which the house manager, Nancy, graciously offered to take. One photograph shows Gregory still seated with me half-standing next to him (Click here to see the photo). After that pose, to my complete amazement, Gregory stated, "No, let's do this right." He then stood up (he is still so tall!) and put his arm around my back, and my arm went across his back!! The other photograph was the result of this pose (Click here to see the photo). Then he sat again at his dressing table to sign autographs. Next, I told him this story would be published in my school newspaper. Finally, I managed to give a warm hello to Veronique, and then it was time to leave. Everything faded to black as I exited the room.

     Not much more than a week later, a package arrived at my home from California. Enclosed was a beautiful Atticus photograph with an autographed message to my students and me (Click here to see the autograph). We were thrilled to receive this awesome thank you from the man who had inspired us so greatly on the screen as Atticus, but who impressed us even more playing himself - Gregory Peck - a most gracious, thoughtful, and generous human being!

Karen Cohen