I am not a Peck expert by any stretch, though I would heartily recommend To Kill a Mockingbird and The Guns of Navarone to anyone who has not seen them. But I will add to the obits I’ve read to say this. In many of his roles, Peck played roles that struck me as the character type that modern liberal political theory would praise as "heroic." Peter and Thomas Engeman and others are fond of analyzing traditional American heroic ideals, especially the ideals celebrated in westerns. If I were forced to single out some movies to show twentieth-century liberalism’s rendition of heroism, I might well pick a few Peck movies.
The two that come to mind are his portrayal of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird and of James McKay in The Big Country. Both characters are intelligent and considerate men. Both have a tendency to judge the morality of what they do by their own intentions and standards -- not the consequences of their actions on others, and definitely not what the mob of people think. Both can fight, but both are very self-controlled and value the ability to think over the ability to fight, almost to the point of disdain. Both resort to reasoned argument in explosive political situations when most people would reach for a gun, and manage to use reason to defuse or resolve those situations.
I’m not saying I think this ideal of heroism is nobler, better, and more just than the ideal celebrated in the traditional Westerns. I think it would be really interesting to compare the lessons, e.g., of Liberty Valance and The Big Country, but thats not a debate to start on the day after Peck died. But I do think Peck’s best characters highlight a distinct understanding of heroism, different from the best Westerns, appreciated by a large segment of Americans, and worth serious consideration. And Peck acted those roles excellently. May he rest in peace.