'To Kill a Mockingbird' Makes Its Mark, 50 Years After the Film’s Release
In honor of the anniversary of the landmark movie, Sandra McElwaine checks in with its stars.
When Mary Badham was catapulted from her fourth-grade Victorian classroom in Birmingham, Ala., to a meticulously replicated small Southern town on a backlot in Hollywood, she knew there was “something special” about the trip. It’s just that she was too young and too inexperienced to understand the historic moment she was about to be a part of.
The year was 1962. Badham was a strong-minded 10-year-old tomboy plucked from obscurity by a talent agent to play the plum role of Scout, the strong-minded 6-year-old tomboy in the movie adaptation of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize–winning To Kill a Mockingbird. To celebrate the film’s 50th anniversary, Universal Studios is issuing a digitally remastered and restored commemorative version on Blu-Ray and DVD today.
Badham arrived in California with no idea that the picture—which is centered on the family of Atticus Finch, a white Southern lawyer who courageously defends a black man accused of rape—would become a timeless classic, or that she would be nominated for an Academy Award. In fact, she knew nothing about movies, or even acting. “I didn’t have a clue,” recalls the 60-year-old mother of two, and one of only four surviving members of the cast. “I really was a blank sheet of paper.”
Her main recollection is of her close relationship with Gregory Peck, who played her principled father onscreen and who became an icon the world over when he won an Oscar for his nuanced, powerful performance. (The American Film Institute would later dub him the No.1 film hero of all time.) “He was my other daddy,” Badham says in a telephone interview from Florida. “He really was Atticus: fine, firm, and gentle. A great role model. I’ve always tried to live up to his expectations.”
Although the child actress retired early from show business, she has spent the balance of her life giving speeches on the lessons she learned through portraying Scout to audiences as far from home as Russia. “Mockingbird changed, created, and shaped my life,” Badham says.
The film evolved into far more than just a harsh social commentary on blacks and whites in the segregated South of the 1930s. The basic themes of Harper Lee’s semi-autobiographical book, the author’s only published novel, are injustice, racism, ignorance, and prejudice; they transcend the half century since the movie opened and remain just as relevant today. In a 2009 poll by the London Telegraph, To Kill a Mockingbird was voted the most influential book of all time, beating out even the Bible.
During the shoot, the older actors recognized that they were participating in an era-defining production. “You knew you were in something special. It was a fascinating experience,” says Rosemary Murphy, the Broadway actress who portrayed Maudie, a neighbor in the film. “I was very respectful of where I was and thrilled to be there. Gregory Peck was accessible and a real gent.”
William Windom, who played the prosecutor, kept up with his costars, attending reunions and award ceremonies until Peck’s death in 2003 at the age of 87. Although he says his small role “didn’t open any doors,” he felt privileged to be a part of the ensemble. He went on to appear in dozens of films, and was a regular on Murder, She Wrote for a decade. “It was fun and hard work to try to stand out in that crowd,” he recollects.
The only surviving cast member who declined to comment for this piece is Robert Duvall, who made his memorable film debut as the inscrutable Boo Radley. A mysterious and ominous character, Boo never uttered a word onscreen—though he ultimately turned out to be a good guy. Peck had called Duvall’s performance “a lesson in acting.”
Veronique Peck, the screen star’s French widow, says that of all of her husband’s starring roles, Atticus remained his favorite. “It was the closest to his character,” she observed during an exclusive phone interview from her home in Los Angeles. Harper Lee concurred, once observing that “when [Peck] played Atticus Finch, he played himself ... when he played himself, he touched the world.”
Tackling controversial subjects was nothing new for the actor. In 1948, Peck made Gentlemen’s Agreement, a landmark film that dealt with anti-Semitism. It won an Oscar for Best Picture. “Greg always wanted to do something that would make a difference and have staying power, and he was proud to have done that with To Kill a Mockingbird,” says Veronique.
The Pecks forged a close bond with the reclusive author after a trip to her home in Monroeville, Ala., and her visit to the set. On the first day of shooting, with a tear in her eye, she took Peck aside and whispered, “You have a little pot belly, just like my daddy.” “Harper, that’s called great acting,” quipped Peck.
Their friendship, mutual respect, and admiration continued over the years. Cecilia, the Pecks’ daughter, named her son Harper, and she remains in touch with his namesake.
As part of the anniversary package, Veronique has, for the first time, released some of her husband’s annotated shooting script for To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s filled with penciled lines, arrows, and personal notes on the inner workings of his craft. The most moving page is the last. The script reads: “We can see Atticus sitting through the window, sitting by his son’s (Jem’s) bed holding Scout. Camera slowly pulls back as Atticus looks at the sleeping Jem.
Beneath, in bold script, Gregory Peck has written four words: "Fairness. Stubborness. Courage. Love."