Mary Badham, the original Scout, on the enduring appeal of "To Kill a Mockingbird"

Salon talks to the woman whose iconic turn as Atticus Finch's daughter in the 1962 film based on Harper Lee's novel

Published March 22, 2019 5:00PM (EDT)

Mary Badham and Gregory Peck in "To Kill a Mockingbird" (Courtesy Universal Pictures)
Mary Badham and Gregory Peck in "To Kill a Mockingbird" (Courtesy Universal Pictures)

“To Kill A Mockingbird” returns to more than 600 theaters nationwide on March 24 and 27 as part of TCM Big Screen Classics series. It’s a perfect opportunity to see (or re-watch) director Robert Mulligan’s rousing 1962 adaptation of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel in theaters. The story, adapted by Horton Foote (who won an Oscar for his screenplay), concerns Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck, in his Oscar-winning performance) defending Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) a black man accused of rape. Much of the action is seen through the eyes of the Finch children, Jem (Phillip Alford) and Scout (Mary Badham).

Looking back at “Mockingbird” now, the film is as timely as ever; Maycomb, Alabama, 1932 is as divided as America today. That may be why Aaron Sorkin’s current stage show, with Jeff Daniels as Finch, is such a rousing success.

In addition, the 2015 publication of Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” also put “Mockingbird” in some perspective; the book was dubbed both a sequel to and a first draft of “Mockingbird.” It also generated considerable controversy both for its content (not least Atticus’ bigotry) and questions of authorship and intent.

But getting back to “Mockingbird,” the film showcases a marvelous, unselfconscious performance by Mary Badham as Atticus’s tomboy daughter, Jean Louise, aka, Scout. Badham, who was 10 when she made the film, was nominated for an Oscar for her supporting role. (At the time, she was the youngest performer in the history of the category, and lost to Patty Duke in “The Miracle Worker.”) The actress made only three features after her breakout performance but according to IMDB has a project, “Spousal Deception,” currently in production. (Fun fact, her brother is John Badham, director of “Saturday Night Fever,” “Wargames,” and other classics.).

In a recent phone interview, Mary Badham spoke with Salon about making “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the enduring appeal of the book, film, and play.

This film, this story, this book, this play, seem timeless. It is set in 1932 Maycomb, Alabama, but could easily take place today. What do you think is the enduring appeal of this story?

It’s a family story, a story of love, and lessons unfortunately we still haven’t learned yet. People fall in love with the children and with Atticus. They are characters that are easy to love.

Gregory Peck was such a wonderful human being. He and Brock Peters were great mentors and role models for me. They really took good care of me through the years, because I lost my parents early in my life.

Scout is a tomboy. Were you a tomboy as a kid?

Totally. I was so much like Scout. I’d rather be with horses and in muck stalls than go to a tea party. I’m the fix-it man in my house, I put up the sheet rock!

Did you have to read “Mockingbird” in school?

No, I didn’t read it in school. I didn’t read the book before I did the film, I didn’t know anything about the book when I did the film. That was on purpose, so I could come in as a blank sheet of paper and fly with it. I don’t think we had complete scripts. There were a lot of things during that period of time they didn’t think was appropriate for me [kids] to be exposed to. I was having play time when I was doing the film. I got to meet all these people. It was fun for me. Bob Mulligan was such an incredible director. He really made it play time for us. He was so gentle with us. He was marvelous.

There are some “stunts” Scout does on screen—rolling in a tire, walking barefoot in her ham costume. What are your thoughts on your performance and what do you remember being on set?

I thought it came out very well. I totally credit that to Bob Mulligan and my fellow actors, who made it really easy. The stunt sequences that we had to do, I had a little jockey who did the long roll in the tire because I couldn’t do it. I didn’t like to go to the fair as a kid. I had a brother—my full brother—who had given me a hard time when I was a kid, so I was very much a self-preservationist. “No, I don’t want to do this!” After I saw the fight scene with Phillip [Alford, who played Jem], I said, “I am not doing this!” It was great that I had the opportunity to beg off. The boys John [Megna, who played Dill] and Phillip packed around together and here comes this girl, well, who else was I going to play with? We used to fight with each other and the studio let it happen because it read so well on film.

You’ve spoken about Gregory Peck, and Brock Peters. What can you say about Robert Duvall, who also made his film debut here, playing Boo Radley?

I never got to know him, and he never really wanted to be part of the “Mockingbird” family. The rest of us stayed in touch and were pretty tight. He never wanted to have anything to do with it, which I’ve always thought was very sad. He definitely had the ability to join in, but he just didn’t’ want to. Oh, well. We only had a one-day shoot [with Duvall], and it wasn’t a full day. Bob [Mulligan] didn’t want us to see him or talk to him or see anyone out of character until after shooting. After we were done, I was leaving to go out to the school room, because I had to go to school while filming, and I didn’t recognize [Duvall].

What do you recall about being nominated for an Oscar for your role? That must have been a heady experience!

No, because I didn’t know what the Oscars were! I didn’t know anything about it. I was 10 years old. I wasn’t a child of the movies, or an actor. I was a normal little kid. We didn’t have all the hoopla you have now. I was in Alabama, not brought up in California. My mom was a total thespian and was totally overwhelmed with this honor that was bestowed on me. In hindsight, I’m pretty proud of that nomination, and being up against Patty Duke in “The Miracle Worker”—she got it hands down. She worked so hard on that role. As a kid, I was happy that I didn’t have to go up on stage and have to saying something!

You only made two appearance on television and three films after “Mockingbird.” Can you talk about your career?

I think my parents decided to have a meeting to figure out what we were going to do [with my career]. The industry was changing dramatically. The studios had control and there were regulations about what children could be exposed to [e.g, language, adult themes, etc.]. When the [studio] system broke up, films that came after were very different from the time I was working, and my parents didn’t want me exposed to all that.

I was a fairly practical child and if daddy said I should get an education and go back [to making films] if I wanted to, I could make that decision at the time. That made sense to me. I went to school and met the guy who became my husband, and 45 years later, I’m still married to him. They called me “grandma” when I was kid [because] I didn’t want to do stupid stuff. I didn’t choose this [acting] for myself, it was something that happened to me. I love the industry and its fun to step into another person’s shoes and become that person. I worked with people who were talented and focused on the work and they were very kind to me and took great care of me, so I didn’t have all the things that happened to a lot of child actors. I had a very loving family that guided me and thank God I was smart enough to listen to them. I also had Atticus [Peck] and Brock who guided me through life after my parents were gone. When I would spend time with Greg, he was just so much fun! He had a common sense that a lot of people don’t have. I was blessed with being around people who had lots of common sense and knew how to talk to children, and I really appreciated that.

I know “Go Set a Watchman” generated some controversy, but you came out in support of the novel. I acknowledge you aren’t going to call your “mother’s other child” ugly but can you talk about the book. It set the publishing world on fire.

The way I look at it was that [“Watchman”] was Harper Lee’s first struggle with the story. If you come at it from a writers’ point of view—and you’re a writer—I’m fascinated with seeing where her head was and the struggle she went through and the cuts she had to make to make “Mockingbird.” That’s a gut punch to send something to your publisher after years of work and think you’re done and then have to start all over again. It’s a great study in writing. There’s an incredible amount of material there. It’s fascinating to read. Birmingham, AL didn’t change much from 1930 to 1960 when I was doing the film. Having seen my father negotiate the business waters with the likes of the KKK and various other people who lived during that time period—that’s a knife’s edge you have to ride. But know thy enemy. My father detested that whole thing, but you had to tread very carefully if you were in the business world during that time period like he was. A lot of people don’t understand that today. If you haven’t lived during that time period, you can’t criticize what happened.

I love that Harper Lee and Truman Capote grew up together and he was the inspiration for Dill.

They were the oddballs. In Monroeville, Alabama, those kids wouldn’t have anyone else to talk to! They were so intelligent and imaginative—who else would keep up with them?

 A friend of mine was in the audience when you saw the Broadway version of “Mockingbird” recently. How do you think the story works on the page, the screen, and the stage?

See, that’s what art is for me. You take a subject and look at it from different points of view. I can accept that, and I love what Aaron [Sorkin] has done with it. I really like the production because it’s very fast-paced and it has a lot of humor. He makes the points that need to be made. I feel this time is so critically important for “Mockingbird” to be seen in every shape and form that’s out there to have the discussions we need to have. I feel it’s critically important, and when you have a really good piece of work like this as a base to jump from, it’s just packaged differently and updated, and in some cases honed down. Because every reiteration is in a little different form. I didn’t want to know anything about it before I saw it, so I could enjoy what was there or not. The time is right now. We need this more than ever. It’s sad we’ve had to go down this road, but I hope the American people have learned an awful lot in the past few years with the situation in Washington. As long as people grow and learn something, mistakes provide some of the greatest lessons.

Scout asks Atticus for a souvenir (the watch) in a bedroom scene. Do you have any souvenirs from making the film?

No. I don’t have anything, but…for years I looked for the box [used in the opening credits]. I went to the studio looking for the box and didn’t find it. No one knew anything. Later, I was in a school in northern Virginia and it was like a college campus—they had their own TV and radio station—and I told the guys we should have a “Mockingbird” reunion. We had a Q&As with Alan Pakula, Collin Wilcox [Paxton], Phillip, Brock, and me. And they said, “We have a surprise for Ms. Badham.” Stephen [Frankfurt] who did the opening title sequence presented his box from when he was a little boy. He added all the pieces from the movie. And he said, “I’m going to make a grown woman cry on national TV”—and he did. That box is in New York now and his grandkids added a whole bunch of stuff to it. He let his kids play with it; it should be in the Smithsonian!

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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