Mary Badham, On a "Mockingbird" Mission

Laura Irvine November 13, 2006

I was six months old when I went to my first movie — and I swear I remember images from it. You see, I sometimes have flashes of shots from “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but all of them are upside-down. My mother tells me that I saw the film from a bassinette on the theater seat — thus began my life-long love affair with the film. I grew up in Alabama, which is also the setting of the book and the film. Every year, one of the three television stations we received would show “To Kill a Mockingbird.” My mom would gather the whole family in front of the TV, and we would watch the film — again. One year, it was opposite the Super Bowl. Now, the two things you don’t mess around with in the South are religion and football. But despite my brothers’ pleas, Atticus Finch took precedence over the Super Bowl at our house.

What is it about this film that — even today — inspires such devotion? Mary Badham, who played the memorable tomboy, Scout, believes as long as racism, bigotry, and intolerance exist, the film and the book provide a starting point for discussion and self-examination. Hence her own dedication to a film that has remained a driving part of her life for over 40 years — a dedication which prompted her to travel the world with the film sharing her experiences while making the film, growing up in the South, and fighting to spread the film’s message of tolerance and compassion. Badham visits San Francisco with the Marc Huestis program “In Praise of Mockingbirds,” Sun/19 at the Castro. I got a chance to speak with her last week.

SF360: Despite the fact that you never acted before, why do you think the filmmakers cast you as Scout?

Mary Badham: I think because I was a tomboy. The coloring was right. I looked like I could have been Gregory Peck’s daughter. I had a real big imagination as a kid — which they were looking for. The haircut was right. Everything they were lookin’ for just kind of jelled in me. They wanted kids who were real Southern children who were very natural and not actors.

SF360: When I watch the film, I’m struck by how natural you seem with Phillip Alford (who plays Scout’s brother Jem) and John Megna (Dill). It feels like we’re watching a real brother and sister.

Badham: Yes, they would let that happen on the set naturally because here were John and Phillip, and John just idolized Phillip and followed him around like a puppy dog. And here was this ratty little girl who wanted to get in the middle of whatever they were doing. You know, I just wanted somebody else to play with. And so, evidently we would have these big fights — I don’t remember any of it, but Phillip seems to think we fought all the time.

SF360: Phillip says he tried to kill you by rolling you in the tire toward a truck.

Badham: (Laughing.) Yeah, when it came to the tire scene they were so excited because ‘Oh, finally we can get rid of this menace.’ They thought they were going to do away with me. Too bad, so sad.

SF360: It’s seems like many women, including myself, see themselves in Scout. Why do you think the character is so memorable to women and girls?

Badham: I think because she was allowed to just be herself. Even Miss Dubose fussed at Atticus because he allowed her to wear the clothes that her brother had outgrown. But it was the Depression, a dress at that point would have been very expensive and money was in tight supply. And the fact that she was so educated. Atticus let her read and had real conversations with her. That’s the main role of a parent — to engage their children in conversation and teach them basically how to function in an adult world. Scout took to that tooth and nail. She wasn’t cut in the same mold as the little proper Southern young lady who had to wear dresses and not discuss anything important. It was that way even when I was growing up. Women were to be seen but not heard. They were not engaged intellectually much. So for Scout to be able to put her ideas out there, to see her think through situations is really important because you don’t see that very often. Most children when they would ask a question — I see it today with parents working and being tight on time — parents will be short with their kids… not wanting to engage the kids in conversation because they’re tired and they don’t have time. But that’s so critically important. I think that’s what we see with Atticus. He does engage his children in conversation, and he does try and let them think through situations and expand on them.

SF360: And that’s especially true in this film with the topics of racism and rape. Since you were so young, were you really aware of what the story was about?

Badham: You can’t grow up in the South and not be aware of the social structure. I’m not sure that we actually got a full script. You have to remember that even in 1960-something Alabama had not changed that much. The social codes, the racial codes, and the parental codes were all still in place. What you see in the film is not much different than what I grew up with. So it was not something that had to be explained. Whereas in California [where “To Kill a Mockingbird” was filmed] that was a totally different world. I thought I had died and gone to heaven because here the was this black man with his beautiful blonde wife and his two beautiful kids that were our neighbors, down the way there was an Asian family — here were these people from all different parts of the world and all different religions and colors. We all lived together and everything was happy and everything was wonderful, and then I had to go back to Alabama.

SF360: So you lived in California….

Badham: When I was working I was out in California, then I had to move back home and try and fit in. It was like putting a square peg into a round hole. I just didn’t fit anymore. So it became increasingly difficult as I got older and especially as my awareness level came up, how different things were. So, it was hard. I ended up having to leave.

SF360: How was the film received in Birmingham?

Badham: I don’t remember. My personal experience was everything from people wanting to be my friends who had not been my friends before to people who I had been friends with before not wanting to have anything to do with me. It was a strange kind of push-pull thing. And what’s most important to you as a child is your friendships. I never knew whether somebody wanted to be friends with me because of me or because of who I was. That’s a very difficult place to be as a child.

SF360: You remained close to Gregory Peck. Can you tell me about your connection with him?

Badham: It was really, really tight. My dad had to stay back in Alabama to take care of the family and his business. So they encouraged this relationship with Atticus [Peck]. I would go over to their house on the weekends and visit. I got to know his kids, Cecilia and Anthony. We remained friends through all these many years. It would be nothing for me to pick up the phone, and he would be on the other end. ‘What are you doing kiddo.’ It was just marvelous. And after I lost my parents, I really can’t thank him enough for calling me every once in awhile and checking up on me and just being there for that psychological support line. So when I lost him, and then I lost Alan Pakula, and then I lost Brock Peters and Elmer Bernstein — this last three or four years have really been tough. It’s been hard because they were family.

SF360: How ‘directed’ were you and the other kids by Robert Mulligan? Was he a very hands-on director?

Badham: Yeah, he was brilliant. All those guys had kids of their own at that point, so they were very good with children and understood children. Basically he would let us just play, and he would set it up as play. So we had a ball. Everything came so easily and so naturally. When they first started with us, they started with the cameras way far away because we hadn’t done anything, we had never been in front of a camera before. So they had placed all the equipment far away from us, and then they would gradually move it up. So by the time they got ready to shoot it, we were done with rehearsal, the camera’s right there, the lights are here, and everybody’s ready to go, and we’re all relaxed.

SF360: The scene where Jem goes back to the Radley yard to get his pants and leaves Scout to wait for him — Scout is counting to ten and suddenly there’s a gunshot. Your reaction seemed real — you seemed like you were really surprised.

Badham: That was a good reaction because they didn’t tell me they were going to do that. Mulligan was so sharp. He really was a fine director because he would do things like that. Like when the old man, Boo’s daddy, came around the tree, he didn’t tell us this guy’s going to pop out around the tree. That scared us to death! Those reactions, they were for real because it about scared us to death.

SF360: Did you feel that way about James Anderson (Bob Ewell) too?

Badham: Oh, Jim Anderson was just creepy! He was a method actor, and he was in character from the minute he walked on the set. Nobody could stand him. They said the electricity between Atticus and him was just ridiculous. Brock Peters said he was mortally terrified of the man. He just oozed that horrible person. I have this thing that I do with the Winfield Symphony Orchestra in Kansas. Gary Gackstatter, the conductor, has the rights to the music. So his orchestra would play the music, and I would tell little stories in between. I said wouldn’t it be fun if we could get the guys to come. So I asked Brock and I asked Phillip, and they came. Brock and I tell our little stories about Jim Anderson, and Phillip leans forward and goes, ‘Well I thought he was a really nice guy.’ Both of us about fell off our chairs onstage. We’re like, ‘What!’ Phillip says, ‘Yeah, I thought he was a really nice guy. I went over to his house and had dinner.’ Well, it was the first time Brock and I had heard this and here we are in front of a live audience. It was hysterical! So he proceeds to talk about this dinner party that they had. I was just floored. I couldn’t believe it. He said that when he was at home he was just very normal. (Laughs) Isn’t that funny? We all thought that he was this horrible real-life human being, and it wasn’t true. He was a method actor!

SF360: That’s interesting. That’s the first time I’ve heard that. I thought he really was a horrible human being.

Badham: For any of us who’ve grown up in the South, you know that character so well, and it’s so frightening. For me it was just horrifying — the worst nightmare of a human being.

SF360: The cigar box with the childrens’ treasures that is used in the opening credits, do you actually have it?

Badham: No, I don’t have it, but I found out who does have it. I looked for that box for 30 years. Literally. I went to the studio, I called Atticus, I talked with people on the back lot. Anybody who would listen to me I was asking ‘em about this box. And nobody knew anything about the box. I was in Prince William School outside of D.C. They had asked me to come to speak to their school, so I did. This school is the most amazing school I’ve ever seen in my life for a high school. They have their own radio station, TV stuff, satellite hookups, sound stages, multi-million dollar auditorium with all this sophisticated sound stuff. It’s like a college campus — it’s amazing. I said, with what you have at this school, wouldn’t it be great if we could do a Mockingbird reunion and get as much of the cast and crew as possible and hook up all the schools and have this for historical reference in the future. They thought it was a great idea… and we made it happen…. Somewhere during the program, they said ‘We have a surprise for Ms. Badham.’ So this man comes walking out on-stage, he’s got something behind his back. He tells the audience, ‘I’m going to make a grown woman cry.’ And cry I did. Because he put this box in my lap, and I opened it up and there are the treasures, plus a lot more that I didn’t know about. The guy who owns the box is the guy who did those credits. That whole filming of the sequence with the box, the marble, and the whole thing was filmed on his kitchen table in New York. That was his box as a child with the addition of the things from the film. He has the box in New York and lets his grandchildren play with it, and they’ve put their little treasures into it and added to it. As for me, I feel like the box belongs in the Smithsonian. I want it protected because it’s a national treasure. I’m just thankful to know that it’s safe and sound and being loved.

SF360: Why do you think the film has remained so popular and well-respected?

Badham: It has so many positive elements. It’s such a movie of hope. Through all these years, things really haven’t changed a whole lot. Ignorance, hatred, bigotry, racism — they really haven’t gone anywhere, they’ve changed their clothes. So, these things, we still have to deal with. So there are lessons to be learned still from this book. But I think the main thing is that it hearkens back to what we feel is a more innocent time. Where children could go out and run around in the streets at night and play. Where everybody knows everybody and when you hear gunshots, you can run outside and go see if it’s your neighbors. That would never happen today. And that’s one of the things that gets a laugh with the inner city kids, ‘Okay, we hear gunshots, we’re all going to run outside to see what’s going on!’ Yeah, right, dive into the center hallway and hope there’s a cast iron tub behind you. It’s a different world we live in today. And it’s fun because it’s from a child’s point of view. So the kids focus on the kids. I have a lot of parents tell me, ‘I don’t want my child seeing this. I don’t think they’re old enough.’ I think, ‘You don’t get it.’ When you read this book at different times in your life — you read it as a child, then you read it as a teen, then you read it as an adult, and then after you have children — it is totally different every time because you’re coming at it from a different point of view, different environment, and different life experiences. So, therefore, children get what they want out of it, they’re interested in what the kids are doing. Adults, they look at more of the adult thing.

SF360: In your travels with the film have you heard stories from people about how they’ve been touched by the film?

Badham: Absolutely! This book and this film have put families back together again. It’s done miracle stuff, major stuff. I’ve had a letter from South Africa about how it has really helped this family, and one from Northern Ireland. It made such an impact on these people and helped them get through some of the stuff that they’re going through. This is not just a 1930s black-and-white issue. This is now, this future, this is for as long as these problems stick around.

“In Praise of Mockingbirds,” Sun/19, 6:30 p.m. Gala, 10:15 p.m., VIP reception; noon screening free for children under 12 with autograph session to follow, Castro Theatre, SF. Tickets by calling 415-863-0611, or via Ticketweb.