She played the original Scout Finch in the 1962 movie classic “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Starting Tuesday, Mary Badham stars in “To Kill a Mockingbird” at the Kennedy Center in the national tour of the 2018 Broadway production, which was adapted from Harper Lee’s novel and Horton Foote’s screenplay by playwright Aaron Sorkin and director Bartlett Sher.
“I went to see the Broadway production and was just totally overwhelmed,” Badham told WTOP. “It was so brilliantly done. Aaron is a magnificent writer. I never thought to be a part of it at all, then they called and kept asking. … I was totally unsure about doing the part. … It’s been a real learning experience for me. Theater is something totally new to me.”
This time, Badham plays Mrs. DuBose opposite Richard Thomas (“The Waltons”), who assumes the role of Atticus Finch, recently played on Broadway by Jeff Daniels.
“He is so brilliant with it,” Badham said. “He would have been my first choice for an Atticus because I just feel like he embodies all of that. He has done a perfect job with it. … Of course, Melanie Moore playing Scout, she is just brilliant. She is absolutely perfect. I couldn’t be more pleased with the whole entire cast. They’ve just been so magnificent.”
Of course, the role was originally played by Gregory Peck, who turned Atticus into the American Film Institute’s No. 1 Movie Hero of All Time when it compiled its list in 2003.
“What you saw on screen is what we got at home,” Badham said. “I would go home with the Pecks on the weekend. We became very close and stayed friends right up until he passed. He was an Atticus. He really was. He was so kind, generous, intelligent, well-read and just a very good role model for me because I lost my parents very early in my life.”
Indeed, Peck became a real-life father figure to Badham, who lost her parents young.
“My mother died three weeks after I graduated high school and Daddy died two years after I got married,” Badham said. “[Peck] would take the time to pick up the phone and call: ‘How are you doing, kiddo?’ … Whenever I was in Los Angeles, I’d go to their house. It was a very close relationship. He and Bernice picked up where Mother and Daddy left off.”
She was also mentored by Brock Peters, who played Tom Robinson in the film.
“Brock and I did a symphony program together … in Kansas where they played some pieces of music, then between the music we would tell little behind-the-scenes stories … things that happened off-camera,” Badham said. “I had my daddy, I had Gregory Peck and I had Brock Peters. Those three guys were my male role models.”
She’ll never forget getting the role of Scout, which caused a good-natured sibling rivalry with brother John Badham, the future director of “Saturday Night Fever” (1977).
“All he ever wanted to do was be in film and theater, that was his goal, he studied at Yale, working hard, beating his brains out to make it,” Badham said. “He gets a call from my mother, ‘Baby sister is going to be in a movie.’ He’s like, ‘What?’ Fast forward, ‘Baby sister has been nominated for an Academy Award,’ and I don’t think he’s ever forgiven me!”
On screen, Phillip Alford played brother Jem, while John Megna played their pal Dill.
“We just did our scenes day by day,” Badham said. “It was John and Phillip against me! You’ve got two guys wanting to play and do their thing, and here’s this girl trying to get in on stuff. We had this push-pull relationship like brothers and sisters, so it played very well on film because … we’d have these knockdown, drag-out fights. … It was playtime.”
She has vivid memories of this “playtime,” like acting inside a Halloween ham costume.
“It was made out of chicken wire and paper machete,” Badham said. “Our set manager made it [and] wanted to try it on me to make sure it would fit OK. When he did, it went right down and I couldn’t see out of the eye port, so he had to rig up a harness in there. It was so wide, it was a little difficult to maneuver around in it very easily, but we managed.”
Her biggest challenge was mustering tears on the porch swing next to Peck as Atticus teaches Scout a key life lesson: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
“I remember it very well,” Badham said. “We had such a hard time. I was having trouble crying because I was so happy. It was just fun, but here I have to have this very serious scene. It was difficult. I had to really figure out how to do that.”
Her first meeting with Boo Radley (a rookie Robert Duvall) looks authentic for a reason.
“We really didn’t get to know each other, we only shot that one day,” Badham said. “One of the brilliant things that Bob Mulligan, our director, did was we never saw anyone out of character. … I was leaving the set … and there’s this guy sitting on pallets by the backdoor and [Bob] goes, ‘Aren’t you going to say hi to Boo?’ I had no idea who he was!”
Not only does Scout deliver the line, “Hey, Boo,” realizing her recluse neighbor isn’t a bogeyman, she also delivers the innocent line, “Hey, Mr. Cunningham,” noticing her neighbor among a pitchforked mob and thus diffusing a potential lynching at the jail.
“It’s making them think,” Badham said. “When you put a group of people together in a mob, they lose their individuality and they don’t hold true to their real beliefs. What Scout does is she makes them remember their humanity and their individuality. She changes that dynamic to where they back off. This is one of the most powerful pieces of the film.”
She even draws parallels to the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
“My goal of going with this play … is very important to our country to remind us of who we are and what we want for our country,” Badham said. “We have to love one another. We have to take care of one another. We have to educate our people. … What I hope for this is that we can join our country together and make it stronger, better and happier.”
She says Lee’s novel proves that literacy is vital to combat ignorance.
“Education is the key to freedom and ignorance is the root of all evil,” Badham said. “I truly believe that. We need to work on educating our children. Parents, I ask you to please take time to work with your children, read to them from a very early age. If you start reading to your children early, that will be a lifelong thing that they carry with them and pass on.”
Ironically, Badham hadn’t read “Mockingbird” like so many generations since, because the 1960 novel came out less than two years before she began filming the 1962 movie.
“I knew nothing about the book, I knew nothing about the whole piece, I don’t think we even got complete scripts,” Badham said. “The trial scene, I was never exposed to any of that. It wasn’t until I saw the film that I saw the complete story and what it was about. I just remember sitting there in the theater in tears just totally awestruck by what happened.”
Audiences have a similar reaction to the courtroom climax as Black spectators stand up in the balcony out of reverence for Atticus’ fight to acquit a falsely accused Black man. As Elmer Bernstein’s music swells to a Black man nudging Scout, “Miss Jean Louise, stand up! Your father’s passing,” there’s not a dry eye in the house as Atticus solemnly exits.
“I remember [at] the AFI Awards, I took my daughter with me and I said, ‘I need you to go out into the lobby and get me a stack of napkins,” Badham said. “I was sitting next to Brock Peters, the Pecks were behind us and I knew I was going to cry. Well, the whole audience cried in that scene. You could hear it was so emotional for everyone in that room.”
In hindsight, critics acknowledge a problematic “white savior” trope while remembering “Mockingbird” for how groundbreaking it was in its time. The 1960 book and 1962 film predated Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and helped an entire generation ease into having difficult racial conversations. To dismiss it would be like “killing a mockingbird.”
“It was a very good educational tool in the fact that it was told from a child’s point of view,” Badham said. “That was very intentional in that it allowed us to talk about subjects that were known but not discussed openly. This allowed us to go through those different subjects and topics to where we could have rational discussions … and make inroads.”
She finally read the novel years later when it came time to raise her own kids.
“I didn’t read the novel until my daughter was 2,” Badham said. “A college professor said, ‘Would you come talk to my English lit class?’ … We meet for lunch. Before I even get seated he’s like, ‘What was your favorite part of the book?’ He could tell by the look on my face that I had not read the book. ‘Young lady! Your first assignment is to read this book!'”
It was Lee’s only novel, unless you count her anonymous contributions to Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” Badham met Lee on set and stayed in touch through various press events.
“I used to go to Monroeville, [Alabama] for the play that they perform there,” Badham said. “I knew where she lived and I went by one time, but she had a car there from out of town, so I said, I’m not gonna bother her.’ … The next time I saw her in the nursing room. … She said, ‘Young lady, don’t you ever come by here when you don’t say hi to me!'”
Lee died in 2016 amid controversy over whether she was of sound mind to publish “Go Set a Watchman,” which was billed as a sequel but was really an unfinished first draft.
“I don’t know about any of that,” Badham said. “I think it’s an interesting study for a writing class to show how an author goes through the push and pull of characters and storylines and then hones it down into what we have now. I think it’s valuable in that sense.”
Through it all, “Mockingbird” remains as timely today as it was in the 1960s.
“That’s kind of where we are today,” Badham said. “We’re still learning these lessons. I never would have dreamed that we would be where we are now, that we would have to still be having this discussion in 2022. I’m totally blown away by what’s happened in the last four years, six years. I am hoping [this play] will be the balm to heal our country. Again.”