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Cline column: Enjoying every second with ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ actress

Friday, March 30, 2012 12:00 AM | Printer friendly version | E-mail to a friend | Comments Mike Cline meets Mary Badham, who holds a photo of her as Scout. Submitted photo. By Mike Cline For the Salisbury Post If it hadn’t been for an email from friends Karen and David, I would have missed her again. Such was the case last year at an appearance (hers, not mine) in Lenoir. And several times in Los Angeles in the past. But Davidson County Community College was the site of my meeting Mary Badham. Maybe she’s not a household name like Angelina Jolie, but when I mention that Mary portrayed the young Jean Louise “Scout” Finch in the movie “To Kill A Mockingbird” … now you know who I’m speaking about. Mary, who lives on a farm with her husband in Virginia, has been making some speaking appearances over the last year or so commemorating the 50th anniversaries of both the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (1960) by Nelle Harper Lee and the motion picture adaptation (1962). Thanks to Karen and David’s “heads-up,” I went to hear Badham speak at Davidson County Community College. I arrived about 45 minutes before the program, and fortunately for me, Mary came in about 10 minutes behind me. So I used the time engaging her in conversation, firing off some questions that I was sure she wouldn’t address during her discussion. I told her of my meeting the late Brock Peters (Tom Robinson in the movie) in a Hollywood restaurant. He was paying his check when we (my friend John and I) spotted him. We left our table to speak with him before he left the building, and he was so very gracious. Mary agreed, and said she had loved Brock during the five-month shooting of the movie. She related how one weekend, Brock and his wife invited all the cast and crew over to their home for a party. Jazz musicians from New Orleans, Chicago and New York had flown in to “jam” at the party. Even for a 10-year old, Mary said, she had a blast. She and Peters remained in touch until he passed away in 2005. In fact, Mary stayed close with many of the cast, as well as the director, Robert Mulligan. In April 1997, Mary reunited with many of the surviving cast and crew on a national satellite broadcast to many U.S. schools. During her presentation last week, Badham recalled her initial meeting with Gregory Peck on the first day of shooting. She didn’t know a lot about him (remember, Mary was only 10). He said to her, “I will be playing your father, Atticus.” She replied, “Hi, Atticus.” The two got along wonderfully. In fact, from that day on, she considered Peck her second father, and they remained close until his death in 2003. She would see Peck frequently when he came to the East Coast. When Peck would call her on the phone, she’d say, “Hello,” and he would say, “Hi, Scout.” She replied, “Hey Atticus,” just like in the movie. She never called him Mr. Peck, and he never called her Mary. Mary Badham had much in common with Jean Louis Finch. Mary was born and reared in Birmingham, Ala., and as a child, witnessed racial intolerance just as Scout did in the fictional town of Maycomb, Ala. Mary was, to a large degree, brought up by an African-American woman, Miss Nettie, just as Scout and brother Jem were cared for by Calpurnia, in the book and movie. Her mother took Mary to a Birmingham “cattle call,” a massive audition by the film producers to find the right kids for the film. With no acting experience whatsoever, Mary was selected, flown to New York City for a screen test and then signed for the role. For her debut acting job, Mary was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award (the youngest person, at that time, to earn a nomination). Ironically, she would lose to another juvenile, Patty Duke, who portrayed Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker.” Mary stayed in the business just a few more years, making a couple more movies and several television appearances. She did the final “Twilight Zone” episode of the series.Then she walked. After all, how does one top “To Kill A Mockingbird”? The entire movie was shot at the Universal Studios in Burbank, on sound stages and the back lot. In the age of movies routinely photographed in color, TKAM was purposely filmed in black and white … for mood. Black and white better suited the Great Depression and the poverty-stricken town of Maycomb, Ala. Mary admitted that she, Philip Alford (Scout’s brother, Jem) and John Megna (their friend Dill, whom Harper Lee had based on her childhood friend Truman Capote) were a bit mischievous during the shooting of the film, but they got their comeuppance the final day of work. The last scene of the movie shot was the jailhouse scene in which Atticus sits guard outside the jail all night so the townspeople can’t get their hands on Tom Robinson. They did several “takes” on the final shot. As soon as the director yelled, “Cut, that’s it,” the youngsters noticed that Gregory Peck took a giant step to the side. Before they could react, all three kids were drenched with buckets of water from the catwalk above them. Director Robert Mulligan yelled, “Gotcha!” And with that, Mary’s work on a now-legendary motion picture ended. She said she enjoyed every second of the experience. I enjoyed every second of the experience of spending time with Mary Badham. It sure beats “The Price Is Right.” Mike Cline’s website, “Mike Cline’s Then Playing,” documents every movie played in Rowan County theaters from 1920 through 1979.

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