Mary Badham entered the Hollywood system at the ripe age of 10. She was a young girl in Alabama who never dreamed of anything more than playing around with her brothers and hamming it up for her parents, but when the casting director of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD stopped by her hometown looking for the perfect Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, she thought maybe she would give this acting thing a try. Performing ran in her family.
“I never wanted to get into acting, I’ll tell you that right straight,” laughed Badham. “I was not the thespian in the family. My mom was the actress; she came over from England. She had done some work in theater and loved it [before] coming over here with my dad after World War II and started with a little theater and she was their leading lady for a number of years. She had this beautiful voice – I can’t hear her anymore – and she had her own radio show and she’d have all the latest and greatest on.
“My brother, John Badham, wanted –in the worst kind of way – to be in the movie industry,” continued Badham. “He was at Yale majoring in drama and he gets this phone call from my mother saying ‘guess what. Baby sister is going to be in a movie.’ Fast forward: ‘Guess what, baby sister’s been nominated for an academy award.’ He’s never forgiven me for that. I was just having a good time.”
But when the call to be in adaptation of America’s most popular novel of the time, you don’t hang up.
“Boaty Boatright, the talent scout, was traveling through the south’ said Badham “They wanted real children, not actors. They wanted real southern children and the accents to be right. You can’t take a kid from California and teach them a southern accent. It just doesn’t work. Body had interviewed about 4000 before she got to Alabama and she called New York and said ‘I want to come home.’”
Turns out Boatright was one stop away from meeting her perfect Scout. She just needed to get through Birmingham first before she could finally go home.
“She found Philip (Alford, Jem) and myself in the same theater,” Badham reflected. “My mother [was told] I was about the right size and coloring that I could maybe be Scout. She had to go ask my father and my father said no. But my mother said ‘what are the chances the child will get the part anyway?’
“We went in and I talked to them at the hotel. A couple of weeks later they had us go to the theater. Some kids came with prepared monologues and little skits, and I just got up on stage and just started fiddling with the set, making stuff up. Evidently that was the key. They were looking for nature children with natural imaginations that could just run with it.”
Badham travels around the country talking about the importance of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, a film that never shied away from being honest when facing American intolerance to outsiders.
“I tell people openly this was God’s picture,” Badham noted, her face opening with great reverie. “He had something he wanted to say and have it said when it was said. Here was a man who put his life and his family on the line to take a case he knew he couldn’t win anyway. Why did he do that? He did it because, as he said, ‘If I don’t do it I can’t tell you or Jem not to do anything anymore.’ He did what was right knowing that he might be crucified for it.”
Until his death, Badham and Gregory Peck (Atticus Finch) stayed in each other’s lives. She even considered him to be a surrogate father, reaching out to him throughout her life for guidance and support.
“We remained friends through all these years,” said Badham. “It’s rare that you get a cast and crew that hooks together and stays together as a family. And I call it our ‘Mockingbird’ family. They were incredible human beings. [Gregory Peck had such] a brilliant personality with a wonderful sense of humor. All those guys like to cut it up and play jokes – we had a million of them on set.”
The importance of seeing movies with an audience is often lost on modern viewers who prefer staying home with Netflix to going out to the theater, but that is where film festivals like the McKinney Classic Film Festival come in handy. Badham takes the stage tonight, Saturday, September 12th at the McKinney Performing Arts Center to discuss TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD after the film airs for attendees. She is expected to go into great detail about her experiences on set and take questions from the audience. Tickets are available at the box office.