Mary Badham Played Scout in "To Kill a Mockingbird." See Her Now at 69.
Here's what she says it was like on set of the iconic film.
The novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee was published in 1960, and the book saw instant success. It eventually went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and gained notoriety as a classic piece of American literature, ultimately becoming a fixture of high school libraries across the nation. Two years after the novel's debut, it was reimagined for the silver screen in a movie starring Gregory Peck as the noble lawyer Atticus Finch. Playing Jean Louise "Scout" Finch—Atticus' s daughter and the narrator of the film and book—in To Kill a Mockingbird was 10-year-old Mary Badham, a newcomer to acting. Following her remarkable performance, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, becoming the youngest person ever nominated for that particular honor. Recently, Badham has opened up about her role in the film, and shared behind-the-scenes memories of her time on set. Read on to see the actor now at 69, over six decades after she was first cast in the iconic role.
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Badham had never acted before being cast as Scout.
Just nine years old when she was cast, Badham says she had never acted a day in her life before auditioning for To Kill A Mockingbird. In fact, her father was against her auditioning at all, and it was only thanks to her mother's persuasion that she was given the opportunity. "My mom had to ask my dad, who said no. She said, 'Now, Henry, what are the chances that the child will get the part anyway?'" she recalled in a 2015 essay she wrote for The Guardian.
Immediately after her audition, Badham says she felt connected to the character. "When we went in for the audition, they gave us the script, and I read it and loved it. My mom said that the next morning I was popping out with lines already—Scout's lines. She knew I had something," she recalled. The rest, as they say, is history.
Badham shared that despite—or perhaps thanks to—her inexperience, making the film "was a blast," adding that "being on the set was playtime." She also recalled learning a lot from the film's director. "Bob Mulligan was one of the best directors ever," wrote Badham. "He would squat down and get eye to eye and talk to me like an adult. I don't ever remember him talking to us like children. He would just set up the scene for us: 'The camera's gonna be here, you're gonna be here. We're gonna move this way. And then you do your line.' How I delivered the lines was left to me. I could do them on the fly. I think it shows."
It wasn't until later in life that the movie's message really hit home for her.
Badham says it surprises people to learn that it wasn't until adulthood that she finally read the novel To Kill a Mockingbird. "I didn't read the book until after I had my daughter," she recalled in her piece for The Guardian, adding, "How many times have you seen a film and read the book, and it alters your impression? I had my whole life up there on screen, and I was perfectly happy with the way it was."
Perhaps because of her age at the time, she says it also took years for the the story's message to fully sink in—yet once it did, she found it transformative. "I didn't understand the importance of the film until much, much later," she wrote. Today, she says the story is still relevant, and just as urgent. "The messages are so clear and so simple. It's about a way of life, getting along, and learning tolerance. This is not a black-and-white 1930s issue, this is a global issue. Racism and bigotry haven't gone anywhere. Ignorance hasn't gone anywhere," she wrote.
The former child actor remained close with Gregory Peck until he died.
Badham says her friendship with the movie star Gregory Peck continued long after the film wrapped. She told the magazine Southern Living that after just five months of filming, their relationship became truly familial: she would spend weekends at his home and thought of his children as her "siblings." Until he died, she continued to call the A-list actor "Atticus." "Well what else was I gonna call him? Greg was not happening, and Mr. Peck was too formal. We were too close for that," she said, affectionately.
In The Guardian, she shared that Peck became even more of a father figure after her own parents passed away. "He was so wonderful. I miss him a lot. Years later, the phone would ring, and he'd be on the other end of the line. 'What ya doing, kiddo?' He'd check on me just to see how I was doing, because I lost my parents very early," Badham shared. "Atticus would call and check on me. If he was gonna be on the east coast, he'd say, 'I'll take you out to lunch.' And whenever I was in California, I'd always go visit. He was such a role model, and I always wanted him to be proud of me," she wrote.
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She acted in a handful of other films after To Kill a Mockingbird, then left Hollywood behind.
In total, Badham has just seven Hollywood credits to her name, including To Kill a Mockingbird. During the '60s, she appeared in one episode of Dr. Kildaire, one episode of The Twilight Zone, and two films: This Property Is Condemned (1966) and Let's Kill Uncle (1966). She then took a long hiatus from acting at the age of 14, not returning to the silver screen again until 2005 to make the movie Our Very Own, starring Allison Janney, Keith Carradine, and Cheryl Hines. Most recently, in 2019, she appeared in the made-for-TV horror film Erasing His Past.
Instead of chasing the next Hollywood project, Badham moved back to Virginia to become an art restorer. "The now-retired actor spends her days traveling across the country to speak to schools, groups, and at special events about the importance of the message behind the beloved film—and to visit her grandbabies," reports Southern Living.