'Mockingbird' film at 50: Lessons on tolerance, justice, fatherhood hold true

Story highlights

  • Actress Mary Badham ("Scout") called Gregory Peck "Atticus" until the day he died
  • Badham: "Mockingbird" teaches about being a father, being a family, being a community
  • "Mockingbird" author Harper Lee remains a confidante of Peck's daughter, Cecilia
  • Cecilia Peck on her father: "As much as he put of himself into the role, Atticus became him"

"Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passin'."

One of the greatest lines in Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird," as well as the film adaptation of the same name, was spoken by the Rev. Sykes as attorney Atticus Finch exited the fictional Maycomb, Alabama, courtroom.

Black spectators, relegated to the courthouse balcony, stood in solidarity with the courageous white lawyer who had defended Tom Robinson, an African-American man wrongly accused of rape in the 1930s Deep South. Jean Louise "Scout" Finch, Atticus' young daughter, watching from the so-called colored balcony, was prodded by the reverend to do the same.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" is the story of single dad Atticus Finch and his family, as told from the standpoint of Scout. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the film phenomenon.

The title comes from the scene in which Atticus explains how when his father gave him a rifle as a boy, he told him that he could shoot blue jays, but it was a sin to kill a mockingbird because mockingbirds "don't do anything but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat people's gardens, don't nest in the corncribs, they don't do one thing but just sing their hearts out for us."

The movie was released earlier this week as a special DVD/Blu-ray combo pack in honor of the 50th anniversary, and one of the extras is the film's trailer, in which actor Gregory Peck says, "The world never seems as fresh and wonderful, as comforting and terrifying, as good and evil as it does when seen through the eyes of a child."

Atticus Finch is one of the greatest fictional dads of all time, and in honor of the film's half-century mark, both his daughters spoke to CNN. That is, Peck's real life daughter, Cecilia Peck, and the actress who played Scout, Mary Badham.

By all accounts, Peck, who won the Academy Award for his portrayal of Atticus, embodied his character's values on and off screen.

"He was an Atticus," Cecilia Peck said. "He really was that kind of father to me and my brothers. I believe that he was always very much like Atticus but I think that doing the film when we were very young made him become even more that way and I think as much as he put of himself into the role, Atticus became him, too."

Badham, who called Gregory Peck "Atticus," said her onscreen father "was such a great daddy. He was such a great role model and he was so much like my own father. When my own father died two years after I got married, Atticus stepped up. It was wonderful. I'd pick up the phone and he'd be on the other end, 'Whatcha doin', kiddo?' 'How're ya doin?' I'd visit with his family, which I still do. It was a great relationship."

Mary Badham as Jean Louise "Scout" Finch.

Badham also said actor Brock Peters, who played Tom Robinson in "To Kill a Mockingbird," served as a father figure as well.

"I kid people and say I had reverse Oreo daddies because I had my daddy and Gregory Peck and Brock Peters," said Badham.

Brock Peters and Gregory Peck remained close friends. When Peck died in 2003 at age 87, it was Peters who delivered the eulogy.

Cecilia Peck noted that her father was "so much like his characters in his films. I am so fortunate that he was just that kind of person. He had great integrity, he had great dignity, and he was a true humanitarian."

Cecilia Peck

Cecilia said that "To Kill a Mockingbird" resonates as a family story and as a father/daughter story.

"It looks at that question of being a single parent and how you balance your parenting with your work life," she said, "it just speaks to people on so many levels."

Cecilia was the youngest of Gregory Peck's five children, and the only girl, "so he was very protective, he was very strict with me," she said. "He placed a lot of value on the importance of education. We all have college degrees -- I'm sure we would have anyway -- but education was highly valued in our house. He was strict but fair. He was so loving. Even though he was working so hard when we were growing up, he was always there at school for our sports events and our little school productions. We went on location with him as much as we could. We were a very close family."

Cecilia got to work with her father twice. She played his daughter in "The Portrait" and made a documentary about him called "A Conversation with Gregory Peck," which is included on the new Blu-ray 50th anniversary disc. Cecilia called it "a very personal film about him that probably expresses more eloquently my feelings about my father than I ever could in words."

Badham, who turns 60 this year and is now a mother and a grandmother, said that "To Kill a Mockingbird" "set the standard for how I wanted to parent. It serves as a model for how to live one's life. There are a lot of people who have done that. They've taken this book and this film and modeled their lives after it because it has all of life's lessons included in it that we just don't seem to have learned yet. It's one of the greatest books and movies in teaching about being a father, about what it is to be a family and what it is to be a community. It's just brilliant for that."

Mary Badham today.

Cecilia, 53, was just a toddler when "Mockingbird" was filmed, but she said she has a few memories of Gregory Peck bringing her on-set.

"I remember being in his arms and dancing with him at the wrap party on the back lot of Universal Studios," she recalled. "I was a toddler so I don't remember the whole experience but I have a few images, and then I have lifelong friendships that came from that time -- with Mary Badham and also with Harper Lee. I was also very close to [producer] Alan Pakula and [director] Bob Mulligan for their whole lives as well as Brock Peters and [screenwriter] Horton Foote and really everyone who was part of it -- they were all like family."

Badham's hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, is 200 miles north of Harper Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Alabama -- the inspiration for Maycomb, the fictional town where "To Kill a Mockingbird" took place between 1932 and 1935. In the DVD commentary, director Mulligan (who passed away in 2008) noted that they didn't film on location in Monroeville because "the town no longer existed."

Mulligan had taken hundreds and hundreds of photographs down South so as to ensure he got the atmosphere, from houses to the plants in people's gardens, just right. The Universal Studios back lot consisted of a village of period buildings. An exact replica of the Monroeville courthouse was created. The houses -- including the Finch house -- were actually old Southern-style Pasadena bungalows that were being torn down to make way for a freeway.

"Mockingbird" was a prestigious assignment for the director because the book had been a best-seller, "but it was a best-seller with a moral, which Hollywood doesn't always like," said Raymond Foery, professor of film studies at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, who applauded the director for remaining "faithful to the tone of the book."

Badham had no acting experience when she was cast as Scout. She was 9 years old at the time but small for her age, which was fortunate because her character aged from 6 to 9 through the duration of the film. Mulligan said he was seeking Southern children to portray Atticus' son and daughter, Jem and Scout, and that he specifically did not wish to work with Hollywood actors because he believed they "lose their sense of childhood at around [age] 8."

Badham recalled a happy, fun-loving set that was "like playtime every day." She recalled fighting like real siblings with actor Phillip Alford, who played Jem.

"They'd let a lot of that stuff go because it made it more real when we were working together on film," said Badham. "They didn't interfere with those fights or anything."

On one occasion, Alford was spinning Badham in a tire and aimed her toward a utility truck off-camera. As a result, the famous scene where Scout rolls into town recluse Boo Radley's yard actually contains a stunt double.

The famous tire scene.

"I survived, but after that they put a stunt double in, so you'll see me in the beginning and at the very end," Badham recalled.

Harper Lee often visited the set, and remains a close friend of Cecilia's.

"Harper became a confidante and adviser to me," Cecilia said. "When I was studying literature in college, I would call her to talk about books; and when my son was born, we named him Harper. She would come to read to him when he was a baby. It's a lifelong relationship."

Lee based the character of Dill Harris, Scout and Jem's partner-in-Boo-Radley-tormenting-crime, on her real-life childhood friend, Truman Capote.

In Mary McDonagh Murphy's documentary film, "Hey Boo: Harper Lee and 'To Kill a Mockingbird'," narrator Bob Mayer said "the movie amplified the novel and rode the wave of the civil rights movement."

At the time, Birmingham was the center of the civil rights battle. In 1961, just months before the film's release, activists known as Freedom Riders were hopping aboard buses in the North to challenge segregation in the Deep South. In spring 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led demonstrations in Birmingham that eventually led to the end of segregation in the United States.

Historian Diane McWhorter was a classmate of Mary Badham's. The entire fifth grade class attended a "To Kill a Mockingbird" screening upon the film's release.

In "Hey Boo," McWhorter recalled being upset that Atticus didn't get Tom Robinson off, because he was clearly innocent. But she noted that, because of her 1950s-1960s Deep South upbringing, she was "upset about being upset."

McWhorter thought that "by rooting for a black man, you were kind of betraying every principle that you had been raised to believe." McWhorter recalled thinking, "What would my father think if he saw me fighting back these tears when Tom Robinson gets shot?" because, at the time, "to be crying for a black man was so taboo." She recalled "confronting the difficulty that Southerners have in going against people that they love."

Racism was the norm in 1930s Alabama, where Atticus couldn't convince a jury to acquit Tom Robinson, and it remained prevalent in 1960s Alabama.

Cecilia Peck said "To Kill a Mockingbird" "resonates on so many levels. It deals with the issues of racial injustice in a way that enables a dialogue that's so important still today."

Badham noted in "Hey Boo" that racism, bigotry and ignorance haven't gone anywhere, and "this is not a black and white America, 1920s issue. These are issues that are global."

She said "To Kill a Mockingbird" "went a long way towards helping with the societal changes that we've been through since then."

The book that accompanies the DVD also includes several pages from Gregory Peck's "To Kill a Mockingbird" shooting script, including the actor's own notes and scribbles. On the very last page of the script, he simply wrote the words: fairness, stubbornness, courage, love.

Overall, Atticus taught his children fairness and the importance of accepting people from all walks of life. When Scout makes fun of her backwoods classmate, Walter Cunningham, for pouring syrup over his entire meal and expresses a curiosity over Boo Radley's rumored morbid ways, Atticus gently reminds her that "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."

This brings up two subtle but notable scenes from the film that hinge on the word "hey." In the scene where Atticus is standing guard outside Tom Robinson's jail cell, it is Scout who diffuses the situation by picking out Walter's father from among the lynch mob and asking him to tell Walter she said "hey." At the very end of the film, when Scout realizes the mysterious man who saved her and Jem's lives is Boo (Robert Duvall in his dialogue-less screen debut), she looks at him, and says "Hey Boo." In a way, the word "hey" is code for, "we're equal."

Boo Radley and Scout Finch.

While Atticus was always straightforward with his kids, never mincing words, like any parent, he desperately wanted to keep them out of harm's way. Atticus' line to Jem after the boy encountered a drunken Bob Ewell sums it up perfectly:

"There's a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep 'em all away from you. That's never possible."