Interview: Mary Badham Talks Why To Kill a Mockingbird Matters
This month on Ticklish Business, the trio celebrated the 60th Anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird which first hit theaters in the winter of 1962. The film, which stars Mary Badham and Gregory Peck in the role of Atticus Finch, (a character he became forever associated with) has remained in the popular culture as essential viewing, especially for youngsters.
We had the immense pleasure to talk with Mary Badham, who steps into the part of Scout. Badham scored an Academy Award nomination for her first film role. She chatted with us about the film, the work of director Robert Mulligan, Gregory Peck, and her formative love of horses.
KP: You were so young when you jumped into To Kill a Mockingbird. It was your first movie. You came to Hollywood at this young age in this hotly anticipated movie. What was that experience like for you? I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about that.
MB: Well, it was just sort of numbing because I didn’t know anything about Hollywood. I didn’t know anything about movies (or) acting. It was all a new thing for me. I was just a normal little kid. So a little overwhelming at times, but interesting. I found it a very interesting experience.
KP: What was your history like with entertainment growing up? What movies did you like? Did you watch television?
MB: You have to understand, this was back in the day. I came from a very sheltered background, and I didn’t go to the movies. I don’t even think we went to the theater. My mother and my brother John were theater people, but I was only nine years old at the time. So that was totally not my gig. My passion in life was horses. Yeah. I spent most of my time at the barn.
KP: I did see a number of articles, especially right after the movie came out reporting about your passion for horses.
MB: Yeah, it was. It lasted my whole life. And, you know, when you learn to care for an animal as a young child, it really sets you up well, for life. You learn so much. And I tell parents all the time… you want to keep them off the streets and out of trouble, give them a horse.
It really is something that I loved and my dream in life was to become a large animal veterinarian. But unfortunately, in those days, the largest veterinary school on the east coast was Auburn University in Alabama. When my horse traveler came down with Navicular disease, I took him to Auburn, and I thought, well, as long as I’m here, I’ll go talk to the dean and see. He said, “Number one, you’re female. You women come in here and take all my best students. And number two, your grades aren’t good enough. Good day”. And that just blew my whole life. I had no idea what I wanted to do after that.
So, you know, then when it did come time for me to go to university, I thought, well, if they won’t let me in the front door, I’ll go through the back door. So I thought… I’ll start off in the animal science department. Well, that was a total bust because (if) you were in the School of Agriculture, the veterinary school didn’t even want to look at you. They wouldn’t even talk to you… But if you were a math major by that point… they would look at you.
It was so hard and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life other than that. Luckily I picked the right guy and we just made a wonderful life together. We’ve had all kinds of animals through the years, we’ve had all kinds of horses through the years, and have been very happy. We had two wonderful children. One, by birth and one, adopted. So we’ve done really well.
We love animals. We love being outside. My passion for gardening has always been there since I was a little girl. I had family members on both sides who were passionate gardeners, and that’s my passion now. I’d rather be in the garden than just about anywhere. If I don’t get out in the garden and get out in the sunshine on a pretty regular basis, I don’t do very well.
KP: We are coming up on the 60th anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird. What was it like being a child on that set? I was rewatching the film again last night and it seems so idyllic. The setting, your relationship with Gregory Peck. I’d love to hear you talk about just jumping into that shoot.
MB: Bob Mulligan our director, was an absolutely incredible director. He started off very gently because none of us were film kids. We weren’t actors. John (Megna) was the only (one). He had done some work in New York. He was from New York, and he was familiar with the film industry because his (half) sister was Connie Stevens. So he, I think, was a little bit familiar with it, but Philip (Alford) and I totally were not.
So they started off with cameras and equipment across the road, and then they would move up and get closer. We did all exteriors first and then we moved into the studio and worked on (the) interior shots. And it was just so much fun.
Mr. Mulligan made it playtime. It was just very easy. He was very gentle with us, and he never talked down to us. He would squat down in front of us and give us the lay of the land where the camera was going to be… where he wanted us to go (and) what he wanted us to do. But after that, you know, he turned us loose and let us do our work and say our lines. And if he found out later he needed to tweak it, he’d tweak it. But for the most part, he just let us do our job. And it was just so much fun.
KP: (Mulligan) has been one of my favorite filmmakers since college, so I definitely wanted to hear about your experience working with him. He’s somebody who I truly think never received the due he deserved. He was such a beautiful director.
MB: Exactly. I could not agree more. When I talk about direction with film students…. if you overcorrect, if you give too much, then what’s the point of hiring? People believe they need to show you their interpretation of that character, knowing full well the full application of what they’re doing, because, you know, you have to see what they’re going to give you first. Who knows, it may be something that you never thought about. It may have been something that didn’t come through during the read-through but can be magical when you come along. And I think we had quite a few of those moments in Mockingbird.
Bob was good though. I mean, he really knew how to get the reaction (he wanted). Let me give you a couple of examples. If you think back to the scene with Boo Radley’s father (Richard Hale), when… he’s going to cement up the tree. Bob Mulligan had Philip and I there concentrating on these things that we’ve taken out… you know how when you concentrate really hard, you’re not aware (of) what’s going on around you. He had him come around…when he takes that trowel and hits that board with the cement on it and then we look up… it scared us to death because… that was not part of our introduction to the scene. It was brilliant. It was absolutely brilliant so that he could get those wonderful moments.
The other one was the scene where I’m standing by the bedstead. He didn’t set the scene up. He just said, You’ve got to stand there. And then you’re going to say, you’re line. Well, when they open the door and there was Bob Duvall, that was the first time I’d ever seen him. I just say, “Hey, Boo”. He never let us see the other actors out of character, out of costume and makeup until after we were completely finished, with their filming. If you give away too much, it kind of can hinder your actors. Keeping things simple.
You know, a lot of directors want to shoot big long scenes all at once and then do it over and over and over again, which is just so annoying for the actors because you lose all spontaneity and you lose all the natural reaction. So (Mulligan) was, he was very good. And Alan Pakula, our producer, and Gregory Peck, they all were so focused on making the very best picture they could make. Everybody in front of the camera and behind the camera… well, not everybody because we didn’t really know what was going on… but the adults in the situation knew exactly what they wanted and they had a mission.
It was like a mission because if you study the history of the things that were going on at that time, things were so volatile… the studios didn’t want to touch it. They didn’t want to have anything to do with this film (because) they didn’t understand it. (There was no) love for it. They were used to a totally different thing. There were arguments about whether or not it should be shot in color, and they were adamant that they wanted it done in black and white. And there were reasons for that. And I think that’s kind of obvious.
KP: Alan Pakula is another filmmaker I just adore. He was just starting out on that film. Do you have any remembrances of working with him?
MB: Yeah, I mean, Alan Pakula was one of the dearest souls I’ve ever met. He was such a gentleman. He was the one who made the impassioned plea to my father to get me into the film. Well, everybody was. I never on that set heard an improper word. I’d never heard any heated arguments or discussions or anything. Everybody was so pleasant all the time. They were such gentlemen. It was the best set I’ve ever been on.
KP: You give such a natural performance. How did you wrap your head around playing that part at such a young age now?
MB: I was very much a tomboy. I was raised with boys (and) didn’t know anything really about little girls. Like I said, I’d rather be outside in the garden, you know, jeans and everything. That was just me.
My whole life was very similar to Scout’s. I mean, we had a Calpurnia and Mrs. Bitty Harris. We also had Mrs. Frankie McCall… our Majordomo. She looked after all my brother’s households. She stayed with us at the house, cooked and cleaned, and took care of the kids. We ate at the dinner table every night. That’s what my life was at home. It all just felt so natural.
One of the things people ask is my overall thought about the film and my understanding of it. I did not understand the whole thing because I don’t think I got a complete script. There were words and things that were deemed unacceptable for children and females to hear. When they did the courtroom scenes and a lot of the other scenes, I was not present because it was deemed unacceptable. It was a different era.
I don’t know how to express it other than as a parent and a grandparent. Now, I feel that our children are exposed to far too much they’re not allowed (to be) children now. It’s so sad. I see a lot of very angry children in this world who don’t have real parents. It’s one thing to have children, anybody can do that. But to be a real parent, you have to spend time and energy working with them and loving them, and taking care of them.
KP: Being present…
MB: Being present. Exactly. I was so blessed because my parents were very present. I mean, my dad had waited for me for well, he was 60 years old when I was born. He’d had boys, but he always wanted a little girl because he had sisters. And he loved having, you know, little girls to take care of. He thought they were just so much fun. He grew up in the Victorian era and he used to do his sister’s hair and he would do their little bows and he could do a bow better than anybody. So he would help out with that, he just loved it… then he got me. I was not a girly-girl.
KP: Watching so much of your work, from Mockingbird to This Property Is Condemned even to Dr. Kildare, you tackled such deep, challenging, adult content. How did you process that at such a young age.
MB: Yes. I mean, my mother and my father, whenever a script would come, they were extremely critical and really took time to think about the impact of it. My mother was very adamant that she wanted me to do important work and not frivolous work. I didn’t need to work, and she wanted me to enjoy it (and) have a good time, which I did right up until the ripe old age of 14 when I retired.
I was lucky enough to come from a background of educators on both sides. So education was very important to my parents, more so to my mother than to my father. I think my father would have been happy for me just to go to a nice finishing school… he would have been very happy with (that).
But as it was I was able to have a normal childhood in the beginning. Once I started working, things kind of came apart. You don’t go back to being a child after being treated like an adult. With working and being expected to have lines ready, show up on time… and do a regular workday, which most children are not familiar with.
So when I got back to Alabama, I didn’t fit in well at all. I really struggled because my dad had put me in an all-girls private school… it was horrible. It was absolutely horrible. And didn’t like that.
Luckily, my sister-in-law was a teacher in the L.A. school system. And she finally went to my father and said, “I’ve got to get her out of here. She is miserable and she’s not doing well and her grades are suffering and we need to fix this”. So she sent me to a wonderful boarding school in Arizona. I said, “There are only two rules. One, there have to be boys because I don’t get along with girls and I have to be able to have my horse”. Other than that, I’m good. So she did. She found Fenster Ranch School and it was in the middle of the desert. And I had a wonderful headmaster and incredible teachers. They were such good teachers. And thank God for Mrs. Chambers and some of the other teachers that were there, because they really got me through and kept me going.
KP: Coming out of Mockingbird, you were nominated for Best Supporting Actress in a year that could only be described as legendary with Thelma Ritter, Angela Lansbury, and Patty Duke. Very rarely do we see two young, young women nominated like that at the same time. What was that experience like?
MB: I had no clue what was going on. I didn’t know about the Oscars. I didn’t know about, you know, anything, really. So I just went and did what I was told. Mom was sitting somewhere else.
To show you my ignorance about what was going on, I had no idea it was being filmed. And this nice lady comes down the aisle and she goes, “Oh, dear, we have an extra person. Would you mind sitting back here?” and I’m like, “Sure, no problem!”… because they weren’t all sitting together, which is natural.
I bet the director was having a fit. So anywhere you see if you see any footage of that particular Oscars, you will not see me in there because I was not at my seat… I was terrified I was going to win because I didn’t have anything prepared and I didn’t know what to do. So luckily, Patty won it, and so everything was all right. And she was totally prepared more than prepared. She was amazing.
When you think about it, (we had) two Alabama works nominated for Oscars. And what stories! I mean, they’re just amazing. Mockingbird, though it was a piece of fiction, was totally accurate as far as the feel and the representation of what kind of things happened and very important pieces that needed to be put out there.
There was a lot that was in my family history that was very similar to (Mockingbird). So it’s just such an honor to be a part of something that was so important and has helped so many people.
When you look at the character of Atticus, who wouldn’t want Atticus Finch for a father? And that’s what we got at home. I mean, I used to spend weekends with the Peck’s and what you see on film is what we got at home. He was just wonderful. He was a great daddy. I used to say I had (daddies)… I had my father, I had Gregory Peck, and I had Brock Peters, who played Tom Robinson.
KP: Where can people learn more about you? Is there any place you’d love to direct our listeners to? Anything at all you’d like to promote?
MB: I’m not at liberty to say at this moment but I have something big in the works. So I’ll kind of leave it at that and just watch the press because if that happens, it happens.
KP: And you have a website as well…
MB: For more information check out http://www.marybadham.org.
If you haven’t yet, stop by the main feed and check out our episode 131 tribute looking at To Kill a Mockingbird with classic film author Tom Santopietro. A movie this legendary provides some fun opportunities for discussion and there is always so much more to be said.
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I greatly enjoyed your thorough and first-rate interview! I’ve only seen Mary Badham in Mockingbird, This Property is Condemned, and the Bewitchin’ Pool episode of TheTwilight Zone, but I was very interested in all that she had to say. I look forward to finding out about the project she wouldn’t talk about!