Rivalry and racism: What really happened behind the scenes of ‘Mockingbird’

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If there’s ever a film made of “Go Set a Watchman” — Harper Lee’s wildly anticipated novel, out Tuesday — it will lack the very thing that made 1962’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” an instant classic: children.

And not just any kids growing up in the racially charged Alabama of the 1930s, when “Mockingbird” is set, but Scout and Jem Finch and their geeky neighbor, Dill.

Gregory Peck made no secret of how he felt about playing Atticus Finch, the compassionate small-town lawyer of “Mockingbird.” It was, he often said, his favorite part, though he went on to play many others.

But for Mary Badham — the Alabama 10-year-old cast as his tomboyish daughter — playing Scout defined her life. Now 62 and living in Pennsylvania, the mother of two retired from acting as a teenager, opting instead for an education. And she’s spent most of the past five decades talking about “Mockingbird” and its lessons of social justice.

She’ll read excerpts from both books Tuesday night at the 92nd Street Y’s Poetry Center, after which she might just answer the $6 million question: How did the kindly Atticus of “Mockingbird” turn into the bigoted old man of “Watchman”? And how, does she reckon, would Peck have taken the news?

The two remained close long after the cameras stopped rolling. As Badham told London’s Telegraph in 2012, the courtly actor guided and encouraged her until his death in 2003. “I always called him Atticus, and he still called me Scout right up to the end,” she said.

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Philip Alford, Mary Badham, John Megna in between scenes, 1962.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Philip Alford, Mary Badham, John Megna in between scenes, 1962.

When the film marked its 50th anniversary in 2012, Badham recalled that long-ago day when her mother heard that “movie people” were coming to Birmingham. She wanted to bring Mary to audition, but couldn’t do it without her husband’s permission.

“And, of course, my dad said no!” Badham told the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Luckily, her mom, an actress in an amateur theater company, was able to change the retired Air Force general’s mind.

“Now, Henry, dear,” she said. “What are the chances the child will get the part, anyway?”

The child did. And since the “Mockingbird” producers suspected it wasn’t safe to shoot a paean to civil rights in 1960s Alabama, cast and crew decamped to California, where the sleepy town of Maycomb was created on the studio’s back lot.

There, the mischievous girl and 13-year-old Phillip Alford, who played her saintly big brother, battled offstage and on.

“We despised each other,” Alford recalled. As he told brothers Tom and Jim Goldrup for their 2002 book, “Growing Up on the Set,” Badham used to mimic his lines so much, “I had to eat lunch 26 times and breakfast 22 times because of Mary.”

And so, when she wriggled into the tire that he and John Megna’s Dill rolled down the street, Alford said they were out for blood: “We tried to kill her, but we were too small and couldn’t get the tire going fast enough.”

Though they didn’t hurt her, Birmingham’s casual racism did. As Badham told the El Paso Times in 2012, “Everything in California was so different.” When she returned home from five months in Hollywood, she said, she was no longer welcome in friends’ homes, for fear of what she might have picked up out west.

In many ways, her experience echoed the discomfort Lee felt when she returned to Monroeville, Ala., after several years in New York, where she penned “Mockingbird.”

“I don’t trust myself to keep my mouth shut,” Lee told a friend. “If I feel moved to express myself, thereon it will get out all over Monroeville that I am a member of the NAACP . . . They already suspect this to be a fact anyway.”

In Badham’s case, the revelation came over a glass of lemonade she’d given the black child who delivered the groceries. They were sitting at the kitchen table, Badham recalled, when her mother told him to leave.

“She said, ‘You are not in California anymore,’” Badham told interviewer Alex Hinojosa. “I got so angry . . . so I went to speak to my father, and Daddy said, ‘Darling, your heart is in the right place — but your mother’s right. You’re not in California anymore.’”

And neither, it seems, is her old house — the Finch family’s home.

A Vanity Fair shoot a few years ago brought Badham back to the Universal Studios lot where the “Mockingbird” set had been painstakingly assembled by designer Henry Bumstead, using period homes slated to be demolished to make way for a freeway.

As Badham recalls it, a limo driver brought her to the set where Scout’s old street was, saying, “How does it feel to be home?”

But she didn’t see the house she was looking for, and started to cry.

“Didn’t they tell you?” a tour guide said to her. “One of the guards got disgruntled about something and he torched your house.”

The house was gone, but Badham’s fondness for Atticus and the man who played him never left. When she lost the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress — to 16-year-old Patty Duke, who played Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker” — she says she was relieved.

“Everyone had these wonderful thank-you speeches, and I didn’t have a clue what I was going to say,” she told London’s Telegraph.

Besides, she had a better reason to rejoice:

“Atticus won Best Actor!”

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