For Mary Badham, Gregory Peck was always Atticus.
Badham first met the movie legend on the set of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” the 1962 film adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic novel, in which she played Scout Finch, the daughter of Atticus Finch, played by Peck.
Scout and her brother Jem call their father by his first name, and over the course of the 40-year friendship she shared with Peck following the making of the film, Badham kept on calling him Atticus.
“I didn’t know what else to call him,” Badham says during a phone interview from her home near Richmond, Virginia. “I certainly wasn’t going to call him Greg, and Mr. Peck was too formal. He was (Atticus), and I was his Scout, and that’s just the way it was.”
Badham will share her memories of making “To Kill a Mockingbird” when she hosts a talk titled “Looking Back with Scout: A Conversation with Mary Badham” on Monday and Tuesday, November 7 and 8, at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey in Madison. The talk coincides with the theater’s current production of Christopher Sergel’s stage adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” running through Sunday, November 20.
For anyone who’s never seen the movie nor read the book, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama (based on Lee’s hometown of Monroeville) during the Depression.
Atticus Finch is a widowed father of Scout and Jem. He is a lawyer who defends a black man named Tom Robinson (played by Brock Peters in the film) who is accused of raping a white woman. The story is told through the eyes of young Scout, who plays with Jem (Phillip Alford) and their friend Dill (played by John Megna).
The three children are obsessed with getting a glimpse of Boo Radley, the neighborhood recluse (played by Robert Duvall in his film debut). But the crux of the story is about race, Atticus’ stance for justice, and the relationship between Atticus and Scout.
When asked what she will discuss during her talks, Badham says that’s largely up to the audience. She says she typically will tell her story a bit, then take questions, many of which are certain to be about the movie, but says the conversation can go “all over the map.”
Audience members can expect Badham to be friendly, charming, and generous with her answers while also being strong in her opinions.
“I try to work in a little history to talk about the way things were when I was growing up as a kid compared to the film’s time period of the 1930s and how far we’ve come now concerning social issues, political issues, and women’s issues,” she says.
Badham grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. Her father, Henry Lee Badham Jr., was the president of Bessemer Coal, Iron, and Land Company. He was a longtime military man, serving in the cavalry on the Arizona border after the Spanish-American War. He was also a pilot for the military, serving in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War, eventually becoming a general in the Air Force. He was also an adviser during Vietnam.
Her mother, also named Mary, was an actress who hosted a radio show. Mary has one brother and several half siblings, including the director John Badham, whose films include “Saturday Night Fever.”
Young Mary had no desire to act when her mother took her to an audition to play Scout, which was held near where they lived because the producers wanted authentic Alabama kids to play Scout and Jem.
“I didn’t know what the movie business was,” she says. “I had no clue. I wasn’t a child of the movies.” While many kids today know all sorts of details about their favorite stars, she says that in her day she just knew about playing outside with her friends. “I didn’t even listen to the radio other than classical music. I didn’t know there was any other kind of music beside classical music until I got into like fourth grade or something.”
She didn’t even know who Peck was, even though he had been a major star for about 15 years. “Not a clue, my mom sure knew who he was,” she says. “I think my mom was on Cloud Nine the entire time.”
Neither was young Mary fazed when she received an Oscar nomination for her performance as Scout. She attended the ceremony and parties, sat on Danny Thomas’ knee, but didn’t know who anyone was.
“The thing I can remember is sitting there, and I would listen to these speeches, and everybody had these wonderful speeches, and I thought, ‘What if I win this thing? What will I say?’” she says. “I was so thrilled when Patty Duke won it (for playing Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker”), and to this day I feel like she really deserved it because I was just out there playing and having a good time.”
She adds that Duke, in her opinion, deserved her Oscar because of the years she spent playing Keller on stage and because her role was more physical and psychological. “I don’t know how she did it. I think she won it hands-down as far I was concerned.”
Playing Scout led to friendships with many of her co-stars and other people associated with the movie, including author Harper Lee, who hasn’t published another book since “Mockingbird” and has given nary an interview since the film’s release.
“Ms. Lee came to the set, and she visited with us for a little while but I didn’t really get to know her until recently,” Badham says. “Now whenever I go in the area where she is, I’ll try to stop in and visit her.”
After “Mockingbird,” Badham acted in a few more movies and did some guest appearances on television. She acted in the last aired episode of “The Twilight Zone,” titled “The Bewitchin’ Pool,” which took a few cues from “Mockingbird” — Badham’s character was named Sport and her brother’s name was Jeb. After a few more parts, including two movies released in 1966, she left acting at the age of 14.
She eventually attended the University of Arizona in the mid-1970s, majoring in animal studies, but didn’t graduate. She and her husband have been married 36 years and raised two children — a daughter who is 29 and a son who is 18. (She does not reveal the names of her husband or children as a matter of privacy.)
She has worked several jobs over the years, with her most recent being at a community college as a test center coordinator. But she left that a few years ago when interest in “Mockingbird” increased, offering her more speaking opportunities.
Pursuing a steadier life was one reason she left acting. Another reason she stayed away were her feelings about way the movies changed starting in the 1960s. “It’s horrifying,” she says. “I was kind of sad to see that happen because there was a certain level of protection before, and now I feel like there really isn’t anymore. And as a parent and a grandparent, I felt like I had a little bit of control before. And now our children are exposed to foul language and violence and hatred on such a large level that it’s almost impossible to protect them from it. So the only thing you can do is make your family strong enough and let them understand what your hopes and wishes for them are so that the love is strong enough to carry them through all that stuff.”
She did, however, return to acting with a role in the 2005 movie, “Our Very Own.”
“I had always said that I would not go back to the business unless I could find a cast and crew and script that I could feel comfortable with. And ‘Our Very Own’ was that script,” she says. “It was absolutely wonderful. Cameron Watson (who wrote and directed the movie) is one of the most talented human beings I have ever met in my life; he is just amazing. And we just clicked. And (co-stars) Keith Carradine, Allison Janney, and Jason Ritter, that’s such a stunning cast of just incredible actors.”
Making movies can be difficult, she says, if the cast and crew doesn’t get along, but she says her rules still apply — if the right mix of script and crew came along, she thinks she’d step in front of the cameras again.
“It’s so much fun, oh my gosh, it’s one of the most fun jobs you can have, being able to play somebody else and hang out in another character,” she says. “And you meet so many wonderful people.”
She has many memories of making “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and the movie remains an important part of her life, but she no longer watches it.
“I can’t now, it’s just too painful because everybody’s gone basically,” she says. Particularly tough was the two-year span between 2003 and 2005 when composer Elmer Bernstein, Peck, and Peters died.
In 2005 Badham and Peters were scheduled to make an appearance in Kansas. When she arrived she found out her friend couldn’t make it because he was sick. Knowing Peters would cancel an appearance only if he were seriously ill, she booked a flight to California to visit him.
“We spent an incredible day together, had a very nice visit, and he passed away,” she says. “But we had that day together, we had a blast and a good time, he was so cute and funny as always. Those guys were so intelligent, they were so well read and just amazing human beings. I got to work with some of the best, I really did.”
Despite her connection to “To Kill a Mockingbird” Badham didn’t read the novel until she was an adult and agreed to speak to an English class at a nearby college and had lunch with the professor beforehand. “Before I even had a chance to sit down, he said, ‘So what is the favorite part of the book for you?’ I guess he could tell by the look on my face that I hadn’t read the book,” she says.
The professor said her first assignment was to read the book. And as she did, she discovered new characters, learned a bit more about Boo Radley, and was struck by the ending featuring Atticus and Scout.
“It really brought the whole thing full circle, and the end just tore me to pieces,” she says. “I still have a hard time with that last chapter. But what a brilliant book, it’s a real tiny one-night read, but oh my goodness. Every lesson that we should all know is in that book.”
“Looking Back with Scout: A Conversation with Mary Badham,” Monday and Tuesday, November 7 and 8, Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison. $40 to $50. 973-408-5600 or www.ShakespeareNJ.org.
“To Kill a Mockingbird,” Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, F.M. Kirby Theater, Drew University, Madison. Through Sunday, November 20. Pulitzer-prize winning tale by Harper Lee directed by Joe Discher. $31 to $54.