I remember two things, in particular, about November 22, 1963. Sitting in my middle-school Spanish class, the voice came over the intercom telling us, “The president has been shot.”
“Who would shoot Mike McGovern?” yelled one student, referring to our head of school. The second thing I recall is that it was “come as you wish you were” day at school. I was in overalls and a plaid shirt, dressed as my heroine, Scout Finch, in To Kill A Mockingbird.”
So, imagine—as that very date is recalled this month—my emotion having just interviewed Mary Badham, now roughly my age, who portrayed Scout in the movie. She was brilliant and at 10, the youngest Oscar nominee up to that time. Who can forget her kind innocence (“Hey, Mr, Cunningham, I said, Hey, Mr. Cunningham”) that disarmed the group of KKK-types outside the jail cell holding the black man her father was representing? I wrote her a fan letter, and she did respond, which I told her as we spoke this week.
Scout Speaks Again
And why is Mary Badham speaking now? In a clever stroke, the producers of the national tour of Aaron Sorkin’s theatrical take on Mockingbird, have cast her as the nosy and, frankly, racist and drug-addled neighbor of the Finch family. The offer came out of the blue and has been a gift to Badham, who lives on a farm in Virginia with her husband of almost 50 years.
The minute Mary walked in, I knew I’d found Scout.
“I have never done theatre,” she says, “and thought they were kidding at first. They flew me to New York for a table read and then they asked me to join this production.” It is not as it was when she first performed it. “This is Aaron’s work, not Harper Lee’s and not Horton Foote’s,” she says. “It is fast, it’s funny, and a fresh new take an old, and sadly still relevant, story. As of now, we’ve done about 260 performances and will keep traveling through July.”
Her own back story—the little girl who I wanted to be (until Hayley Mills came along)—is fascinating. She was living in Birmingham when a legendary talent scout (Boaty Boatwright, now 90) came looking for local children to play Scout, Jem (her brother) and Dill, (“I’m little but I’m old”) the summer neighbor supposedly based on Truman Capote. “I had seen a thousand children in the South, but the minute Mary walked in, I knew I’d found Scout,” says Boatwright. “She looked like a seven- or eight-year-old Audrey Hepburn.”
“I was just a kid and had no idea what I was even reading for then,” Badham recalls. She later had a screen test in New York and has a faint memory of “Gregory Peck picking us up at the airport.”
She did some acting after—a Twilight Zone, two episodes of Dr. Kildare and a movie I loved, This Property is Condemned with Natalie Wood and a relative newcomer named Robert Redford. “He was the nicest man, “Badham says, “but it was a chaotic production in Mississippi. They were rewriting the script daily and went from original blue pages to changed pink pages. Finally, they ran out of colors!”
Learning the Important Life Lessons
But it is To Kill a Mockingbird, in all its forms, that will forever be part of Mary Badham’s life. She uttered two of the most famous words in literary and film history. (“Hey Boo.”) She’s spoken many times to classes and women’s organizations about the book and is furious with the fact that it is being banned in various parts of the country. “These are important life lessons we still haven’t learned yet,” she says. “It’s upsetting that people are so ignorant about race and women’s issues that have not changed.”
It’s upsetting that people are so ignorant about race and women’s issues that have not changed.
Meanwhile she’s loving doing live theatre. “The audience changes every night and I love seeing how the actors go along with the laughs and gasps in different places,” she says. “And the crews are so amazing. As long as I’m learning something new, I’m happy.”
She may be playing a nasty neighbor now, but she will always be my Scout. “Somehow, I know why I’m supposed to be here,” she says, “whether it’s the book, the film, or this play. This is God’s picture and I guess he wants me to stay in it.”