On Christmas day in 1962, Mary Badham made her acting debut as Scout. In the minds of most people, the word “scout” conjures up routine images of troops, Native Americans and — to lovers of America’s pastime — pursuers of baseball talent. But to the die-hard movie fan — particularly those who can’t-get-enough-of-them film aficionados who grew up in the 60s — “scout” is not a word, but rather a name and it calls to mind only one thing: the critically-acclaimed film “To Kill a Mockingbird” and its then 10-year-old star.
Based on author Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, the movie, which opened on Christmas day is about a southern white lawyer defending an innocent black man unjustly accused of raping a white woman.
Badham was the youngest actress ever to be nominated for an Oscar. She lost out to eventual winner Patty Duke who gave a performance in “The Miracle Worker.” Besides that of Badham, the film was nominated for seven other Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor. The latter was deservedly won by its star Gregory Peck who played the role of Alabama lawyer Atticus Finch. It was Peck’s first Oscar win after being previously nominated four times.
In the film, Scout and her brother Jem learn how hatred and racism can hurt those in society, who may be the most innocent. When she auditioned for the role, Badham was living in Birmingham, Ala. She was young. But as an adolescent, are living in California where the movie was filmed, she saw the difference between races. She discovered her parents were not immune to the racial template being created in Birmingham when they forbid her to befriend a young, black delivery boy who had come to their home.
With her parents’ words you-are-not-in-California-anymore echoing in her brain, she decided she could no longer tolerate the discrimination and left Alabama for Arizona to live with her aunt. It was there that she finished her high school education, earned a college degree and met her future husband.
A month ago, she visited Northeast State in Blountville, Tenn., near Bristol, Tenn. With the film’s 50th anniversary just one year away, Badham stays busy traveling the country and around the world speaking to audiences about its message of racial prejudice and social injustice, neither of which she believes has completely gone away.
“Ignorance and bigotry and racism haven’t gone anywhere. They’ve just changed their clothes,” she said. “If you want to talk about the Mexicans, Muslims, or any ethnic group, it’s all the same. We really haven’t learned a whole lot.”
Badham’s primary target audience is high school and college students. She believes in the importance of the film’s messages and is trying to help young people better relate to them. But going one step further, she also encourages them to read Lee’s book, something she refused to do for years.
“I was perfectly happy in my little world of black-and-white,” said Badham. “But when I read the book, it totally changed my opinion about the whole thing. There are so many things in that book that are life lessons. You could basically use that book as a blueprint for life.”
Badham believes tolerance is one of the main tabulations of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and relays that to those in attendance wherever she goes.
“One of the things I talk about with kids is never let anybody tell you that you can’t talk with this person because they’re green with purple spots,” she said. “Every person you meet, regardless of whether they’re good or bad, learn something from that encounter that can stand you in good stead for later in life. Learn from those experiences and stay open-minded. It’s very easy to shut down and close people off. But when you do that, you end up hurting yourself and being weaker for it.”
Badham also speaks about another equally important message from the book — respecting your parents, especially if you’re a product of a single-parent home as Scout was.
“A lot of times, I ask the students at high schools, colleges and universities how many of them are from single-parent homes. It is the perfect time to talk to them about the trials and tribulations thereof, and the strength of Atticus and the support system that he had,” said Badham. “That really is a good talking point for the kids. It is important that you have parents that you respect. If the caregiver is not someone you respect, you can’t love them.”
Although “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a work of fiction, many believe it is autobiographical in nature. In fact, Lee’s father was a lawyer and there are those who surmise she drew upon him as the basis for Atticus. Badham believes everyone has a story to tell and encourages her listeners to document their life experiences.
“I particularly urge parents and grandparents to write down the family stories. If not, when they are gone, those stories are gone with them,” she said. “That’s what I miss from my family, a lot of those family stories. I wasn’t old enough to appreciate them at the time. If they are written down, then you’ve got something you can pass on.”
Badham’s film and television career was short-lived; it ended when she was just 14. But before it was over, she gave moviegoers memorable performances in two other movies — “This Property is Condemned” (1966) with Natalie Wood and “Let’s Kill Uncle” (1966) — as well as the television shows “Dr. Kildare” and “Twilight Zone.” Still, she doesn’t wonder what might have been and never missed the movie-making experience. What she does miss, however, is the TKAM family, most of which has passed on, including Brock Peters (Tom Robinson), Collin Wilcox (Mayella Violet Ewell) and Peck, who became a surrogate father to her after she lost both of her parents in early 20s.
While his life inspired her, his death was a sorrowful event. In effect, she had lost a beloved “parent” for the third time. Her remembrances of Peck are good, but she contends that all of her memories, even the not-so-good ones, have helped fortify her as a person.
“We all have to be tempered in our lives and if everything was sunshine and roses, you wouldn’t appreciate life as much,” said Badham. “We grow from those experiences.”
Scout, the character, narrates the events in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but from her perspective years later as an adult. Similarly, Badham, the actress, is looking back on the events of her life, including those childhood days long ago on the movie set of arguably one of the greatest films ever made, and sharing the lessons learned with receptive audiences everywhere.
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