To Kill a Mockingbird at 50: Cecilia Peck and Mary Badham on its Legacy, Lessons and Life With Gregory Peck

Some adaptations of great literature become so beloved and important in their own right that it can be hard to separate where the book ends and the movie begins. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those cases. Released in 1962, two years after Harper Lee’s novel was published, the movie propelled the nationwide discussion on racial inequality and introduced characters that went against the norm yet were easy to relate and aspire to. Scout and Atticus Finch are finding their footing in a challenging environment, not an alien concept for generations of junior high and high school kids who are assigned to read the book.

These days, those students might also be shown director Robert Mulligan's classic film -- featuring Gregory Peck in an indelible, Oscar-winning turn as Atticus Finch, a Southern attorney who defends an African-American man unjustly accused of rape -- as a complement to Lee's book. The movie has left an impression on generations of Americans, but two women with a close relationship to it — Peck's onscreen daughter, Mary Badham, and his actual daughter, the filmmaker Cecilia Peck — found that it steered them into adulthood in a more direct way. (The Atticus role is so inseparable from Peck and his legacy that Badham, herself an Oscar nominee for her performance as Scout Finch, still refers to the actor as Atticus half a century later.) Indeed, an adult revisiting To Kill a Mockingbird will discover a new perspective on the story and its lessons, going beyond the adventures of Scout, Jem and Dill. For Badham and Peck, taking a look back also reveals how Atticus, and the man who played him so perfectly on film, shaped them as adults and as parents.

Mockingbird is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a new collector’s edition DVD, due Jan. 31. Movieline caught up with Mary Badham and Cecilia Peck to talk about their memories of Gregory Peck, their affinity for Scout and the influence the film had on them and the nation.

What was your relationship with each other at the time, and in the years since?

Peck: It’s a family. I was 3, but Mary was like part of the family and has been ever since. Right, Mary?

Badham: Yes, she’s the little sister I never had. And, yeah, Atticus was my other daddy. I lost my parents very early in my life. My mom died three weeks after I graduated from high school, and my dad died two years after I got married. So it was nothing for me to pick up the phone, and he [Peck] would be calling to check and make sure I was doing OK. If he was going to be somewhere doing his one-man show, he’d find out if I could come to him, and sometimes he’d come visit me. It was great, and whenever I’m out in California I go visit the family. Atticus and [Peck’s wife, Veronique] were great role models for me as parents, and I just can’t say enough things about what a great role model Atticus was especially. That’s so important for children when they’re growing up, to have a strong male role model.

Did you realize at the time of the film’s release how important and beloved the story of To Kill a Mockingbird was?

Badham: I had no idea, being all of 9 or 10 years old at the time, anything about the importance of the film at all. Now that I’m an adult, I am so pleased and honored to be a part of something that was so important to so many thousands and millions of people, and that has done so much good in this world.

Peck: I had always known that my father was in a great film, and one of the favorite films of all time, and he won the Oscar for it. But for me, when my father was doing that one-man show that Mary mentioned that I filmed for a documentary called A Conversation With Gregory Peck in ’99 and 2000 — and Mary was often there — I heard how many people in the audiences had gone to law school because of Atticus or named their child Gregory or Atticus or named their daughters Scout. It wasn’t until then that I realized how lasting the influence of the film was on our whole nation, or fully became aware of how many generations of people it affected, and still does.

Badham: The book is taught in all the high schools. It’s mandatory reading. A lot of my time is spent on the road visiting high schools, colleges, universities, libraries, talking about the importance of the book and the film and doing historical studies of then and when I was growing up, and to now and how it’s pertinent today.

Peck: [My son] Harper’s reading it this year, in seventh grade.

Badham: There you go!

Peck: They’re just starting it.

Badham: It’s so great that they teach it. I’ve been to England and Russia with this, and it’s just amazing. It has touched people all over the world.

Has Harper seen the film?

Peck: Yes, he’s seen the film. He’s seen it ever since he was little, and we all got together and watched it this spring when Mary was in Los Angeles at Grauman’s Chinese Theater as part of the TCM Classic Film Festival. So he was there — which we all were, onstage — and we were all talking about it. I think he does have a sense of what the film means. His school is doing a program on Martin Luther King right now, so reading the book and seeing the film is connected to their studies of the Civil Rights Movement. I think the film, which did come out before the civil rights legislation in our country, and before Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, was one of the ways that allowed people to start the dialogue about racism, which was so important at the time. It was ahead of its time, don’t you think, Mary? It was one of the first films that dealt with that subject.

Badham: Exactly. And it gave the nation a way to talk about a subject that desperately needed to be discussed, and people were past ready to talk about it, but they didn’t know how to begin. But this gave them a stepping stone to work through it. That’s the way I understand it. To have a film such as The Help coming out this year, and up for nominations as well — it’s got some nominations for Academy Awards — I really feel it’s interesting that here, 50 years later, we have another film that’s still discussing this. It speaks to so much that’s going on today. To me, the root of all evil is ignorance, and this book speaks directly to the importance of getting an education because ignorance breeds things like bigotry and racism, and all that hatred. We’re still dealing with that, right here in the United States, if we’re talking about Muslims or Mexicans or immigrants, you know, it’s a major deal right now. So we’re still grappling with these issues. It’s just that people have changed their clothes, that’s all. This is not a 1930s black-and-white issue, this is here and now, today.

(L-R) Mary Badham, Cecilia Peck and Veronique Peck at a screening of To Kill a Mockingbird in 2011

Do you think the 50th anniversary will shed more light on the film and introduce it to a new generation?

Badham: I hope so.

Peck: I know the collector’s edition that Universal has put together is such a beautiful gift and keepsake. I don’t know if you’ve seen it yet, Mary …

Badham: Not yet.

Peck: It’s got great script notes, some of the pages of the script with [Peck’s] notes of shooting, notes in the margin, and there are two documentaries … what else is in there? Harper [Lee] wrote something. My mother wrote something. It’s absolutely beautiful, and just full of treasures. The book, as Mary talked about, is read every year, and the movie is seen every year, but they have a really beautiful new edition coming out.

What are each of your relationships with the character Scout Finch, and how would you say it’s changed over the years?

Badham: Well, for me, I really feel like Scout was me as a child. I was very much a tomboy. I’ve always been rather outspoken [laughs], headstrong, and I’m pretty much that way to this day. I think that’s why they picked me for the role, and picked each of the actors for their role, because they were, in real life, so much like the character that they would be portraying. Gregory Peck was totally Atticus. I mean, there couldn’t have been anybody else picked for that role.

Peck: For me, I think of all the little girls in the world who must have wished that they had Atticus as their dad, being Scout, and I did. And I think my father was so much an Atticus and became even more of an Atticus after playing this role. He parented us exactly like Atticus parented his children, except for the constant presence of his true love, my mother, Veronique. I think I wanted to be Scout, and tried to be like Scout, and look like Scout, too — right Mary? We did look alike …

Badham: [Laughing] Yeah!

Peck: … and maybe I took on a little bit of that dynamic with him of being a little bit of an outspoken, rebellious daughter, and then getting to have him as a real-life dad.

Badham: He was such a proud but gentle daddy. He was the perfect balance, but the best thing about him was he had his sense of humor. Wouldn’t you agree, Cecilia? He loved to laugh and make other people laugh.

Peck: Yes, people don’t really know that about him, but he was so witty and so charming, and so much fun to be with. I tried to show that side of him in A Conversation With Gregory Peck, which I did think gave people an insight into how funny he was.

Badham: Yeah. Right. I thought you did a brilliant job with that.

Peck: He was half Irish, and he had a real Irish wit.

Did your view of the Atticus character change as you reached adulthood and became parents yourselves?

Badham: I think it made us more mindful of what it is to be a parent. It’s one thing to have children. It’s something else to be a true parent, and the character of Atticus helped lead the way. And we had it in living, breathing reality with him because he embodied that whole sensibility of needing the respect of his children and demanding of himself to be the best role model for us that he could be. Wouldn’t you agree, Cecilia?

Peck: Yes. I can’t even separate my dad and Atticus as far as parenting. My dad was extremely strict with us, but also fair and decent, but very strict. I rebelled against it, and we clashed a lot in my teenage years and I felt misunderstood, but now I’m exactly like he was.

Badham: [Laughs]

Peck: [Laughing] You have to set boundaries when you’re a parent, and you don’t always understand it as a teenager, but it’s so important for the parent to draw the line. How else does your child know where the boundaries are?

Badham: And that’s where they find their safety. I’ve heard the saying that to say “no” is the most loving thing that you can say to your children.

To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects. How did your parents guide you during the making of the film, and what impression did that have on you?

Peck: I think it’s a film that exists on so many different levels that you’re able to understand what you’re able to at the time of seeing it. I know that when I was little I was drawn toward the father-daughter story and the Boo Radley story, but I didn’t understand everything about the trial. So it is a movie about parenting as well, about Atticus being a single parent, as well as the issue of racism and the issue of abuse, or rape. I don’t think that my dad addressed that, or my mom, before we were ready to understand it. That’s something I came to later, and now I’m actually doing a documentary on the subject of rape, so it’s definitely something that’s been part of my awareness, and I think as a parent it’s one of the most important subjects to address. I think you get from the book and the film what you’re ready for at the time.

Badham: I would agree with that. I don’t think there was any discussion on that subject. It was sort of a larger question of good against evil. And what I found with this book and this film is I have a lot of parents come to me and they say, “I just don’t know if my child is ready for that.” And I say, well, you as the parent are the only one who can judge that, and a lot of times you don’t need to worry about that. Children are going to take away from it what they want to. Most of the time, children concentrate on what the kids are doing in the film, and the trial stuff just goes by the way. So, you know, and then adults focus on the trial because that’s more the adult thing. I think that’s the way our parents approached it. If we didn’t ask, they didn’t talk about it because there was no need to. We weren’t concerned about it.

Even as you were making a movie that dealt with issues so straightforwardly?

Peck: Scout doesn’t know, sitting on that balcony, exactly what Tom is accused of, right?

Badham: Right. I mean, Atticus said it so simply, you know, it was the carnal knowledge of a woman. OK, well, fine. A child back then was so innocent. They had no clue about any of that. What they knew was that this person accusing Tom Robinson was a very bad person. He was a very ignorant, mean person. And what the children were more concerned about was that Atticus was going to try and help Tom, who was innocent, and make everything all right. And then they’re just totally devastated when he doesn’t win. But Atticus knew he was going to lose — and that’s part of the lesson of life. You don’t always win, but you have to try.

The 50th anniversary edition of To Kill a Mockingbird arrives Tuesday, Jan. 31, on DVD and Blu-ray.

[Photos: Getty Images]


  • forever1267 says:

    Best. Book. Ever!!!

    • Carolyn says:

      Mary Badham visited a local library and I enjoyed hearing her memories and comments. She added to my love for this wonderful film and book.

  • MAURA says:

    Growing up in Oakland, CA during the 60's and 70's when school bussing was just starting and all kinds of racial unrest happening for all ages - I watched this movie at 10 (1969) and it changed my life because it changed my perception and perspective - it taught me about bigotry and hate and how to recognize them in myself. It is my favorite movie of ALL TIME and the book is amazing as well.

  • I love this movie ill watch it every time it comes on tv and the book was the only one i would read in school i must of read it a 100 times scout i love her she remines me of me im so happy that its comen to dvd i cant wait for it

  • jane says:

    It was the only one good things the nuns did for me, they allowed us to watch the movie and read the book, we did have a test after it though lol. It did take me a few years to get my daughter to read it she did not like the way the negroes were treated, I persisted explaining that that is unfortunatly the way it was in those times but please keep trying to read it you will be surprised and pleased once you you start to read it from the Finch's point of view anyway she did and know is one of the addicted. P.S. I have always loved the voice that was used in the voice over in the movie, it does not matter wether I have re-read the book a million times I still in my head use that voice to read it.Never again will a book affect me as "To Kill a Mockingbird"

  • sara says:

    Always has been and always will be my favorite book since I read it!

  • Donna says:

    I only wish I could experience the thrill of reading "To Kill A Mockingbird" for the first time again. Amazing.

  • nikkymckinzie says:

    The book is my all-time favorite and the movie is one of my two favorites. Loved reading all this and love knowing they did some 50th Anniversary stuff. Now, if they would just release the book on Kindle!!!

  • Bonnie Farkas says:

    It's so true that you get what you're able to fromm the film at different ages. As a child watching the movie, I simply thought it was about these children and their adventures. Only later on did I understand the bigger issues involved.

  • joni klapak says:

    i have always identified with scout as a tomboy myself with an older brother and all that goes on in a neighborhood . this is my favorite movie of all time and i love all the characters in it and especially scout !!!

  • Bonnie says:

    If I were to picture God as one of us, I picture Atticus Finch. This movie moved me in so many ways. The character of Atticus showed us what an earthly father could and should be. I loved the character of Scout too, so much so that I named my cat after her. Mary Batham played that part PERFECT in my view. And I agree with a former comment in that I wish I could experience reading the book again for the first time.

  • Rona Kane says:

    As a child taking in films often lead me to read the books the films were based on. I can not imagine a more well made film to introduce a novel changed perspectives and law. No one else on this planet could ever breathe life into Atticus Finch except Gregory Peck

  • Carol says:

    What I enjoyed most about the movie were the characters. They were people I would have liked to know in a simpler time when things seemed better..for some. Some things have changed for the better, and some for the worst, but we could all take a lesson from Atticus; gentle, but strong and so very fair. Mary Badham is a favorite actress. Loved her in This Property is Condemned also.

  • KD says:

    Perhaps the Scout in the movie version didn't know what Tom Robinson was falsely accused of but the Scout in the book knows very well what 'carnal knowledge of a woman' meant. A few times (in the book) she's told that she's too young to know this or that but each time she proves that she very much knows. In the household of Atticus Finch, there are no secrets and children were treated with intelligence and respect. Scout knew.

  • debra maddox kirchhof says:

    at 10 years old, i vividly remember sitting in the theater mesmerized by this movie. it has remained my absolute favorite for almost 50 years. no movie has ever portrayed so many social norms and family relationships in such a beautiful, authentic way. i love it, all the characters and the heart-wrenching, realistic story. uniquely brilliant and none since.

  • Chellrae Noel says:

    Atticus stood up for what was right even though it wasn't a popular notion or idea with the majority so it took courage to do it alone.

  • Kim Wright says:

    This is my favorite movie of all time. A classic indeed. This movie will never be forgotten.

  • Mary Ann Mounts says:

    Just finished reading this with my 7th grade 'gifted' students. We are one hour into the movie and not a sound can be heard from this otherwise noisy group of students. We have LOVED it. I wish I knew of another book/movie to come close to this as I have been told I cannot teach it another year - it is reserved for 10th grade. How sad, as I think they should read it both years!

  • Neha says:

    This was truly wonderful, how oppositely coloured people treat each other. You cannot know a person until you stand in his shoes and walk around. Always remember,in this world between a white and a black, whosoever is wrong, but the black is always tagged to be the culprit...such a motivational story where a white man did wrong to an innocent black but finally ,he got what he deserved, a soul frightening death.....truth always triumphs...that's nature's rule and it is as strong as the gravitational force and whoever attempts to change it, pays heavy for the same. Good luck you all for your life...and if you have time, give it a try...