Pivotal moments change lives. Just ask actress Mary Badham.
Had she not auditioned for To Kill a Mockingbird at the age of nine, she wouldn’t have catapulted to fame as the irrepressible tomboy, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, in the 1962 film based on Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
She wouldn’t have been nominated for an Academy Award for best best-supporting actress—at the time, the youngest actress ever selected in this category.
And she wouldn’t have forged a life-long friendship with actor Gregory Peck who played Scout’s father, Atticus, an attorney tasked with defending a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman.
But Mary, who had never acted in her life, did audition. And because she did, her life turned in ways she couldn’t have imagined then.
Pivotal moments change lives.
Reliving My Own Moment
In a sense, I’m reliving one of my own.
To Kill a Mockingbird influenced my life more than any other book and motivated me to pursue a writing career.
Of course, I accepted an invitation to interview Mary while she was on set in rural Pennsylvania to play a Civil War-era nurse in an upcoming Western, Was Once a Hero. (My conversation with Rebecca Holden, who plays Millie in the movie, can be found here.)
“I’m very picky about the roles I accept,” Mary said, not yet in costume, wearing knee-high boots and black pants, her salt-and-pepper hair braided and wrapped around her head. She hadn’t acted in a film in years.
“If I can’t take my grandchildren to see the movie, I don’t want to do it. I’m a simple person. I love gardening, my family… all those good values. And this movie is in keeping with what I like. It leaves me with a good feeling.”
Furthermore, she’d always wanted to act in a Western.
“On the last day of the show, a long, tall, elderly cowboy came up to me and said, ‘I heard you want to be in a Western.’ Yes sir,” she responded. “That’s on my bucket list.”
Wayne retired from the project before shooting began, but Mary got her wish… pivotal moments change lives.
Mary’s Retirement at Age Fourteen
To prepare for our meeting, I watched everything she’d acted in after her triumphant debut as Scout in 1962. The final episode of The Twilight Zone in 1964. Her haunting portrayal as Willie Starr in This Property is Condemned, and then as Chrissie in Let’s Kill Uncle.
The list wasn’t long.
That’s because she retired from acting in 1966, and decades would pass before she would accept a cameo part in the 2005 indie drama, Our Very Own.
She had her reasons.
“I didn’t like the roles,” she said. “The scripts were changing. Too much sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll,” to say nothing of the vulgarity and violence that had begun creeping into Hollywood productions. A trend that continues to draw her ire.
“There’s a dark side to Hollywood,” she continued. “The casting couch hasn’t gone away.” In fact, a studio manager had tried to take advantage of her. For whatever reason, the revelation surprised me, and I thought no wonder she wanted a life far from the spotlight. Good or bad, pivotal moments change lives.
A Life Beyond the Bright Lights
Mary returned to her life in Birmingham, Alabama. Now, very much changed.
“It’s hard when you’re a kid. What do most kids want? Friends.”
It was bad enough that this avowed tomboy attended a private girls school. “I didn’t understand girls” or their “little cliques, charm bracelets and dresses.” But the acclaimed actress then had to wonder: “Do they like me because of me or because of something else? I never knew whom to trust.”
She also struggled with societal norms prevalent in Alabama in the 1960s. “I wasn’t allowed to associate with people of color,” she said. “In LA (where she lived sporadically while on set), I had friends of all races and creeds. There was a wonderful mix of cultures. It was a real education for me. I couldn’t take it.”
At fourteen, she left Birmingham to live with her brother in Arizona, got an education, and ultimately met her husband of nearly 50 years. Over the years, she would dabble in a variety of careers—nursing assistant, Red Cross instructor, and furniture restorer—and speak to school, book club, and women’s groups about “Mockingbird.”
Losses and a Newfound Stage Career
Sitting at a picnic table yards from where her scenes would be filmed later, the conversation turned to family. She spoke of her mother-in-law… “the greatest grandma ever” to her two children and a mentor to Mary. Tears filled her eyes.
“She died two weeks ago.”
Maybe it’s the recent death of her mother-in-law. Maybe it’s a combination of many other feelings left unspoken, but Mary conceded that she would’ve preferred “to be living in my garden.” Her happy place and refuge. But at 71, she had a “J-O-B”…for which she was thankful to God.
As soon as Mary finished her scenes in Pennsylvania, she’d go home to Virginia and in two weeks, fly to her native Birmingham to do press interviews promoting the touring production of Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird that opened in that city yesterday.
Pivotal moments change lives, and the story that had changed her life as a child, had come full circle. Except now she portrays the complete opposite of her—the mean-spirited racist and morphine addict, Mrs. Dubose. Another first. Until joining the touring cast last year, she’d never performed on a theater stage.
The Novel’s Message of Hope
As I’d already discovered, certain topics riled Mary. Continuing efforts to ban To Kill a Mockingbird from school curriculums is one of them. She adamantly believes the novel is as relevant today as it was 63 years ago. How can anyone read the book and not grasp its message of hope?
“Our society is breaking down,” Mary said with conviction. “People have gotten so mean and foul-mouthed. I don’t understand that. The point of our being here is to take care of one another.”
But instead, angry voices get louder, and the ills of the world remain. Child neglect and abuse. Discrimination against those who don’t look, think, or behave like us. Opioid and alcohol abuse. Mental illness… all illuminated in the novel.
But people can and do heroically rise to the occasion in troubled, difficult times. Just like Atticus did in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Pivotal moments change lives.