Life goes by fast. One minute, you’re a 9-year-old girl, squinting at the sun, swinging on a tire and trying hard to avoid the old lady who yells at you when you walk past her garden.
The next minute, you’re the old lady.
It sounds like a cruel fate, but for actress Mary Badham, it’s a deliberate choice.
Badham, who turns 71 on Saturday (Oct. 7), played the key role of Scout in the 1962 film adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” with the late Gregory Peck as her father, Atticus Finch. Her sensitive, energetic performance earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
More than half a century later, she’s on the other side of the porch rail playing her old nemesis, Mrs. Dubose, in Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic novel, running at the Wharton Center through Sunday (Oct. 8). Richard Thomas, of “The Waltons” fame, heads the cast as Atticus Finch.
Badham sounded like her bubbly, non-cranky self when we talked last week as the touring company set up shop at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, Texas.
“We’ve got a great cast,” she said. “I’m very pleased with it. We’ve been in rehearsal yesterday and the day before because we’ve got a few new people that have jumped in, and they have to learn how to move the sets and all of that.”
Badham retired from acting in the late 1960s, finished school and went on to work in education, medicine and art restoration, but the compassionate message of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is still her touchstone.
After decades of speaking about “Mockingbird” at colleges and public events, joining a touring company of the stage adaptation was a logical step, but it wasn’t an easy one to make.
“This was my first foray into theater, and I was mortally terrified,” she said. What’s more, the morphine-addicted, racist Mrs. Dubose couldn’t be further removed from her own personality and outlook.
“She’s pretty complicated,” Badham said. “She’s mean and crotchety and in pain all the time. But she’s courageously fighting it, and she’s a hero in that sense. In the book, it says she ‘died free.’ She did kick it.”
When the producers invited Badham to see the play on Broadway three years ago, the quality of Sorkin’s adaptation cinched the deal for her.
“He’s so quick and so funny, and he knows how to make you think about stuff,” she said. “You have to pay attention because this play goes fast and furious.”
In the film, Atticus tells Scout that to really understand a person, you have to “climb into his skin,” but Badham wasn’t sure she wanted to inhabit Mrs. Dubose’s prickly hide night after night.
“I had to go to my African American friends and go, ‘Look, guys, they want me to do this, and I don’t know if I can say these words,’” she recalled. “And they were like, ‘Go for it. You can do this. Just make her as mean and hateful as you can.’ And that’s what I’ve tried to do.”
Badham loved working on the 1962 film, although it sometimes seems like a dream now.
“Everybody on the film was so close,” she said. “We were like a family.”
For the rest of Peck’s life, he and Badham called each other “Atticus” and “Scout.”
“I used to go to their house on the weekends and play with their kids, Cecilia and Anthony,” she said. “Whenever I go to Los Angeles, I still stay with Cecilia a lot of times.”
She noted that Peck, director Robert Mulligan and producer Alan Pakula all had young children at the time, so “it really made sense to them” to tell the story from the children’s point of view.
She singled out Mulligan as a “psychological genius” who knew how to work with children.
“He knew exactly what to do to get the reactions he wanted without talking about it,” she said.
Mulligan arranged it so Badham didn’t see actor Robert Duvall, who played the shy and reclusive Boo Radley, in character and makeup until cameras were rolling.
Haunted and fearful at first, Duvall cowers behind a door until he meets Badham’s curious gaze, and the two exchange tentative, compassionate smiles.
“Hey, Boo,” Scout greets him. If you don’t shed a tear at one of the silver screen’s most quietly shattering moments, you’re made of stone.
“When they opened that door, I was like, ‘There he is,’” Badham said.
She called Duvall “a perfect actor.”
“He can say so much with a look,” she said.
Badham has played only a handful of major screen roles, but each is memorable. At 13, she co-starred with Robert Redford and the late Natalie Wood in “This Property Is Condemned,” a 1966 Sydney Pollack drama. The story is told through flashbacks, with Badham doing the narration.
Badham loved working with Wood — and smelling her Jungle Gardenia perfume — but didn’t relish getting caught in a nerve-wracking crossfire of daily rewrites involving the late playwright Tennessee Williams and three screenwriters, including Francis Ford Coppola.
“I would be getting into a car to go back to the hotel at the end of the day, and somebody would tap on the window and slide pages through,” she recalled. “Then they would have the audacity to come to the hotel room and tap on the door with more changes. My mother would send them packing, big time.”
Badham turned in another spirited lead performance in the 1966 William Castle thriller, “Let’s Kill Uncle,” a bizarre black comedy packed with murder plots involving sharks and tarantulas.
After that, she left the movie biz to return to school, but her hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, had lost its allure.
“In California, I had friends of all races, colors and creeds,” she recalled. “And then I had to come back to Alabama, where, at that time, if a Black man so much as dared to look a white woman in the eye, he could be beaten to death, and nobody would say anything.”
She finished school in Arizona and met her husband, Richard Wilt, now a dean at Lehigh Carbon Community College in eastern Pennsylvania. They’re still together.
She looks back warmly on her experience filming “Mockingbird,” but it’s tough for her to watch the film anymore.
“Everybody’s gone,” she said.
Other than Badham, only two major cast members are still alive. Duvall is 92. Phillip Alford, who played Scout’s brother, Jem, is now 75 and lives in Gadsden, Alabama, having retired from acting in 1972.
But Badham’s new stage family is a consolation.
“This cast and crew are wonderful,” she said. “They are such sweet people. Richard Thomas is doing a great job with Atticus. He would have been one of my first choices for Atticus, and he is just killing it.”
Badham is aware that “To Kill a Mockingbird,” as a white-centered story that relegates the Black experience to the background, has been subject to a sweeping reevaluation in recent years.
“It’s a tiny little book, but there’s a lot in it,” Badham said. “It’s an educational tool, one of the best I’ve ever found. If you read it when you’re a kid, and then read it again in high school, and again when you’re a parent and again when you’re older, you’re always going to find something new or that you skipped before.”
Lee’s book and Sorkin’s adaptation weave the redemptive threads of empathy and compassion through a dense tapestry of ignorance and injustice. The central narrative, in which a white attorney defends an innocent Black man accused of rape, is woven into that tapestry, along with the children’s blind fear of Boo Radley, Mrs. Dubose’s struggles with morphine addiction and many other issues.
“Everybody wants to put this book down to a Black-and-white racial thing, and it’s totally not,” Badham said. “If you want to talk about family issues, mental issues, physician-prescribed pain medications, legal issues, social structures, child abuse, the importance of reading, it’s all in there, all of life’s lessons we still have not learned. That’s where I’m coming from. I have found that the people who criticize the book, the ones who want to pull it off the shelf, have never read it and don’t understand what’s in it.”
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