Harper Lee Didn’t Shy Away From Hollywood, Very Involved in 'To Kill a Mockingbird’s' Adaptation

Harper Lee - Getty - H 2016
Getty Images

Harper Lee - Getty - H 2016

Great authors typically hate Hollywood: Hemingway used to joke that once he finished a book he’d drive up to the California border, toss the manuscript over, pick up the money “and get the hell out of there.” But not Lee.

In November 1962, Henry Bumstead traveled from Hollywood to Monroeville, Ala., to meet the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. He’d just been hired as set designer for Universal Studio’s big-screen adaptation of the smash best-seller about a young girl learning about racism in the deep South during the Great Depression, and Bumstead was looking for inspiration.

He found it.

“Harper Lee was there to meet me,” he wrote in a letter from Alabama to the film’s then-unknown producer, Alan Pakula. “She is the most charming person. She insisted I call her Nell — feel like I’ve known her for years.” Lee spent several days with Bumstead, escorting him around the sights of her hometown. “Nell is really amused at my picture taking, and also my taking measurements so that I can duplicate the things I see,” he wrote. “She says she didn’t know we worked so hard. This morning she greeted me with ‘I lost five pounds yesterday following you around taking pictures of door knobs, houses, wagons, collards, etc. — can we take time for lunch today?’”

Great authors typically hate Hollywood: Hemingway used to joke that once he finished a book he’d drive up to the California border, toss the manuscript over, pick up the money “and get the hell out of there.” But not Lee. She was blissfully involved in virtually every aspect of To Kill a Mockingbird’s adaptation, from teaching the designer about Southern foods (“Yesterday afternoon the news was around town that that man from Hollywood was taking pictures in Mrs. Skinner’s collard patch — they couldn’t understand it because the opinion is that there are much better collard patches around town than Mrs. Skinners’,” Bumstead wrote in his letter) to penning encouraging notes to the actors who got cast as her characters.

“I remember when I started production Harper Lee sent me a telegram,” Robert Duvall, one of the few surviving adult crew members, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It simply said, ‘Hey, Boo.’ I was so proud to be a part of that film,” says the actor who was cast in the role of Boo Radley.

Although Lee’s novel was an instant hit when it was published in July 1960, it took Hollywood awhile to see its cinematic potential. The book sat on the New York Times best-seller list for six weeks before Pakula and director Robert Mulligan (who back then had only one previous credit between them, a baseball picture staring Anthony Perkins and Karl Malden titled Fear Strikes Out) snatched up the film rights. The filmmakers knew they needed a big star to move the project ahead (some things in Hollywood are eternal) and they sent a copy of the novel to Gregory Peck, who later claimed to have read the book in one sitting, calling Mulligan the next day to accept the part of Atticus Finch (despite warnings from Peck’s agent that the actor would “lose the entire South”).

With Peck onboard, Pakula and Mulligan pitched the project to Universal. The studio was receptive but had some notes, especially regarding casting. Although Peck was indeed a major star, they wanted Rock Hudson — Universal’s No. 1 draw at the time — to play Finch. Jimmy Stewart’s name also was floated. But the producer and director were adamant about Peck, and they had a powerful ally in Lee, who had based the character on her father. “In that film, the man and the part met,” the author said years later in one of the few interviews she would grant in her life. “As far as I’m concerned that part is Greg’s for life.” As for Rock Hudson? “No,” she noted, “he wouldn’t have been right at all.”

Pakula and Mulligan offered Lee the chance to adapt the screenplay herself, but she declined. They also asked her to do the voice narration at the start of the film, which she also turned down (“Thanks, but no thanks,” she told them, “I stopped wanting to be in the movies 20 years ago”). She did, however, agree to sit with the man who would be turning her Pulitzer Prize-winning prose into dialogue. “They felt she and I should meet,” screenwriter Horton Foote recalled years later. “So they brought Harper out to Nyack [New York], and we had an evening together and kind of fell in love.”

Once production began, Lee came to Hollywood and spent weeks on the set, much to the anxiety of the filmmakers. “She made a nervous wreck out of me, just waiting for her to be critical,” Mulligan later admitted. But Lee was no E.L. James and the criticism rarely came. On the contrary, when she first saw Peck stride onto the set in his three-piece lawyer suit, she burst into tears. “He’s got a little pot belly, just like my daddy!” she exclaimed. Peck was quick to reply, “That’s no pot belly, Harper, that’s great acting.” Unlike so many other authors undone by Hollywood, Lee actually found the place “as comfortable as an old pair of slippers,” Peck once recalled her telling him. “She vowed she never met so many friendly people.”

Lee was equally upbeat about the finished film. “I can only say that I am a happy author,” she gushed after seeing the movie for the first time. “I am very proud and very grateful.” She must have been even prouder when the film won three Oscars at the 1963 Academy Awards, including best picture, best actor and — proving Henry Bumstead’s trip to Alabama was not wasted — art direction/set direction. Lee didn’t attend the ceremony herself, but did send an emissary of sorts. In Peck’s tuxedo pocket, as he accepted his acting trophy, was a gold watch that Lee had given him at the end of the production. It belonged to her late father, the real Atticus Finch.