Throwback Thursday: In 1962, Atticus Finch Wasn’t a Racist

Mary Badham Gregory Peck - S 2015
Courtesy of Everett Collection

Mary Badham Gregory Peck - S 2015

Mary Badham, who played Scout in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ defends Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’: “[Atticus] is making compromises that you had to make in order to survive in the South.”

In 1962, Mary Badham was a 9-year-old girl plucked from among 200 contenders by Universal Studios to star as Scout opposite Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch in the film adaptation of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Mockingbird would go on to earn eight Oscar nominations, including best picture (it lost to Lawrence of Arabia), best actor for Peck, who won, and best supporting actress for Badham (she lost to 16-year-old Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker). "When the film came out in 1962, I got an Oscar nomination," says Badham today. "I don't think my brother [Saturday Night Fever director John Badham] has ever forgiven me for that."

Since the July 14 release of Lee's Go Set a Watchman, written five decades ago, and which follows a now-grown-up Scout and her father, Atticus, much has been made of the change in Atticus' character from the one so many knew from the original book. Mia Farrow, for one, tweeted: "Atticus Finch a racist?! Oh Ms Lee how could you? In all of fiction, few were as respected and loved." Badham, now 62, has a different take.

"I know the new book is controversial, and it's a tough read in some places, but well worth the effort," says the Birmingham, Ala. native, who now lives in Virginia. "The difference between Mockingbird and Watchman gets down to this: The first book was an idealized view of a father, Atticus Finch, from a child's viewpoint; the new book is about seeing your parents as an adult. He's making compromises that you had to make in order to survive in the South."

She adds: "When people think of Mockingbird, they think of Gregory Peck. That's not going to change. Atticus is Atticus. He's about justice."