“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee was first published in 1960, but its lessons and message still apply to this day.
That was the message Mary Badham, the actress who played main character Scout in the 1962 movie adaptation, delivered to students at Depew High School on Tuesday.
“It’s got the friendship, the family, and life lessons that we still haven’t learned,” Badham told an auditorium full of students. “We’re still fighting the same battles, now more than ever.”
Badham took the role of Scout when she was ten years old. It was the first role ever for the Birmingham, Alabama native.
“I was a dumb little kid in Birmingham who knew nothing about acting,” Badham said.
Her mother and brother were both actors, which was how her mother heard about the audition.
“They had what they called a ‘cattle call’,” Badham said. “They wanted real children of the South with real Southern accents.”
Besides having the right inflection for the role, Badham also had a similar nature to Scout.
“I was very much a tomboy,” she recalled.
Though “To Kill a Mockingbird” is set in the 1930s, Badham said her experience growing up in the 1950s and 1960s Alabama was similar to the conditions of the book and movie.
“Things had not changed at all in the social structure,” Badham said. “People of color still rode on the back of the bus, if you wanted to go to the bathroom, as a person of color you had to know where to go to use the facilities.”
When she got to California to film “To Kill a Mockingbird, Badham said she encountered a much different reality.
“It was just as easy for me to go to visit Brock Peters’ (who played Tom Robinson) family and have dinner and no one thought anything about it,” she said. “It was just like I’d died and gone to heaven because I didn’t have that Southern structure.”
Badham said she bonded closely with her co-stars on the film, including Robinson, Gregory Peck (Atticus Finch) and Phillip Adford (Jem Finch).
“We became a family,” she said. “Usually when you make a film or a TV show, you never see those people again- but with “To Kill a Mockingbird”, we became a family and we took care of each other.”
Badham’s acting career didn’t last long. She appeared in “This Property is Condemned” alongside Natalie Wood and Robert Redford, but retired from acting at 15 to pursue an education.
“The business had changed a lot,” Badham said. “My parents and I had a meeting and they said ‘we really feel like you should concentrate on your education so you can have something to fall back on’, and it made perfect sense to me.”
She originally wanted to be a large animal veterinarian specializing in equine medicine, but said she encountered hostility from the dean of the university where she inquired.
“Back in the day, it was a white man’s world,” Badham said. ‘Women, children and servants had no rights- there are a lot of people who want to take us back to that and I’m very much opposed to that.”
Badham took questions from a panel of 12th grade English AP students and interacted with the crowd several times, having them repeat the phrases “Education is the key to freedom” and “Ignorance is the root of all evil”.
“If you get a good education, people cannot use you and abuse you,” she said. “You want to be anything, you can do that today- you couldn’t do that in my day.”
She encouraged the students to keep reading, and to develop themselves as good people.
“Your brain is your most important asset besides your heart,” she said.