Most people who see the 1962 film “To Kill a Mockingbird,” with its timeless message of racial tolerance, find it an emotional experience.
Few have as visceral a reaction to the film as Mary Badham.
It was Badham who, as a 9-year-old from Birmingham, Alabama, was tapped to play Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, the innocent, scrappy tomboy at the center of the movie. Set in the 1930s in a small Alabama town, the film follows Scout and her older brother Jem as they find their quiet life upended when their attorney father Atticus Finch is appointed to defend a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman.
Gregory Peck won an Oscar for playing the calmly confident, well-read Atticus Finch. The film also won for Best Picture. Badham was nominated as Best Supporting Actress, but another child actress won that year — Patty Duke for “The Miracle Worker.”
Badham comes to the Redford Theatre in Detroit on Friday and Saturday for a special event: “To Kill a Mockingbird” will be screened both days, and on Saturday she will take questions at a special VIP event, before the film is shown. Badham warns that she may not be able to watch the whole movie.
“I cry when the credits go up,” said Badham, 64, by phone. “All those people, they’re gone now. Those are people that I knew and loved, and they’re all gone. Most of the time when I do these gigs, I have to bail on the film, or I would have no makeup on and not be able to speak.”
The film was based on the bestselling 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, her first and only novel until the release last year of “Go Set a Watchman.” Lee won a Pulitzer Prize for “Mockingbird,” which has never gone out of print.
Badham remembers the “Mockingbird” set as a big playground for her, Philip Alford (who played Jem, her older brother by four years) and John Megna (their friend Dill), the three children at the center of the action.
“The goal, when they were casting the children’s roles, was to find real Southern children with good imaginations,” Badham recalled.
Badham describes the cast as “divinely chosen. I don’t think anyone else could play Atticus but Gregory Peck.”
Badham met the novel’s famously reclusive author, Harper Lee, and became friends with her over the years, calling the writer by her family name, “Miss Nelle.”
“I didn’t want to bother her, I’d heard all these stories, but Miss Nelle was so funny, she said ‘Young lady, don’t you ever come down here that you don’t come say “hey” to me.’ No problem! She was great.”
Badham is an avid reader and has an interesting take on “Go Set a Watchman,” the controversial Lee novel published last year while the dementia-stricken author was living in a nursing home. (Lee died in February.)
The book depicts Atticus as a more flawed individual, a man who attended Klan meetings, but whose feelings about race evolved over the years. Fans felt that it tainted the original book, and their fondness for the character.
“It was a tough read, but I think it’ll be a good teaching tool,” Badham said. “People have to understand the historical nature of the book, just like they do with ‘Mockingbird,’ and have faith in the characters and Miss Nelle’s writing. ”
Badham says she understands the more complex Atticus “because my dad was a businessman in Birmingham. He didn’t believe in the system ... but because it was very dangerous in those days, he understood that he had to walk the talk.”
But, she admits that “Mockingbird” was the perfect version of what Lee had started, and “more palatable than the first version.”
While she makes appearances to talk about “Mockingbird,” Badham sees her underlying mission as promoting reading and education.
“It is critically important that people read, and that they study history,” Badham said. “Education is the key to freedom, and ignorance is the root of all evil. If you teach someone to learn to love to read, they’ll always be learning something new, they’ll never be bored, they’ll never be lonely.”
Susan Whitall, author of “Fever: Little Willie John’s Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul,” is a longtime contributor to The Detroit News.
‘To Kill a Mockingbird’
Starring Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Philip Alford and Robert Duvall
8 p.m. Fri., and 2 and 8 p.m. Sat.
The Redford Theatre, 17360 Lahser, Detroit
Special appearance by Mary Badham (“Scout”) 5-6:30 p.m. Sat., Badham is scheduled to attend all three screenings.