Tag Archives: Atticus

How Gregory Peck Saved “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the Film

The director who purchased the film rights to To Kill a Mockingbird, Alan Pakula, had a tough time getting any major studio interested. First, the story seemed too small and regional: racism in a Southern town. Audiences wanted movie Westerns with mountains and Indians and shoot-outs. Second, a few studio offers came with strings attached: Bing Crosby should be Atticus. No, Rock Hudson.

tumblr_mdfqgibK5W1r3vyizo1_500Finally, Gregory Peck read the novel and called Pakula to say he’d stayed up most of the night finishing it. Couldn’t put it down. If Pakula wanted him, Peck was in. When financing became a problem, Peck staked a lot of his own money in the production, with the provision that he would have creative control over the final editing.

To save money, Pakula cast Broadway actors, not film stars. An additional advantage was that they were unknown to film audiences: more like ordinary people. And for the parts of Scout and Jem, he decided on two kids from Birmingham who spoke with Alabama accents. (The actor who played Bob Ewell was a Southerner too, and not much different from his character!)

Peck was always proudest of his role as Atticus Finch. His belief in the power of a humble man doing what’s fair and right has been born out over the years, too. In a survey of film heroes by the American Film Institute, Atticus was voted #1 out of 100. Not the Terminator, not Superman, not John Wayne, but a small town lawyer who followed his conscience.

Why A.C. Lee was the Model for Atticus Finch

When Harper Lee’s father, A.C. Lee was a young attorney, newly admitted to the bar, a judge appointed him to defend two black men accused of murdering a white man. It was a botched robbery, actually. The storekeeper they robbed was elderly and died from a blow to the head.

AC Lee young attorney copyA.C. had almost no time to prepare. Still, he raised five serious objections at the trial, the first being that the dead man’s son was on the jury! The judge overruled each objection. Lee did the best he could, but this was “Negro law,” as it was referred to in the South: a kind of pantomime of a real justice. Both of A.C.’s clients were hanged.

About two weeks later, the dead man’s other son in upstate New York received a package. Inside were the scalps of the two hanged man with a note:

Justice has been done in Alabama.
Mr. Lee never took another criminal case. He would not participate in courthouse shams involving the poor, the frightened, and the hapless. But he had stood up in the name of justice. As Atticus said to the jury, “In the name of God, do your duty.”

The Night Dill’s House Burned Down

One night in January 1940 it was so cold in Monroeville, Alabama that Harper Lee’s father, A. C. Lee, was forced to throw extra coal in the furnace to keep their little bungalow warm on South Alabama Avenue. A bitter north wind rattled the strings of Christmas lightbulbs still hanging in trees on the courthouse square.

Truman Capote 04, Front, 1948Next door to the Lees was the Faulk residence, where Truman Capote— later the model for Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird had lived during elementary school with his elderly relatives, the three Faulk sisters and their bachelor brother. But Truman’s parents had changed their minds and decided he belonged in a boarding school in New York City instead. (“How come my folks don’t want me?” Dill says in the novel.)

The Faulks were just getting ready for bed that wintery night when they heard frantic pounding on the front door. Jennie Faulk came downstairs expecting to find a lunatic on their porch. To her shock, she discovered that the kitchen was on fire and a neighbor was trying to force his way in to help.

Nelle heard the siren go off on top of the city hall. Then the volunteer firemen arrived, hurriedly pulling on old their overcoats, gloves and hats. The Faulks, stumbling in bathrobes and slippers, hurried through the shouting, gesticulating men, abandoning their home to the fire hose and the axe.

Nelle watched as flames pressed against the windows, shattered the glass, and exhaled like the breath of a dragon into the cold air. The Faulks’ place was a turn-of-the-century Victorian home, a capacious, high-ceilinged dwelling with an entryway decorated with potted ferns; a formal parlor; a dining room with china cabinets displaying a collection of cut glass; a spacious kitchen where the Negro cook “Little Bit” rustled up enormous meals; several bedrooms; and a fireplace in every room.

Soon the whole house was a pyre, and the wind-driven flames roared through the trees toward the Lees’ property, less than fifteen yards away. Nelle’s mother feared the worst and had to be calmed as her husband and neighbors guided her to a house across the street. Firefighters swung their hoses toward the Lee’s home when paint on the south side of their white bungalow began to blister and slough off from the heat.

The struggle lasted until 3 am. Come dawn, the Faulk residence, where Jennie Faulk had been known to welcome any “smear of kin” was a carcass of blackened walls and bony icicles. Even their smokehouse, stuffed with cured hams, bacon and bagged sausage hanging from rafters, had collapsed.

The exhausted firemen trudged home. One of them removed his waterlogged wool overcoat and hung it on a hook outside his front door. Within a couple of hours, it was frozen solid. He propped it on the porch steps where it stood for days, ghostly and uninhabited to the delight of passing children.

Harper Lee was in middle school when it happened, just a little older than Scout. But the fire and the community’s response probably later inspired the scene of Miss Maudie’s house burning down in To Kill a Mockingbird.

At the front door, we saw fire spewing from Miss Maudie’s dining room windows. As if to confirm what we saw, the town fire siren wailed up to the scale to a treble pitch and remained there, screaming…. We stood watching the street fill with men and cars while fire silently devoured Miss Maudie’s house. ‘Why don’t they hurry, why don’t they hurry…’ muttered Jem.

We saw why. The old fire truck, killed by the cold, was being pushed from town by a crowd of men.

Authors often draw on their own experiences to create fiction. But the better ones, such as Lee, double the importance of their experiences by giving them intensified meaning.

In the novel, the town’s response to the fire at Miss Maudie’s house is heroic— neighbors looking out for each other, even risking their lives. And among the volunteers that night are a few men, no doubt, who later serve on the jury at Tom Robinson’s trial. But when Atticus implores them, “For God’s sake, do your duty” none has the courage to save an innocent man. Fear of breaking social taboos turns otherwise brave men into cowards.

That irony isn’t accidental— it’s part of the art of Lee’s storytelling.

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