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.
Finally, 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.