To Kill a Mockingbird - Gregory Peck
To Kill a Mockingbird - Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) © 1962 Universal Pictures

In 1994, just a few days after the 6.8 earthquake shook Los Angeles, I went to Gregory Peck’s house in Beverly Hills to talk with him about his classic motion picture To Kill a Mockingbird. As charming and lovely as you would expect him to be, he showed me the damage that was done to his home during the quake, and told me how is two dogs, who were terrified by the tumbler,  jumped on his face in fright!

To Kill a Mockingbird was certainly one of the late actor’s favorite movies. Based on Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name, it told the story of Atticus Finch, a lawyer in a small town in the south, circa 1930s, and his relationship with his two children, Scout (Mary Badham) and Jem (Philip Alford). When a young black farm worker named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) is accused by a white girl of raping her, Atticus agrees to defend him, with devastating consequences.

You could tell how much this movie meant to Peck by just looking in his eyes as he spoke so fondly of it.

How did you become involved with the movie?

It was [director] Bob Mulligan and [producer] Alan Pakula who called me one day and said they had acquired the rights to a wonderful book, and they thought I’d be right for the father, who was a small town lawyer. They got it to me that day, and I read it that night. I probably finished it at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, and I couldn’t’ wait, I called them at 8 a.m. and said, ‘By all means, if you want me, I’m your man!’

At the time, I had an independent production company at Universal, so I was able to be instrumental in getting them the financing. Universal wanted that book and at that time I was making a lot of movies and I had some standing, so they got a sure thing, but all they had to do to get it was to give up all autonomy over the picture and give Bob and Alan the final cut, and they did. Bob and Alan have told me countless times how glad they were that they were able to get such a deal.

Were Atticus’s values and beliefs yours?

I would say so, yes.

Why was the movie shot in black and white?

They thought it might be prettified by color, and it would get in the way of the emotions and tensions and the human element that was so important. It was an intuition that they had, and since they’d gotten complete control over their movie they decided to do it, and I was all for it.

Early Sixties racial conflict films were not the surest recipe for box office success – did that worry you?

To Kill a Mockingbird - Gregory Peck
To Kill a Mockingbird - Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) and Sheriff Heck Tate (Frank Overton) dealing with the tensions of the trial © 1962 Universal Pictures

Not at all. I had done Gentleman’s Agreement, which was a huge success, and won the Academy Award [for Best Picture], but that wasn’t the reason. It was just a wonderful American story. Yes it had to do with racial prejudice, but it never occurred to any of us to worry about that. It was a Pulitzer Prize winner, and people were lining up at bookstores – we thought we had a winner, all we had to do was do it right.

Atticus was based on Harper Lee’s father, did you ever get a chance to meet him?

Yes. What I remember about him is that he was always smiling at Harper, because he was thinking of the tomboy that lived in the tree-house and rolled down the dusty street curled up in a tire. That was Harper, she was Scout, and in that sense the [novel] was autobiographical. So he was just grinning all the time that these Hollywood people came down to see his little tomboy, and that she’d won a Pulitzer Prize. He was proud of her.

You seemed to have a great rapport with the children, Mary Badham and Phillip Alford in it.

To Kill a Mockingbird - Mary Badham, Gregory Peck and Phillip Alford
To Kill a Mockingbird - Mary Badham, Gregory Peck and Phillip Alford

Probably because Mulligan and Pakula had waited until they found the right kids. They were intelligent, well-mannered and they were not self-conscious. I got along with them from the beginning. We started rehearsing without any camera in sight, out on the back street, just play acting, going through the scenes one after another. Robert started bringing a camera in their vicinity, he kept it across the street and then moved it a little closer, and ultimately stuck it in their faces and they paid no attention to it.

Was there any racial tension on the set?

No, not at all.

What was your relationship like with Brock Peters?

Brock and I are close friends today. I always teased him; I’d call him ‘cry baby,’ because he couldn’t tell his story during the trial scene without tears running down his face. He truly felt the emotions of his character. I couldn’t look at him without choking up myself.

Whose idea was it to rehearse the courtroom scene for two weeks?

To Kill a Mockingbird - Gregory Peck
To Kill a Mockingbird - Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) in court © 1962 Universal Pictures

It just occurred to everybody that that was the way to do it. I was pleased to get a run like that on something, nobody’s pushing you and you have nine minutes of film. It was like getting back on the stage.

Did you expect to win the Academy Award for it?

No. To tell you the truth, I thought Jack Lemmon would win for Days of Wine and Roses. I wouldn’t have been all that broken up if I hadn’t won and I certainly would not have whined.

As I walked down my aisle Jack happened to be right there and I took three or four steps and just tapped him on the shoulder as I went by. I must have thanked everybody!

Why do you think the movie has remained such a classic?

I’m glad that it’s still alive. A lot of pictures made 34 years ago are forgotten about. It seems to have a life, and it all goes back to Harper and the way that she grew up and her father’s values. She was able to somehow transfer that into a book, and we were able to get it on the screen. It was fortuitous. It was meant to be. We all feel lucky that we were in it, and that it was recognized and that it still affects people. That doesn’t happen often.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.