The Phenomenon That is To Kill a Mockingbird

No matter how amazing your father is, he is not as great as Atticus Finch. As a fictional character, no real person could compare. If you grew up in America, chances are you fell in dad-love with Atticus Finch after reading To Kill a Mockingbird. Most schools have it as a required reading book teaching every generation the value and empathy of the story.

Estelle Evans, Phillip Alford, and Mary Badham / Gregory Peck / Mary Badham, Gregory Peck, and Phillip Alford / Gregory Peck and Brock Peters

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After it was published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird was an immediate best seller. Its success brought the idea for a movie adaptation in 1962. Directed by Robert Mulligan, it was also an instant classic and is one of the most comforting films in America. Most people know that the story is loosely based on Harper Lee’s real life, but that’s not all!

Check out these interesting tidbits about To Kill a Mockingbird, the book, the movie, the author.

Harper Lee Was Inspired by Her Alabama Childhood

While To Kill a Mockingbird is not an autobiography, there are definitely elements of the book that were inspired by the author’s real life. The novel is set in Maycomb, Alabama, which was based on the town Lee grew up in, Monroeville, Alabama.

Harper lee sits in a chair in her study.

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Lee was a tomboy growing up and was uncomfortable with traditional femininity, just like her main character Scout. She had a brother named Edwin who was four years older, just like Scout’s brother Jem. Lee even named the family Finch, which was her mother’s maiden name.

Besties With Truman Capote

The neighbor boy Dull was inspired by Capote. As a child, Lee lived next door to Truman Capote, author of In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. They played together, and Lee even shared her typewriter with him. It only makes sense she modeled a character in the book after him.

Truman Capote sits on the front steps of his house and reads a manuscript.

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Both kids were in the outskirts of the social circles in their close-knit Southern town. As Gerald Clarke stated in Capote: A Biography, “Nelle was too rough for most other girls, and Truman was too soft for most other boys.” Capote’s first novel, Other Voice, Other Rooms, includes a tomboy character named Idabel Thompkins who resembles Harper Lee.

Raised in the Courtroom

Harper Lee pretty much grew up in the courtroom. Just like Atticus, Lee’s father, A.C. Lee, was a lawyer, so it only makes sense she spent much of her childhood there. The soft-spoken, dignified attorney defended two Black men accused of murdering a white storekeeper. Unfortunately, he lost the case.

A portrait of A.C. Lee.

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“Her father was a lawyer, and she and I used to go to trials all the time as children,” said Capote. “We went to the trials instead of going to the movies.” Lee even decided to attend law school, but she quickly realized she hated it and dropped out.

Boo Radley Was Based on Her Childhood Neighbor

Just like most of her characters, Boo Radley was also based on someone from Lee’s childhood. In the book, Boo Radley is a recluse who leaves presents for kids in a tree. She modeled him after a real loner in her town, Alfred “Son” Boulware.

Robert Duvall, as Boo Radley, opens the door.

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He also lived in Monroeville while Harper Lee was growing up. As Capote explained it, “he was a real man, and he lived just down the road from us. We used to go and get those things out of the trees. Everything [Lee] wrote about is absolutely true.” When I was a kid, I didn’t have a neighbor leaving me presents in trees!

She Wrote Go Set a Watchman First

Before she started To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee finished writing Go Set a Watchman. Despite its release decades later, Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman back in 1950. The novel is set 20 years after To Kill a Mockingbird, and it includes many of the same themes and characters.

A stack of copies of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.

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An editor who took a look at the manuscript loved a flashback to Scout’s childhood and told Lee to write a book from the perspective of a child. That’s when Lee started To Kill a Mockingbird, based on her childhood. Go Set a Watchman was lost for years, but Lee’s Lawyer Tonka Carter found it among Lee’s documents in 2014. The book was officially released in 2015, one year before the author died.

A Gift From Her Friends

The reason Harper Lee was even able to write the book was that her friends gave her a gift. After dropping out of law school, Lee moved to New York and got a job as an airline reservationist. One Christmas, her friends Joy and Michael Brown gave her a very special present: enough money to spend a full year writing.

A smiling portrait of Harper Lee.

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In a 1961 essay for McCall’s, Lee wrote that her friends told her to take the money, quit her job, and write freely, no strings attached. “Our faith in you was really all I had heard them say. I would do my best not to fail them.” Considering her book became an American classic, I think she made them proud. Also, what good friends!

Publishing the Novel

Believe it or not, Lee’s agent sent To Kill a Mockingbird to 10 different publishers and was turned down by each one. Finally, the publisher Lippincott accepted the manuscript but noted that it needed a lot of work. “They were dangling threads of a plot, there was a lack of unity – a beginning, a middle, and an end – that was inherent in the beginning,” according to editor Tay Hohoff.

A copy of the To Kill a Mockingbird book.

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She continued, “It is an indication of how seriously we were impressed by the author that we signed a contract at that point.” Lee said there was “a long and hopeless period of writing the book all over again.” It was officially published in 1960.

Harper Lee Didn’t Think the Book Would Succeed

Harper Lee wasn’t so sure about To Kill a Mockingbird. In 1964, she claimed that she “[N]ever expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I didn’t expect the book to sell in the first place,” but to her surprise, the book was a huge hit.

Gregory Peck and Harper Lee go over the script on the set of To Kill A Mockingbird.

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Not only was the book a best seller, but it was adapted into an Oscar-winning film starring Gregory Peck. And in 1961, it won a Pulitzer Prize. These days, the book sells almost a million copies a year, beating out other 20th century classics like The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye.

Truman Capote Didn’t Write To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird was not written by Truman Capote. For some reason, a rumor started circulating that Capote was the author of the book, or that he edited it. But he only saw the manuscript once and Lee and Capote have very different writing styles.

Lee and Capote are getting food during an at-home dinner.

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Lee joined Capote on a trip to Kansas in 1959 to research In Cold Blood. She showed him the finished version of Mockingbird on that trip when it was about to go to print. Since the book was completed, it would have been impossible for Capote to write it or even edit it.

But He May Have Been Jealous of the Book’s Success

Initially, Capote seemed supportive. I mean, he was childhood friends with Lee and should have been happy for her. However, after the massive success of Lee’s novel, their friendship faded, which is sad and unfortunate.

Truman Capote is sitting by the small harbor of Portofino with his bulldog.

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Lee’s sister Alice explained that “Truman became very jealous because Nelle Harper got a Pulitzer, and he did not. He expected In Cold Blood to bring him one, and he got involved with the drugs and heavy drinking and all. And that was it. It was not Nelle Harper dropping him. It was Truman going away from her.”

Harper Lee Didn’t Like Fame

Harper wasn’t the biggest fan of the bright Hollywood lights. In 1964, the author was asked about her success, and Lee called it frightening. Lee explained that her reaction was “sheer numbness. It was like being hit over the head and knocked cold.”

Lee drinks tea in her apartment.

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Although she never became the “Jane Austen of South Alabama” like she aspired to be, she did work on a true crime novel in the 1970s. The novel remains unfinished. However, a 2019 book called Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee discusses the topic in detail.

Atticus Finch Was Almost Played by Rock Hudson

When the project was early in development, Universal Pictures offered the part of Atticus Finch to Rock Hudson, and the actor was ready to take it. However, things stalled when producer Alan J. Pakula wanted an even bigger star. The role ultimately went to Gregory Peck.

Rock Hudson is reading a book.

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Universal pretty much said, “Well, sure! If you can get Gregory Peck, we’ll not only agree to it, but we’ll finance the movie!” Sorry, Rock. It was just an unfortunate twist of fate. Luckily for Rock Hudson, he didn’t need this film to become the legendary star he was.

Harper Lee Didn’t Want to Write the Screenplay

Harper Lee supported the film but was in no way interested in writing the screenplay. The author would eventually become famous for being reclusive (and not writing another book until Go Set a Watchman in 2015). But she was happy to visit the movie set during production and spoke about how wonderfully she was treated in Hollywood.

Mary Badham sits in a tire swing held by Harper Lee.

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But early on, she declined when producers offered to let her write the screenplay. She had no experience with film and was working on another book at the time (which she never completed). Plus, she didn’t mind giving someone else creative control to cut her novel down to movie length. The screenwriting job went to Horton Foote, and Lee was thrilled with the outcome.

Gregory Peck Wanted the Title Changed

Actor Gregory Peck wanted to change the title. “To Kill a Mockingbird” didn’t sit well with him, and he felt like it didn’t reflect the content of the story accurately. He felt very strongly about his opinion and pushed for the change before he even read the script.

A photo of Gregory Peck.

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Lee’s literary agent, Annie Laurie Williams, wasn’t having it. She was furious that this was even a suggestion. She wrote to the publisher (who wanted to keep the title of the best-selling book) to assure that Peck “has been signed to play the part of Atticus but has no right to say what the title of the picture will be.” They publicly announced that the title would remain intact, and Peck had no choice but to get over it.

They Couldn’t Shoot on Location Because the Town Changed

The fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, was based on Lee’s own experiences growing up in Monroeville, Alabama during the Great Depression with her lawyer dad unsuccessfully defending two Black men against rape charges. Peck, Pkula, and some of the crew went to Monroeville for research and inspiration.

The actual Old Monroe County Courthouse.

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The town turned out to be just as charming and welcoming as they hoped, but it didn’t exactly have the same physical resemblance that it did three decades earlier. It was quite disappointing for the filmmakers but a good sign for the residents who lived there. But a town in the midst of the Depression is bound to look different in 1961…

Recycling Real Houses

The reason they headed over there in the first place was to see if they could film the movie there. Unfortunately, it was quickly determined that it wasn’t a practical shooting location. The question became how to most economically recreate a Depression-era Alabama town on the Universal backlot.

Rosemary Murphy is sitting with Mary Badham, Phillip Alford, and John Megna in a scene from the film 'To Kill A Mockingbird’.

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The film’s production realized that the old houses in Monroeville resemblethe early-20th century style clapboard cottages that were rapidly vanishing from the Los Angeles area. Production designers Henry Bumstead and Alexander Golitzen went looking for condemned houses they could use.

Problem Solved!

Sure enough, they found a dozen such homes which were scheduled to be demolished near Chavez Ravine – where the Dodger Stadium was almost finished. Just like that, the frames were hauled to Universal for just $5,000.

Scout, Jem, and Dill are running through the streets playing a game.

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They lined their fake street with houses and added all the accessories like porches and shutters. All this cost about a quarter of the expense it would take the build the sets from scratch. They did a wonderful job, and it looked so realistic. Nowadays, we can pretty much put anything on the screen, but in the 1960s, they needed to be creative and innovative.

The Courtroom Was Identical to the One in Harper Lee’s Hometown

For a little more authenticity that audiences would never notice, the set designers made built the courtroom as an exact duplicate of the courtroom from Lee’s childhood. They used photos and measurements while visiting Monroeville to make sure the duplicate was an accurate representation.

Lee sits at the upper level of the courthouse.

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There is a sense of genuineness while watching the movie (and reading the book). It’s because there were a lot of real-life aspects included, even in the most subtle of ways. If you’re wondering if the real Monroeville courthouse still exists, it has since become a museum dedicated to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the book and movie.

Mean Old Bob Was Mean in Real Life

Mean old Bob Ewell was portrayed by James Anderson, and apparently, the actor was kind of mean in real life. Or at least that’s how he acted on set. But his behavior could have been due to his Method acting.

Gregory Peck, as Atticus Finch, questions James Anderson, as mean old Bob, in court.

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First of all, he didn’t get along with Brock Peters, who played Tom Robinson. Other than that, he wouldn’t even talk to Peck at all. He insisted on communicating through their director. I can only imagine how annoying that was. In the climactic fight with Jem Finch, Anderson pulled Phillip Alford’s hair so hard that he yanked him out of the shot.

The Movie Revolved Around Atticus… or Should I Say, Gregory Peck

Early in the summer of 1962, Peck got to see a rough cut of the film. He immediately sent a message to his agent as well as Universal executives listing 44 problems he had with the movie. What it really came down to was the fact that the kids had too much screen time, and Atticus didn’t have enough.

Gregory Peck stands next to Mary Badham in a scene from the film 'To Kill A Mockingbird’.

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“Atticus has no chance to emerge as courageous or strong,” Peck wrote. Later in the memo, he added, “In my opinion, the picture will begin to look better as Atticus’ storyline emerges and the children’s scenes are down to proportion.”

Keeping Their Star Happy

Wow, what a diva! Let the kids have their moment. So, the sole reason that the movie focuses more on Atticus than the book does is Gregory Peck. Universal wanted to keep their star happy, but Mulligan and Pakula’s contract specified that they’d get the final cut.

Gregory Peck, as Atticus Finch, stands in a courtroom.

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Still, they continued to make changes to please Peck and even deleted some of the children’s scenes and replaced them with Peck’s. In the end, the trial took over 30% of the movie, even though it was just about 15% of the book.

The Narrator Did the Movie as a Favor

The film’s narrator was doing the screenwriter a little favor. Kim Stanley, who was uncredited, was a successful stage actress and met screenwriter Horton Foote after working with him in the theater world. Since she liked him so much, she lent him her voice.

A portrait of Kim Stanley.

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To Kill a Mockingbird was Stanley’s second movie after making an appearance in the 1958 film The Goddess. Kim Stanley had a total of six movie roles in her career and was in dozens of television shows. Not bad for a stage actress!

She Was Thrilled With Peck’s Costume

Harper Lee wasn’t even sure if she wanted Gregory Peck as Atticus until she saw him in costume. The actor visited Lee and her father in Monroeville. The father-daughter both thought he was a terrific guy, but Harper wasn’t sold until she saw his wardrobe test.

Peck on the set of To Kill a Mockingbird.

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“The first glimpse I had of him was when he came out of his dressing room in his Atticus suit,” she revealed years later in an interview. She was truly shocked by the transformation and couldn’t believe what a fabulous job they had done. She continued raving about it.

A Stunning Transformation

“It was the most amazing transformation I had ever seen. A middle-aged man came out. He looked bigger, he looked thicker through the middle. He didn’t have an ounce of makeup, just a 1933-type suit with a collar and a vest and a watch and chain. The minute I saw him, I knew everything was going to be all right because he was Atticus.”

Peck, as Atticus Finch, sits at a table going over his notes.

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Mary Badham, the actress who played Scout, remembered a moment when Peck finished a scene, and Lee stood on the side with tears in her eyes. The actor approached her thinking she was touched by his performance, but that wasn’t it: “Oh, Gregory!” she said. “You’ve got a little pot belly, just like my daddy.” He replied, “That’s just good acting, my dear.”

Mary Badham Set an Oscar Record

The talented Mary Badham set a record. On Oscar night, the actress was exactly ten years and 141 days old when she was up for Best Supporting Actress in 1963. At that time, she was the youngest actress to ever be nominated in that category.

Gregory Peck is seated between his wife, Veronique Passani, and actress Mary Badham.

Veronique Passani, Gregory Peck, Mary Badham. Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

Unfortunately, she lost to another child star: Patty Duke for The Miracle Worker. But in Badham’s defense, the 16-year-old actress did have six years on her. Mary Badham remains the second-youngest Best Supporting actress nominee after Tatum O’Neal, who was 35 days younger than her, when she was nominated and won for Paper Moon in 1974.

The Little Actress Delayed Production

While filming, Mary Badham was just a nine-year-old girl with no experience in professional acting – let alone a massive Hollywood film. As you can imagine, the young girl was so excited about the opportunity and enjoyed it so much that she didn’t want it to end.

Atticus stands beside Scout as she addresses the mod outside the courthouse.

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The last scene of the movie was outside the jailhouse when the kids show up and disturb the lynch mob. In order to keep the happy times going forever, the actress kept messing up her lines on purpose. But then her mother told her to knock it off and act professionally.

Peck’s Grandchild Is Named After the Author

Gregory Peck’s grandson is actually named after Harper Lee. The process of creating a movie adaptation of a book usually ends with bitterness and disillusionment for the author. For example, Stephen King hated the movie version of The Shining. But To Kill a Mockingbird was definitely an exception.

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch with Mary Badham as Scout and Phillip Alford as Jem in a still from the movie.

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Lee respected the screenplay, loved the movie, and became a lifelong friends with the star, Gregory Peck. In 1999, Peck’s daughter Cecilia had a baby boy. She decided to name him Harper in honor of the woman who created the greatest character of her father’s career.

The Novel Was Almost Called Atticus

We know Gregory Peck had his issues with using the book’s title in the movie, but the novel wasn’t even supposed to be called To Kill a Mockingbird; in fact, it was almost titled Atticus. A nod to the noble, kind, main character, Atticus Finch.

Scout wraps her arms around Atticus as he puts her to bed.

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Obviously, Atticus Finch plays an essential role in the story, but Lee ultimately decided against it. She was worried it would make the book seem like it focused on just one character. To Kill a Mockingbird is a much better title which means to destroy innocence and embodies the story brilliantly.

Her Real Name Was Nelle Harper Lee

The author’s full name was Nelle Harper Lee. Her first name is in honor of her grandmother Ellen, which is Nelle spelled backward. But it was pronounced “Nell” as opposed to “Nellie.” While her friends and family called her Nelle, she was worried readers would mispronounce her first name, so she decided to publish under Harper Lee.

Lee sits on a porch swing beside Bedham.

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She also wrote quite slowly. She was a methodical writer and took her sweet time to write To Kill a Mockingbird. She reportedly spent 6-12 hours a day at her desk but only managed to produce one page a day.

She Had a Wonderful Corn Bread Recipe

Harper Lee had a delicious cornbread recipe, and, in 1961, she shared it with the world when she contributed the recipe to a significant cookbook. Not only does the cornbread sound incredible, but the recipe includes plenty of Lee’s dry humor.

Harper Lee photographed in her New York apartment.

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For example, the author writes that the recipe (which includes pork rind) costs “about $250 depending upon the size of the pig. Some historians say this recipe alone fell the Confederacy.” She does sound pretty funny; however, I’m more interested in finding this cornbread recipe!

Despite Her Millions, Lee Lived a Simple Life

The success of To Kill a Mockingbird came with a hefty paycheck and made Miss Harper Lee a rich woman. The movie, of course, added to her substantial wealth. Court documents that were released in a 2012 lawsuit revealed that she earned about $3 million a year in royalties.

Harper Lee is resting in the garden.

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Despite all that, she was apparently very thrifty. Lee and her sister Alice shared a one-story ranch house and never owned a washing machine, computer, cell phone, or even air conditioner! The author made generous donations to charitable causes, but other than that, she enjoyed the simple life.

Did She Regret Writing the Novel?

Marja Mills, the author of Mockingbird Next Door, was next-door neighbors with Lee and her sister for a number of years. In her novel, Mills revealed that Lee once described her classic book in a negative light, saying, “I wish I’d never written the damn thing.” But it sounds like a momentary comment.

Lee sits with a book open on her lap at home.

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I can see how fame could be too much sometimes, but at the end of the day, Lee appreciated the success and was proud of her accomplishments. But years later, Mills asked her once again how she felt about the book, and Lee still expressed some doubt, saying, “Sometimes, but then it passes.”

A Cultural Phenomenon

After it was initially published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird was chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and The Literary Guild book club. A shortened version of the story was published in Reader’s Digest, and if that wasn’t enough, it won the Pulitzer Prize, among many other awards. No wonder author McDonough Murphy referred to it as “an astonishing phenomenon.”

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Brock Peters as Tom Robinson in the film 'To Kill a Mockingbird'.

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In 2018, The Great American Read became an eight-part PBS series that honored the power of reading with the results of a national survey of the most 100 most-loved novels in America. While famous books like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Outlander, and Pride and Prejudice made the top five, To Kill a Mockingbird took the number one spot.

In Honor of Atticus

To Kill a Mockingbird sold more than 40 million copies worldwide and has been translated to over forty languages. Incredibly, even with numbers like that, it somehow didn’t make the top 20 bestselling novels of all time. But it got something better.

Atticus reads a newspaper as Scout sits on his legs beside him.

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In 1997, the Alabama Law Society founded a monument in honor of Atticus Finch at the courthouse in downtown Monroeville, Alabama. The monument memorializes Atticus as the personification of true justice and the one person who can “stand as the conscience of the community.”

Receiving Some Controversy

Along with its massive success, To Kill a Mockingbird is also known as one of the most frequently challenged books in the U.S. Complainants have cited the strong language the book uses as well as discussing sexuality, rape, and the use of the N-word.

Estelle Evans as Calpurnia, Phillip Alford as Jem, and Mary Badham as Scout, in 'To Kill A Mockingbird’.

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In 2017, a school removed the novel from its eighth-grade curriculum because “it makes people uncomfortable.” In my humble opinion, I think people need to read the book. It teaches important life lessons and morals that are still important today and will continue to be for generations to come.

Not Enough Romance

It seems crazy to think that the movie adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird almost never got made, but it could have very well been the case. When the book was shopped around to movie studios, most of them were uninterested. I know what you’re wondering… why?

Robert Mulligan talks with actors Gregory Peck and Mary Badham between takes.

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Apparently, since the novel lacked a love story and the villain never got his real due, studios didn’t think it would work as a movie. That was until Alan J. Pakula disagreed and managed to convince her producing partner director Robert Mulligan that it was a good idea and a great project for their production company. Sure enough, it didn’t disappoint. After getting Peck to star as Atticus, the rest was history.

Lifelong Friendship

Speaking of Gregory Peck, he got extremely close with author Harper Lee during the filming. The movie came out in 1962, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. The actor would go on to win an Academy Award for his brilliant performance, and he maintained a life-long friendship with Lee.

Peck and Lee walk hand in hand.

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We mentioned how his firstborn grandson was named after the author, but their bond was even stronger. After his incredible work on the film, Lee reportedly gave him her father’s pocket watch as a gift. The sentiment that comes with your beloved father’s things is priceless, so giving it to the actor who portrayed a character based on her father is a huge deal.

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