Mary Badham was a young mother, long past Scout's age, when she finally read "To Kill a Mockingbird."
She had delayed picking up Harper Lee's acclaimed novel simply because the 1962 film version told the story of the events surrounding an upstanding, Depression-era Southern family so well for her. But after settling into the book at the urging of a college instructor who invited her to speak to his class, she found it moving and meaningful in its own right.
Ms. Badham is now one of the foremost champions of "Mockingbird" on speaking engagements around the country, with a little more status than its other advocates. She was the movie's Scout Finch, after all, and in many ways, Scout was her.
"I grew up in a houseful of boys and was very much a tomboy growing up" in Birmingham, Ala., the 57-year-old explained with a twang last week in a telephone interview from her home near Richmond, Va. She long ago settled into a very non-Hollywood lifestyle on a farm there with her high school sweetheart-turned-husband.
Ms. Badham's mother was one of Birmingham's leading theatrical actresses, though Mary herself had never acted before winning the "Mockingbird" role at a casting call at age 9. She looked the part of the impish, smart-but-sassy heroine in overalls, and her naturalistic performance made it impossible to imagine anyone else as the daughter of Atticus Finch.
Atticus was played, of course, by Gregory Peck, who won an Academy Award for the role of gentleman lawyer battling prejudice. (Ms. Badham was nominated for best supporting actress, losing out to Patty Duke for "The Miracle Worker.")
The relationship between Atticus and Scout on screen mirrored the real-life bond between Mr. Peck and Ms. Badham until his death in 2003. He reminded her of her own upright, distinguished father, an Air Force general. She always called Mr. Peck "Atticus."
On the studio lot in California, she said, "Everybody was encouraging of that relationship, so it would show up on film, and we got so tight. My dad couldn't really come out there, and Atticus jumped right in. He had small children at the time, and I would go to their house on weekends and play with them."
It was the same close relationship with Phillip Alford, who played Jem Finch, her older brother. They played and fought together all during filming, just as a real brother and sister might -- much to the delight of director Robert Mulligan and the rest of the crew trying to make a realistic film deserving of Ms. Lee's work and Horton Foote's Oscar-winning screenplay.
Their effort led to a total of eight Academy Award nominations and ranking of "Mockingbird" by the American Film Institute as the greatest courtroom drama of all time, the second most inspiring film ever and the 25th-best U.S. film.
Many of those who worked on the movie stayed in touch long afterward, just like a family, Ms. Badham said -- with the notable exception of Robert Duvall, who made his film debut as the reclusive Boo Radley. Boo ultimately saves Scout and Jem from the villainous Bob Ewell, played by character actor James Anderson.
Ms. Badham said she and the other child actors were never permitted to interact during filming with other key performers such as Mr. Duvall and Mr. Anderson except when they were in character -- which helped the children maintain their natural manner when the cameras rolled.
"Jim Anderson was a method actor, so when he walked on the set [as Bob Ewell] he was that character," she recalled. "He gave everybody the willies, and we were all intimidated by him."
Ms. Badham said she avoids watching the film now because of sadness from the deaths of nearly everyone associated with it except Mr. Duvall and Mr. Alford, who, like her later left acting. Ms. Badham made a couple of movies following "Mockingbird" but did not like Hollywood's tilt toward more graphic film-making as the 1960s progressed.
She raised two children in Virginia and worked at a community college there for years until taking a more active interest in promoting "Mockingbird" -- both the film and novel -- as part of The Big Read project of the National Endowment for the Arts.
She has been making one or two speaking appearances a month to trumpet the message of the story, including a 2007 visit to Pittsburgh when it was being performed as a play. (Separately, she has frequently visited the Ligonier-Latrobe area, where her husband has relatives.)
And she will be among the celebrities doing a public reading of the book later this week in Ms. Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Ala., as part of an anniversary celebration of the book.
"It's such an amazing educational tool," Ms. Badham says. "This film touches people, and I've seen where the book and the film both have brought people together and showed them what a family can do. ... It's just wonderful."
Gary Rotstein: email@example.com or 412-263-1255.