She is, of course, the author of a true American literary mainstay, 'To Kill A Mockingbird'. Each year, during the late Spring and Early Summer, the story is re-enacted in Monroeville, Alabama, the locale of the courthouse and home of the fictional Finch family, headed by the attorney, Atticus Finch, who is the chief protagonist of this great book.
My friend, Dennis, plays the role of Atticus and has for a very long time. He has played this role worldwide, and does it justice; in fact, some say that Dennis IS Atticus Finch. (Dennis is also known for his portrayal of Henry Drummond in 'Inherit the Wind'.)
I was visiting with Dennis yesterday and he told me about a little celebration in which he took part this past Sunday. This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the novel and he, along with the cast and other local notables, (including Harper's older sister, Miss Alice) went to visit Miss Lee (known around these parts as 'Nell') to give her a bouquet of fifty red roses. Miss Alice reminded Nell who Dennis was. Dennis laughed when he told me that Lee did not even look his way. This is soooo Harper Lee. She is, after all, sick of the entire thing at this point.
Also attending was a reporter and editor of the magazine, 'Vanity Fair.' Miss Alice told her sister that they would like a very brief interview. Nell did not hesitate.
"Tell them to go away. They aren't getting one word from me."
This is not surprising; a few months back some spokespersons from NYC approached her about putting on a Broadway play of 'To Kill A Mockingbird.' They tried to sweet talk Nell and told her that Broadway needed revamping and needed to be brought to its original intention of creating fine drama on the stage, that Broadway was failing (I doubt that..) and her book could revamp it.
Miss Lee stared at the wall for a long while before she gave her answer:
"I do not see why the burden of saving Broadway should fall on my shoulders. No."
I gotta admire this Southern Icon; even at her age, she will not buck.
Happy fiftieth, Miss Nell. I hope you enjoy the rest of your life in peace.
Here is an article published several years ago that talks about Dennis in his role as Atticus:
As I See It
GREGORY PECK: SIMPLE COURAGE MADE HIM A HERO
I saw Atticus Finch a couple of weeks ago.
He looked much as I'd expected. Tall, lean and good-looking, he was wearing a three-piece white linen suit, de rigueur for Southern lawyers of his era. And when he paced the courtroom questioning a hostile witness -- eloquent but understated -- he fingered the pocket watch tucked in his vest.
Of course, the man I saw wasn't really Atticus Finch, the beloved attorney who battles racial injustice in Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird." I was watching Dennis Owens, a local financial planner cast in the role in this season's production of the play based on the novel. Every spring, a local group stages the play at the historic courthouse in my (and Miss Lee's) hometown, Monroeville, Ala.
For an amateur, Owens did a good job. But, of course, he can never really be Atticus Finch. That role belongs to the late, great Gregory Peck, who personified the character as no one else could have. Watching the movie for the umpteenth time, I tried to imagine a modern-day actor as Atticus.
Tom Hanks? Too nerdy. Robert Duvall? Too old. (Duvall had a small role in the movie as the young recluse, Arthur "Boo" Radley.) Harrison Ford? Too Han Solo.
Peck, who died last week at the age of 87, brought Finch alive in the 1962 film because he exuded courage and a quiet moral authority, the same rare qualities that made the novel's Atticus an enduring hero. In a prepared statement issued after his death, Miss Lee, a good friend for four decades, said, "Atticus Finch gave him the opportunity to play himself."
When the film's Atticus explains to his daughter, Scout, why he made the unpopular decision to defend a black man wrongly accused of raping a young white woman, you believe you're watching a real father trying to explain something important to his child:
"Atticus, do you defend niggers?"
"Don't say 'nigger,' Scout."
So why are you defending him? she persists.
"For a number of reasons. The main one is that if I didn't, I couldn't hold my head up in town. I couldn't even tell you or Jem (cq) not to do somethin' again."
He made a rare act of courage seem such a simple thing.
Peck's presence was so commanding that he played any number of strong male figures, including the obsessed Captain Ahab in "Moby Dick" and the less-than-noble rancher's son in "Duel in the Sun." He was even an evil Nazi in "The Boys from Brazil."
But he was best known for the roles to which he lent his strong moral convictions, including the conscience-stricken commander in "Twelve O'Clock High" and, notably, a journalist who crusades against anti-Semitism in "Gentleman's Agreement," a film that was shunned by much of establishment Hollywood but went on to win acclaim.
It was his role as Atticus that won him an Oscar and created a legacy. Just days before Peck's death, Peck's Atticus was chosen the screen's all-time No. 1 hero in a poll conducted by the American Film Institute.
Peck went to Monroeville to meet Amasa Coleman Lee -- Miss Lee's father and the attorney on whom Atticus is loosely modeled -- and study his mannerisms. In his film portrayal, Peck used Lee's habit of fingering his pocket watch while thinking, and Miss Lee later gave Peck the watch as a gift. He carried it onstage when he accepted the Oscar.
Perhaps Peck was all the more believable as Atticus because his private life never betrayed anything other than the deep love for family and strong personal convictions of the novel's Finch. There was never a tell-all book about a "Daddy Dearest" who abused his children; never a bio-pic about a man of strange sexual proclivities, a la Bob Crane; never tabloid tales about drunkenness and abuse of illegal narcotics. He is survived by his second wife, Veronique, to whom he was married for 47 years.
My father and other Monroeville natives have told me that, while Miss Lee's story is fiction, attorney Lee was well-respected for his belief that all should stand equally before the bar of justice. But I never met him. He died in 1962, when I was a small child.
So Gregory Peck will also be Atticus Finch to me.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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