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Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird Remains Hollywood's Best Book-To-Movie

02/19/2016 05:20 EST | Updated 02/19/2017 05:12 EST
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... Mary Badham and Gregory Peck work on their lines.

The passing at age 89 of American novelist Harper Lee, the author of a single novel that turned out to be To Kill A Mockingbird (sorry, but no... Go Set a Watchman shouldn't count) eventually brings us around this Oscar season to how her Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece also begat a Hollywood classic. Let the cast speak for her.

As a news producer for E! News Daily in 1998, I covered the 35th anniversary VHS (!) widescreen premiere of To Killing a Mockingbird in Beverly Hills. The actors who played Atticus, Scout, Jem, Tom Robinson and Boo Radley were there -- 35 years older, but still in love with this story of young enlightenment defeating prejudice in the mid-1930s American South.

Gregory Peck won an Oscar for his performance as courageous Southern lawyer Atticus Finch. His character was based on Harper Lee's own father, Amasa Coleman Lee -- and although To Kill a Mockingbird didn't win the Best Picture Academy Award in 1963 (that went to David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia) -- Peck did beat out newcomer Peter O'Toole for Best Actor.

Peck proudly told me of the praise he received from Lee when she visited the movie set.

"She watched a scene and I thought I saw a tear glisten on her cheek and I thought, well, we've had an effect on the novelist. She likes what were doing," he said. Peck still relishes the memory, 35 years later.

"I walked over to her and said 'Harper, did I see something glistening on your cheek?' She said 'Oh Gregory... You've got a little pot belly just like my daddy.'"

Peck reveals his secret: "So naturally I said, 'That's great acting, Harper.'"

Novelist Horton Foote performed one of Hollywood's legendary book-to-screenplay miracles by taking a beloved Pulitzer Prize winner and making it actually read better in screenplay format. Foote took Lee's recitations of everything her father said and distilled them down in the screenplay to the essence of Pure Atticus.

But Foote told me he wasn't even in Hollywood on Oscar night to pick up his Academy Award for best adapted screenplay.

"I wasn't there." Foote confesses. "I didn't think I was going to win. So I didn't go."

During the Mockingbird re-premiere in 1998, Robert Duvall was the hottest actor in town. He had just been nominated for his performance in The Apostle, which he had also written and directed. As the spooky recluse Boo Radley, a younger 31-year-old Duvall made his movie debut in Mockingbird.

"I had one line and they cut it," Duvall laments good-naturedly with his friends in the cast. He turns to the 82-year-old screenwriter, Foote, in the movie lobby where the red carpet stretches and asks, "Hey, Horton, what was it? I had one line and they cut it in To Kill a Mockingbird." Duvall struggles to recall his missing dialog. "Something about... my line was 'Where's home?' or 'Which way is home?' I had one line and they cut it," Duvall remembers sadly.

In fact, "Will you take me home?" is Boo Radley's single line in Harper Lee's book. If you haven't got time to re-read the entire story, just look at the last chapter.

Boo and Scout's big scene. Chills. Hollywood's best book-to-movie ever.

"A long time ago" Duvall looks back, "... but nice memories."

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