Last night we took time off from our binge-a-thon of procedural shows. Enough of the FBI and all things in Dick Wolf’s “Law and Order” World.

It was time for an overdue evening with the man the American Film Institute hails as “the greatest movie hero of all time.” Mr. Finch. Mr. Atticus Finch. After watching all the one-dimensional lawyer and cop shows, “To Kill A Mockingbird” resonates powerfully in its 60th anniversary edition. Gregory Peck’s quietly strong performance as Atticus Finch stands tall. Harper Lee’s classic novel seamlessly transferred to the big screen. Given the state of our nation and world, it should be an essential in all our class and living rooms.

“Mockingbird” is a child’s view of racism in the depression riddled south. It could be a contemporary reflection of much that ails our planet. Atticus Finch/Gregory Peck’s allegory about dealing with physical violence and bigotry is laid out in almost bible school terms for his children. He is telling them which birds it’s okay to hunt with an exception.

“You can’t shoot mockingbirds. They don’t bother anyone. All they do is sing. Sing their hearts out for you. It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

Finch is explaining to his young innocents why the vile behavior of his town against a an accused black man is wrong. It’s also a metaphor for why the youngsters should not torment a mentally-challenged neighbor (probably autistic, but not yet a known diagnosis) who ultimately saves their lives. The “Boo” Radley character is sensitively played by a young Robert Duvall in his first movie.

The pervasive racism in the small southern town of a century ago cuts me deeply. That bigotry is fresh and alive, topping our local and network news daily. It’s especially rampant in the radical right wing media. It’s heard on the streets and shops of our small New England town. There is no avoiding it.

As a retired TV newsman, I spent decades covering the moral erosion of our state and country. We supposedly were learning from the mistakes of our past as my career ended. The new century would hopefully show us the fruits of labor from the Civil Rights and Women’s movement. Our cultural divide was going to disappear.

We talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.

We seem to be going backwards. It’s great cocktail conversation among progressives, but not much happens when the party is over. It’s painfully obvious how we’ve failed when we watch the eloquent persuasion of “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

Last night’s pre-‘Mockingbird” viewing was a race-themed “Law And Order” (yes, I am a procedural junkie). “Fear and Loathing” was the “L&O” episode focused on one of the lead characters. A Black detective was racially targeted and roughed up by two white, uniformed officers. That Black detective was also investigating a homicide, apparently triggered by online race baiting. The murder suspect got his proper due in court. But the “Blue Line” ruled against the Black detective’s charge. It’s a reminder that racism continues, even in our criminal justice system.

It reminded me of a personal incident. Some 30 years ago in Boston, right behind the TV station where I’d worked for decades, a white Police officer continually harassed me over the legality of a parking space. In a real life, it could be a “Law & Order” episode. The cop’s record showed multiple charges of’ ‘inappropriate behavior’. That officer was fined and reassigned while I was reminded that my news media celebrity aside, my skin color made me a target. It is a story I would later share with Atticus Finch/Gregory Peck.

I met Gregory Peck a couple of years after he had finished “To Kill A Mockingbird.” It was already established as a classic as was his Oscar-winning performance. Peck was touring the country in a one man show. We met when Peck was doing his show at my alma mater, Hofstra University. Our campus radio station ticketed me for the Peck interview which was memorable.

“I heard your music program last night, Mr. Armstrong,” the acting legend began before my first question. Peck apparently had tuned in our little radio station and caught a “Music From The Movies” show I did. Peck expressed his appreciation for our mixing of music from “To Kill A Mockingbird” and another Peck film, “Behold A Pale Horse.”

I had detected a similarity in the music. We had done one of those radio artsy things. A “segue” on one music note to a similar one from the second movie. When done right, it is seamless. Gregory Peck really liked my little bit of business and smiled broadly as he hummed the tunes. He went on to explain how “To Kill A Mockingbird” had boosted his critical stock when, I thought he didn’t need any boost for such a brilliant career. Peck smiled with the old Hollywood bromide, “You’re only as good as your last movie.”

I shared my feelings about “Mockingbird” and Gregory Peck smiled, a warm Atticus Finch smile. “Well, I guess we really hit a home run, Garry”. We had quietly moved onto a first name basis.

As for the interview? That’s something for another day, possibly a podcast. I’m still basking in the glow of “To Kill A Mockingbird” and my few minutes with Atticus Finch.

Categories: #GarryArmstrong, Anecdote, Celebrities, Film Review, Movies, Racism and Bigotry

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23 replies

  1. My first reaction is that you know everybody! And my second is an observation: here in Milwaukee there was a big controversy at a local high school about staging To Kill a Mockingbird because of the use of the N-word. The school ended up cancelling its performances. I am of two minds about that – love the book/movie/play and feel that it portrays an important period of time and the enduring racism of our country but also feel that students who felt targeted by the language have a right to go to school and be comfortable. It’s a masterpiece, for sure. But it needs pretty deft handling for younger people.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jan, it almost feels like I know everybody. That is a big joke around here.

      A friend recently worked in a regional stage version of “Mockingbird”, playing “Bob Euwell, the loathsome, racist Dad whose false charges propel Tom Robinson’s trial. I asked my friend about doing the show. He said he felt antsy about using the “N” word but the Euwell character was a juicy role. It apparently left some nervousness in the audience but my friend said he was well received after each performance. I’m not sure about age or racial makeup of the audiences for that “Mockingbird” production. I will have to ask. I’m going to check in with my actor friend.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Jan, I just reread your Michael Douglas post and left a comment. I know YOU and am a big fan.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I once chatted with Vincent Price – such a charming and lovely man. It’s so nice to meet celebrities who exceed your expectations.

    Liked by 1 person

    • JT, I also chatted with Vincent Price. Back in the 70’s when he came to our TV newsroom for an interview. As you said, Mr. Price was a charming, lovely and VERY funny. man. First off, he said, “Call me Vinnie”. That seemed very inappropriate to me. He smiled at that notion and reminded me he was hawking some commercial product ( I forget what it was). But “Vinnie” it was. Vinnie and Garry. Before the interview, “Vinnie” observed our newsroom. He sniffed a bit. We were in the last days of when smoking was allowed in public places and private businesses. Our TV newsroom looked like a foggy day in London town. My pipe added to the fog but Vincent Price just complimented me on the aroma. He shared anecdotes about smoking on movie sets and laughed as he remembered a love scene where he almost choked while kissing his beautiful costar. The interview was very relaxed and full of anecdotes that made it feel like an easy conversation with an old friend. I asked Vincent Price about a rather obscure film, “The Baron of Arizona” in which he had one of his rare leading roles that wasn’t a horror movie.
      Price smiled, “You saw THAT thing?” My, you ARE a movie maven, my friend”. Shared laughter as I talked about my love of old Hollywood flicks – good, bad and ugly.

      We ended with my query about “Laura”, the classic murder mystery surrounding a mysterious young woman. Vincent Price nodded, saying that was one of his favorite ‘shows’. He went off on a tangent about working with one of his “Laura” co-stars, Clifton Webb. He giggled as he recalled some of Webb’s eccentricities. As we wrapped the interview, Price thanked me for not asking him about his horror films. I nodded, saying that would’ve been dumb given his renaissance man’s life.

      A firm handshake, an imitation of Vincent Price doing his horror film persona, laughter and the master of the macabre left, humming the haunting “Laura” theme music.


  3. Garry, this post hit straight to the heart. I’m going to re-watch this movie. The book became a favorite because of one of my favorite teachers who cried sharing the synopsis before we read the book. What a wonderful experience to meet Mr. Peck and such travesty in the “state of affairs” in the thinking and actions of racists. I’m not for sure if this is the appropriate place to share this as I understand the message of this post~it’s regarding Robert Duvall. Yesterday afternoon, in dealing with frustrations over many things, I watched “Sweet Mercies” followed by “7 Days in Utopia”. I crave a world to which I don’t belong (CS Lewis?). Walk the walk, talk the talk. Yes, Garry. I nodded through this entire post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences. I appreciate them so much!

    Liked by 1 person

    • When Garry gave me the first version of this, I gave it back to him and said he needed to put more of himself into it. He does not like to share that part of his life except with people to whom he is very close. And preferably people of color. He knows I understand, but regardless, love and marriage notwithstanding, I’m white. Very. Right down to my hair roots.

      He spent his whole working life trying to rise above the racism and callousness of people who couldn’t understand that their “humor” was cruel and insulting They didn’t get it then, they don’t get it now. Only now is Garry beginning to be willing to talk about it.


  4. Garry, thanks for sharing. To me, Atticus Finch was well served being played by Gregory Peck. A favorite book and movie as a result. Keith

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s not just a favorite book. It’s a moral lesson. I’m sure they are busily banning the book in every “red state” in the country. What a tragedy for readers AND authors!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Keith, did you know that Universal-International actually considered Rock Hudson for the Atticus role? Hudson was under a UI contract and very popular at the time. The story goes that Harper Lee interceded, insisting that Gregory Peck WAS Atticus Finch as far as she was concerned.
      The rest is history. It reminds me of the “Gone With The Wind” story. Errol Flynn’s people tried to sell him as Rhett Butler. GWTW author Margaret Mitchell made very clear that Clark Gable was her only choice.
      Sometimes the Hollywood casting stories are funny. Jack Warner (“Smilin’ Jack Warner”) tried to push Ronald Reagan and Dennis Morgan for the Rick Blaine role in “Casablanca”. Phillip Epstein, one of the movie’s co-writers, confirmed that Warner was laughed out of the story meeting in his office.


      • Garry, now those stories are interesting. The first stars the studio wanted seems to always spawn interest and often disbelief. I could not see Ronald Reagan playing any part well suited for Humphrey Bogart. As for Rock Hudson and Erroll Flynn, they would have missed the mark on the essence of the characters as well. I have read the studio wanted Fred Astaire to play Columbo rather Peter Falk and James Caan as Rocky, rather than Sylvester Stallone.

        I am reading Mel Brooks biography right now and he noted the studio wanted Gig Young to play the Waco Kid in “Blazing Saddles,” but he was an alcoholic, so playing one became problematic. They flew in Gene Wilder after a terrible Friday of shooting with Young.

        Thanks for the stories. Keith

        Liked by 1 person

        • Keith, you are correct about that “Blazing Saddles” story. Mel Brooks tells it in many of his long form interviews.

          Peter Falk, when shooting “The Brinks Job” in Boston, recalled the “Columbo” casting story. He allowed that “Astaire would have been fascinating as ‘Columbo” and offered another Hollywood bromide “It’s the nature of the business” where bizarre casting choices are offered.
          You may recall that Warner Brothers (‘Smiling Jack’ Warner, again) wanted Robert Donat for “Captain Blood” back in 1935. WB relentlessly pursued Donat who walked away because of severe asthma problems. Warners caved and gave “Blood” to a young and dashing actor, Errol Flynn.

          Another semi-related casting story, Keith. Alan Ladd desperately wanted to play the “Jett Rink” role in “Giant”. Ladd, still riding the “Shane” wave of popularity, had a drinking problem. It was obvious when you saw his bloated face. The drinking problem aside, George Stevens had already committed to James Dean for the Rink character. Another “the rest is history” tale.


  5. one of my all time favorite movies and books. how very lucky to have had that positive personal encounter. my youngest daughter is married to an African American man and my grandchildren are mixed race. their family openly talks about race and our society all the time, as it is a necessary thing for them to understand in their day to day lives sadly. when they brought my granddaughter home from ether hospital (she was a preemie and spent 3 months in the nicu, ,my sil was holding her in his front yard, so happy to have her home, and so proud of her, and someone came by and asked, ‘is that your daughter, her skin is lighter than yours?’ as if he had taken her from someone else.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Oh, Beth. It’s so maddening. A dear friend has such beautiful mixed race children; she understands.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Mixed race children are beautiful. They have a wonderful amber tone in their skin, especially when they are very young. Many of Garry’s colleagues were married to white people and their children were gorgeous. By the time we got married, Garry was 48 and I was 43, so there was only a very limited amount of “baby” time left. If we were going to do it, we had to hustle. I wasn’t even sure I could, even if I wanted to.

        Garry said he wasn’t ready to be a parent. He always thought it was the hardest job in the world — he might be right about that. So we didn’t have any of our own, but every once in a while I’ll point out other people’s mixed race children and say: “We could have one like that!”

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’m smiling, Marilyn. Yes, what a gorgeous baby indeed! I’ve always been jealous of beautiful shades of skin~anything but mine. My great-grandmother was full-blooded Cherokee (I got the cheekbones). Mom had darker skin and dark hair. One of my dearest friends was adopted from the Philippines, another friend Hispanic (I spent a month in Chihuahua with her at age 18 after she was an exchange student), spent time with Egyptian friends in Egypt,…everyone’s skin but mine was so pretty. I was a spotty, fair-haired, reddish-hued~Dad’s “side” of Scottish and Irish descent. I’m much wiser now and learned to love the “skin I’m in”. 🥰 I love the skins of the world.


    • The worst part of that comment is that whoever said it probably didn’t even realize what an insult is was. And now, with all the book bannings — have we started to burn them yet? — no one is going to learn anything. If you come from racist parents, you’ll never get a chance to see that there is another way to look at the world.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Beth, thanks for the share. This subject matter obviously hits close to home with me. For many years, I kept the race thing close to me, internalizing my feelings while covering many racially tinged stories. I always wanted to be professional and not let my personal feelings sway my reporting. It was often very difficult but i’m glad i was able to stay the course.

      My best defense is humor. It always confuses the race baiters.

      Liked by 1 person

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