Cuddled up deep in the heart of the Blue Ridge -- a stunning section of the Appalachian Mountains -- almost concealed on the side of a mountain, stands a historic log cabin amidst luscious grasses and dense forest. Here, on this land, in this family farmhouse that was built in the early part of the last century, is where you will find Collin Wilcox Paxton, my grandmother.
I bet you know her. Collin is best-known to high schoolers as Mayella Violet Ewell in the classic film, "To Kill a Mockingbird", starring Gregory Peck, based on Harper Lee's novel.
The trademark scene is set as thus: Atticus (Peck) paces the courtroom floor. People sit expectantly on benches downstairs in the courtroom, and up in the balcony, people hang on every word. A young white girl, Mayella, is giving her testimony accusing Tom Robinson (a black man played by actor Brock Peters) of rape. She gives a passionate and convincing speech. Almost no one suspects she is lying.
"To Kill a Mockingbird" -- both novel and film -- courageously tackles racial prejudice against African Americans in Alabama of the 1930s. The novel was published in 1960. Production for the film began in 1961 when discrimination was still commonplace and desegregation was beginning to be enforced.
Over the holidays, I visited my grandmother and we spent some quality time together. As always, we enjoyed talking with each other. Collin grew up in the South, one of two children of an educated family. Around them were people who were underprivileged, uneducated, desperately poor, and racist. There were constant examples of racial injustice; there were also marches protesting discrimination. "To ride a bus in Tennessee and watch an elderly black woman walk all the way to the back because that's where she was supposed to be, was a common sight," she recalls.
Collin's parents had begun desegregation work in the '50s and Collin soon joined in. "Many times I was called a 'n-----lover' and 'communist' by my schoolmates because of my liberal thinking," she recalls. There were consequences: crosses were burned on her family's front lawn, threatening marks from the Ku Klux Klan.
When Collin read "To Kill a Mockingbird" in 1960, the situations described in the book were not new to her.
Not surprisingly, Collin observed some discrimination on the film set. "I recall an incident that happened when we were filming the now famous trial scene," Collin recounts. "Before this scene was filmed, the assistant director was calling places and said, 'Black atmosphere upstairs, White atmosphere downstairs.' This meant that the black actors were to go to the balcony and the white ones to the benches on the courtroom floor (paralleling real life's segregation.) Obviously, there was no need for the color references that emphasized and perpetuated common segregation practices. Realizing this, my friend Brock Peters (who played Robinson) and I flanked the assistant director and insisted upon a change. We suggested that he simply say, 'Upstairs atmosphere and downstairs atmosphere.'" There were no more color references after that on the set."
Both Collin and Brock Peters were deeply involved in the civil rights movement and both were delegates to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from Santa Monica, Calif. "On the set there was a main feeling that we were making a film that had meaning, had something to say," Collin remembers. "But no one ever expected or anticipated the kind of impact the film actually created."
"To Kill a Mockingbird" has been called the greatest film of the 20th century. Collin explains: "The movie was out of its time, in its time."
Not everyone loved the film. Collin remembers hearing that police had to clear a theater in Harlem because people went berserk during Mayella Ewell's testimony.
After the movie premiered, Collin recalls getting "unfriendly looks" when she attended an NAACP conference in Monterey, Calif. At one point NAACP President Roy Wilson reminded participants: "Collin is here at this conference because she believes in the cause. She is not the character she portrayed in the film." "That seemed to clear the air," Collin recalls, although some participants seemed to feel that if she supported the cause, she should not have so convincingly played a character like Mayella.
Collin says she accepted the role because she believed she could personify the character because she understood both sides of the coin. "I had known girls from that kind of background," Collin said. At the screen test, "all the other girls trying out for the part were overly made-up; they had curly clean hair and wore brassieres and high heels," Collin recalled, while "I wore a second-hand dress, tennis shoes with holes in them, and dirty little white socks. I rubbed cold cream through my hair, that's why my hair looked so dirty." At the time she played 19-year-old Mayella, Collin was 26 and already a seasoned actress. "Clearly, I looked a great deal younger," Collin says.
When personifying a character from a book, it's all there. "I knew the background: horribly painful life, no affection. Totally terrified. I just did it, but it was already there. The author gave it to me."
Much of the book is based on the author's life. Collin met Harper Lee on the set. One day, Lee came to the set to watch Gregory Peck film. Collin recalls that after the scene, Lee was crying and everyone thought she was moved by Peck's performance, which she was. But that wasn't why she was crying. Lee was crying because, "'He has a little 'pooch' [Southern term for a potbelly] just like my daddy did," referring to the way Gregory Peck looked. The character Atticus Finch was based on Lee's father.
Collin greatly admired Peck, who was fondly known as "The Impeccable Mr. Peck." "He was impeccable in his courtesy as well as his acting," she says. Acting in film is demanding. Each scene requires many shots: long shots, medium shots, over-the-shoulder shots, and close-ups. Each scene needs to be repeated many times. Actors must be able to "hit thier marks" for the camera. During the court scene, Peck had a long monologue and many different marks to hit. "Yet, Gregory never fumbled a line of dialogue, never missed a mark" during countless takes, Collin recalls.
When asked what advice she could offer to young people today about fighting discrimination, Collin answered: "Examine your beliefs. If you find bigotry in your beliefs, in any form, do everything in your power to eradicate it."
A professional actress, playwright and author, Collin has traveled the world. She has starred on Broadway, off Broadway, in Los Angeles and on London's West End. Her stage credits include "The Day the Money Stopped", "Crazy October", "Under the Yum Yum Tree", "Look, We've Come Through", "Period of Adjustment", "La Bonne Soup", "Suddenly Last Summer." She has appeared in 70 TV shows, among them: "The Twilight Zone", "Sherlock Holmes", Alfred Hitchcock's "The Jar", "Route 66", "Christy", "Dr. Kildare", "Ben Casey", "Little House on the Prairie". Film appearances include "Jaws 2", "Fluke", "Jump", "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil", "September 30th 1955", and "The Baby Maker". She wrote the novel and play, "Papa's Angels," which was made into a CBS TV film with Scott Bakula.
Today, Collin is the volunteer artistic director of the Instant Theatre Company in Highlands, N.C., which she and her husband, Scott R. Paxton, founded in 1981. It's a non-profit, cultural and educational community service organization dedicated to fostering the arts, promoting artists and discovering and promoting the untapped artistic potential in the area.
As we said goodbye, Collin shared with me her favorite saying: "Enjoy life. This is not a dress rehearsal."
Chelsea Horne is a junior at Williamsville East High School