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Finding Atticus in 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

Jeff Daniels put his own spin on the iconic father figure in Aaron Sorkin's Broadway adaptation of Harper Lee's classic novel.

Jeff Daniels stars as attorney Atticus Finch, left,

Jeff Daniels stars as attorney Atticus Finch, left, and Gbenga Akinnagbe is defendant Tom Robinson in "To Kill a Mockingbird." Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

Ask folks if they’ve read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and you’ll likely get two common answers — yes, and sometime in middle school.

That’s true for award-winning script writer Aaron Sorkin, who got approval from the famously reclusive author Harper Lee, before her death in 2016, to adapt her beloved coming-of-age novel about the proud Finch family into a new Broadway play.

That’s true-ish for Will Pullen, who plays adventurous Jem Finch. He was assigned the book at his junior high in Chicago, though — hellion that he was — he didn’t read much of it.

For Celia Keenan-Bolger, who plays Jem’s irascible younger sister, Scout, it was one of the first books her mother read aloud to her growing up in Detroit. “My mom was pretty stoic, but just cried through so much of it,” she recalls.  

Though the Finch children figure prominently in this saga, it’s their father, Atticus Finch, who looms large — an attorney struggling to defend a black man accused of a heinous crime in the unjust, Jim Crow-era South.  

“He’s a small-town lawyer who gets paid in vegetables and then goes on to face . . . that madness,” says Jeff Daniels, who stars in the role.

Directed by Bartlett Sher and opening at the Shubert Theatre on Dec. 13, the play takes a fresh look at Atticus. Beloved father figures come and go in pop culture, from Robert Young (on “Father Knows Best”) to Robert Reed (“The Brady Bunch”) to, yes, Bill Cosby. But Atticus has remained an icon for decades, a Mount Rushmore of a dad who seems to satisfy everyone’s notion of what a father could, and should, be.

The chance of a lifetime

Sorkin couldn’t say no.

He is sitting in the lower lobby of the Shubert, affable and preppy in paisley tie, khakis and suede bucks, recalling how he felt three years ago when megaproducer Scott Rudin asked him to adapt what a recent PBS survey declared as America’s most loved novel. The 1962 film version — which won three Oscars, including best actor for Gregory Peck — is highly revered, too.

Sorkin was a logical choice, given the scope of his TV series (“The West Wing") and films (“The Social Network”), and his knack for courtroom drama (“A Few Good Men”).

So he reread the book. Years ago, William Goldman, who wrote the screenplay for his novel “The Princess Bride," taught Sorkin the first rule in adapting any book: Don’t take notes, don’t ask questions. Just read it.

“I haven’t mastered that yet,” Sorkin admits. Out came the index cards (a screenwriter’s staple), as he noted potential scenes and characters. Six months later, his first draft was “a greatest hits album,” an homage to all our favorite moments from the book. Rudin rejected it.

It took Sorkin a year to come up with a better draft, one that respected the original material but tweaked certain dated aspects of the 1960 book. For starters, how could a story about race have only two significant black characters — who never talk about race? Sorkin, using clues and descriptive material from Lee’s text, gives them fuller voice.

A case of perfect casting

Like Sorkin, Daniels, too, seems well-suited for this challenge.

He’s not Hollywood. Now 63, the two-time Emmy winner and Sorkin alum (“The Newsroom") was raised and still lives in Michigan. Chatting by phone before a rehearsal, he exudes a natural, down-home folksiness, dropping the occasional “g” from his verbs as he explains his research into the role (reading biographies of Lee and books about the Jim Crow period).

“I wanted to get educated about what Atticus was lookin’ at when he stood on his porch,” Daniels says.

It’s a key set piece, that porch. It's where Bob Ewell (Frederick Weller) makes threats, Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) challenges Atticus, and the Finch children and their precocious pal, Dill (Gideon Glick), learn life lessons.

After the kids mess with old Mrs. Dubose’s camellia bush, Atticus calls Scout onto the porch. They sit, her head on his shoulder, as he describes the nature of a mob, a place where people go “to get away from their conscience,” he tells her.

“I love being Scout — with Jeff — in that scene,” Keenan-Bolger says. “That’s an amazing confluence of actor and character.”

Atticus’ famed plea that you can’t know someone till you “climb into his skin and walk around in it” still resonates. “He offers such great ways to, you know, be a person in the world,” she says. “It’s not surprising that he’s loomed so large.”

What’s more surprising is why so many of us are drawn to Atticus.

The little-known truth about Atticus Finch

Atticus is not exactly a standard-issue dad.

“There’s an aloofness in the way he treats the kids,” Sorkin says. “He doesn’t baby them. He doesn’t pander.”

In turn, they call him Atticus, not Dad. When he reads to them, it’s not from a children’s book, but a law book or the local newspaper. And when tucking the kids in at night, he waits till they ask a question worth answering. “It doesn’t on the face of it sound like he’s a great dad.” Sorkin smiles. “But he is.”

Sitting in the audience at the Shubert before the show starts, you can feel the electricity, a sense you’re here to see something important. Producers love that hype. Not actors.

“It all gets in the way — the importance of it, how it relates to today’s America, the audience’s love of the book, and Gregory Peck — all in the way,” Daniels says.

For him, the only choice is to focus on that porch, that courtroom. Later, he’ll grab a guitar (he has one at home and one in his dressing room) to unwind. Or there’s always “Impractical Jokers,” the TruTV reality show about four pranksters from Staten Island. “Those guys just kill me,” he says, chuckling.

One wonders what Atticus might make of reality TV.  

“He doesn’t literally ask it, but it’s like you feel him asking in the book, ‘How can I raise my children in this morally ambiguous world?’ ” Pullen says.

The answer may be deceptively simple.

“We can see he’s plainly, successfully passed on to his kids the things that are important to him,” Sorkin says. “It’s obvious that these kids know they’re loved. And safe. What could be a bigger job for a father?”

THE LIBRARIANS SPEAK

With more than 40 million copies sold, and 40-plus translations worldwide, Harper Lee’s beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is a library staple.

“The book is a beloved classic, which never loses its appeal,” says Irina Zaionts, a senior librarian at the Great Neck Library.

It’s even more popular these days, thanks to the 2015 publication of “Go Set a Watchman,” Lee’s recently discovered first attempt at a novel. That book sparked enough interest in the author that the Jericho Public Library doubled its “Mockingbird” collection, from six to 12 copies.

Oceanside Public Library upped its five-copy collection to 25 in anticipation of this fall’s PBS series “The Great American Read,” a sort of “America’s Got Talent” for bookworms. The show revealed a five-month-long survey of Americans’ favorite novels.

“Mockingbird” took top honors, beating the “Outlander” and “Harry Potter” series, and sparking talk-backs and other programs at Long Island libraries.

“Typically adults come in looking for best-sellers,” says Angela Cinquemani, head of reference at Jericho Public Library. “So it’s nice to see renewed interest in a classic.” — Joseph V. Amodio

WHAT “To Kill a Mockingbird”

WHEN | WHERE Opens Dec. 13, Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St.

INFO From $39; 212-239-6210, telecharge.com

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