Atticus Finch is America’s dad. There is nothing not to love about the Alabama lawyer and civil rights activist from Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Gregory Peck won an Oscar for portraying him in the film. I hired a wonderful dresser named Phillip to dress the actor who would play the iconic role for our stage version.
Time for introductions:
Phillip and I went looking for Atticus and found him getting his hair cut. I started to introduce Phillip to him, but the actor’s cell phone rang. He pulled the phone out from underneath the barber’s cape and answered it. We waited for thirty minutes (almost the whole haircut) while he had an ugly conversation with someone back in New York City.
“Larry, what the fuck am I doing here? This show’s a big waste of my time and my talent,” he garbled into the phone. “From now on don’t send me out for anything unless it’ll get me a Tony or an Obie.”
Perhaps we’ll meet Atticus Finch later.
Once we got to the stage, there was a lot of drama about all of Atticus’s props, especially his newspaper. Phillip got an earful: the date was wrong; the paper quality wasn’t good enough; the journalism not to his liking.
“I’m your dresser. Talk to the prop person,” Phillip told him repeatedly.
Phillip nicknamed the actor Atticus Bitch.
Atticus wasn’t a clotheshorse in the play: just one suit and tie, a fedora, and a cardigan. His suit was custom built by a tailor in the costume shop out of the finest wool the budget could afford. His shirts were classic from Brooks Brothers. The tie and fedora were vintage and pristine. Shoes always shined. The actor looked the part and loved all the attention to detail at first, but he eventually soured. There were daily reminders that working in regional theatre outside of New York City was beneath him.
“Did you touch my hat?” he asked Phillip during dress rehearsal. His face was twisted.
“Yes I did. I’m your dresser. I track your all your costume pieces for you,” he answered.
“You manhandled it! It’s ruined. It’ll have to be completely re-blocked.”
That wasn’t the case at all, but … fine. Phillip gave the hat to me and I took the hat back to the milliner.
“There’s nothing wrong with this hat,” she said.
“I know,” I said. “Just steam it or something so I can say you re-blocked it.”
Phillip waited for Atticus to get to the dressing room the next day. He gently returned his hat to him.
“Are you hands clean?” he asked his dresser.
The actor stuck his finger Phillip’s face.
“Don’t ever touch this hat again! Is that clear?”
“Yes, sir,” he answered.
After the hat drama, Phillip renamed Atticus Finch “HATticus Bitch”. The name stuck and many of the cast and crew started using his nickname, too.
I felt horrible that my dresser was being abused. As the supervisor, I reported the actor to stage management. Stage management spoke to administration. Folks from above spoke to Atticus. It didn’t really help.
There was no star system at this theatre. It was a professional AEA union house, but there were only two community dressing rooms divided by gender. Most of the shows I worked on at this company had a great backstage vibe among the actors and crew. Yet our Macomb County was turning into Hell thanks to Hatticus.
The little blond kid who played Dill scored a feature article in his suburban newspaper. The actor was ten years old and very excited to be interviewed. His newspaper was going to conduct the interview and take a picture of him in costume on the set with stage lights.
Dill had to get dressed early and scampered to the porch swing of the Finch house. Phillip and I followed to watch and cheer him on. The interview was just getting started when Hatticus Bitch comes out the screen door of the set with a shit-eating grin …in full costume.
“Was I supposed to have Hatticus’ costume ready early?” Phillip asked.
“Not that I know of,” I answered.
I looked over to the publicity person. It was obvious by the look on her face that Hatticus wasn’t supposed to be a part of this newspaper feature. Hatticus was grinning like we had never seen him grin. He sat down on the porch swing next to Dill and put his arm around him like they were pals.
“Does he even like the kids?” I asked.
“No. He’s always complaining about them. The man is the Devil. That asshole is stealing the kid’s spotlight,” Phillip answered.
Thankfully, Hatticus kept his mouth shut through the interview. But when it was time for the photo, he got in real tight with Dill. The actor even suggested more poses, one of him shaking the kid’s hand. It was sickening, but the kid seemed naïve to the situation.
The cast and crew of To Kill a Mockingbird grew weary of Hatticus Bitch. But everything changed the day when his girlfriend came in from New York City for a visit. She was about twenty years younger than America’s dad and wore her hair in pigtails.
Suddenly, Hatticus Bitch turned into a wholesome guy. His pigtailed girlfriend certainly brought out the best in him as he paraded her around backstage. The man was calm and polite around her; opening doors and saying “please” and “thank you” to everyone. The complaining stopped and we were finally able to get down to the business of telling Harper Lee’s story without the headache.
I nicknamed the girlfriend Pigtails.
“I kinda hate to leave you and go on vacation now that he’s being so nice,” Phillip told me.
I had completely forgotten that Phillip had pre-arranged to leave the run of To Kill a Mockingbird early for a trip to Hawaii. I needed to hire a dresser to replace him for the last week through closing night. It scared me. Atticus Finch would likely turn back into Hatticus Bitch and start being mean to his new dresser once Pigtails was gone.
I hired a fabulous dresser named Amy to replace Phillip. I was honest and disclosed everything to her about our not-so-nice actor.
“Don’t worry. I can handle him. It’s only for eight shows,” she assured me.
Pigtails and Phillip left town the same day. Amy came to work that day looking sharp in a cute black dress. I held my breath as she folded herself into her role as Atticus’ dresser.
“How’s it going?” I asked at intermission.
“It’s fine. He’s obviously a creep, but he’s being a gentleman. He complemented me on my hair.”
It suddenly dawned on me: Amy kind of looked like Atticus Finch’s girlfriend, Pigtails… and Amy happened to be wearing her hair in pigtails. Maybe the man had a soft spot for a young woman in pigtails. No matter what the deal was, I wasn’t about to question it.
“I suggest you wear your hair in pigtail for every show this week,” I told Amy and she agreed.
The last week of To Kill a Mockingbird was smooth as silk. On closing night, Amy handed me an opened envelope.
“Give this to Phillip,” she told me.
Inside the envelope was a card and a fifty-dollar bill. Atticus had tipped his dresser as actors often do.
“Phillip earned it. I didn’t.”
Dennis Milam Bensie is a writer and, for thirty years, has made his living as a dresser in professional theatre all over the United States. Short stories and poetry by Dennis have been featured in numerous publications and his essays have been seen in The Huffington Post, Boys on the Brink, and The Good Men Project. He has three books published by Coffeetown Press. This essay is part of a series for Queen Mob's Teahouse on his experience working backstage.