Harper Lee: American Masters

About the Documentary

Updated May 26, 2015
One of the most influential American novels of the 20th century and biggest bestsellers of all time, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) was believed to be the first and only novel by Nelle Harper Lee (born April 28, 1926), until now. On July 14, HarperCollins will release Lee’s earliest known work, Go Set a Watchman, featuring characters from her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which was published 55 years ago.

In honor of this landmark literary event, American Masters presents a newly updated version of Emmy®-winning filmmaker Mary McDonagh Murphy’s 2012 documentary Harper Lee: Hey, Boo, broadcast as Harper Lee: American Masters on Friday, July 10, 9 – 10:30 pm on PBS (check local listings) The author of Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of To Kill a Mockingbird, Murphy was able to read an advance copy of the new novel before updating the film and will live tweet (#HarperLeePBS) during the broadcast.

Go Set a Watchman was written before To Kill a Mockingbird and believed to be lost or destroyed. Its remarkable discovery allows readers of Lee’s beloved classic the chance to see Atticus and Scout again. How and why this happened is a mystery we unravel in the new version of the documentary,” said Murphy.

Lee once said she wanted to be South Alabama’s Jane Austen, but became an enigma when she stopped speaking to press in 1964 after her whirlwind success. Harper Lee: American Masters offers an unprecedented look at Lee’s life, illuminates the phenomenon behind To Kill a Mockingbird and the Oscar®-winning 1962 film adaptation, and previews Go Set a Watchman, which Lee wrote in 1957. The documentary features interviews with Lee’s friends and family – including her centenarian sister Alice (now deceased) – who share intimate recollections, anecdotes and biographical details for the first time: Lee’s rise from small-town Alabama girl to famous author, her tumultuous friendship with Truman Capote, and the origin of her most memorable characters: Atticus Finch, his daughter Scout, her friend Dill, and Boo Radley.

The film also explores the context and history of the novel’s Deep South setting and the social changes it inspired after publication and through the feature film starring Gregory Peck. Oprah Winfrey, Rosanne Cash, Tom Brokaw, Pulitzer Prize-winners Rick Bragg, Anna Quindlen, Richard Russo, Jon Meacham and Diane McWhorter, James Patterson, Wally Lamb, Scott Turow, civil rights leader Andrew Young, and others reflect on the novel’s power, influence, popularity, and the ways it has shaped their lives.

“Harper Lee was ahead of her time. She challenged the social order and made a cultural impact with To Kill a Mockingbird that still resonates today. I’m thrilled that American Masters is able to give viewers a sneak peek at Lee’s new novel,” said Michael Kantor, executive producer of American Masters.

Interviewees (in alphabetical order):

Mary Badham – actress, played Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Boaty Boatwright
– casting director, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Rick Bragg
– author
Tom Brokaw
– news anchor, journalist and author
Joy Brown
– Lee’s friend
Michael Brown
– Lee’s friend
Rosanne Cash
– musician and author
Mark Childress
– author
Jane Ellen Clark
– former director, The Monroe County Heritage Museum
Allan Gurganus
– author
David Kipen
– former director of literature, National Endowment for the Arts
Wally Lamb
– author
Alice Finch Lee
– Lee’s sister
James McBride
– author and musician
Diane McWhorter
– historian
Jon Meacham
– historian
James Patterson
– author
Anna Quindlen
– author
Richard Russo
– author
Lizzie Skurnick
– author
Lee Smith
– author
Adriana Trigiani
– author
Mary Tucker
– educator and Monroeville, Alabama resident
Scott Turow
– author
Oprah Winfrey
– TV and film producer, founder of O, The Oprah magazine, radio programmer, actress, philanthropist, and chairman of Harpo Inc.
Andrew Young
– civil rights leader

Production and Funding Credits Print

Harper Lee: American Masters is a production of Mary Murphy & Company, LLC. Mary McDonagh Murphy is producer, writer and director. Rich White is director of photography. Christopher Seward is editor and producer. Michael Kantor and Susan Lacy are executive producers for American Masters. The series is a production of THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC for WNET.

Funding for American Masters is provided by The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Rosalind P. Walter, The Blanche & Irving Laurie Foundation, Rhoda Herrick, Michael & Helen Schaffer Foundation, Vital Projects Fund, Rolf and Elizabeth Rosenthal, The Philip and Janice Levin Foundation, Judith and Burton Resnick, Jack Rudin, The André and Elizabeth Kertész Foundation, and public television viewers. Original funding for this program was provided by The National Endowment for the Arts and the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family.