Legendary Talent Spotter Boaty Boatwright Recalls Casting ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and Her Pal Sue Mengers

Over the course of her legendary career, Alice Lee “Boaty” Boatwright has cast iconic movies, served as a studio exec and repped starry talent including Joan Didion, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Reflecting on it today, she says her career really took off after a pivotal encounter at Sardi’s restaurant more than 60 years ago. Sitting with her friend Sue Mengers, not yet the legendary agent she would become, Boatwright jumped out of her seat and grabbed Alan Pakula, whom she had never met.

“I have to find you Scout,” Boatwright, then a young publicist at Universal, informed Pakula. She knew that he and Robert Mulligan had recently secured the film rights to Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” for the studio.

The following day, after a conversation with her boss, Boatwright had lunch with Pakula and Mulligan. Her Southern background and charm won the producing-directing duo over, and Boatwright got the job despite never having cast a film or television show.

Boatwright, who recently celebrated her 30th anniversary at ICM, spent the next few months traveling from one Southern city to the next interviewing children for the parts of “Mockingbird’s” Scout and Jem Finch. After weeks of meetings, Boatwright called Pakula from Atlanta crying, saying she couldn’t find any children that fit the parts.

“I’d see 200 children in four hours,” she recalls. “I said to him, ‘I cannot ever talk to anybody under the age of 30 again.’”

Per Pakula’s instruction, Boatwright went to Birmingham the next day to finish up her search. As fate would have it, she found both Scout and Jem within hours of each other.

“I was so knocked over when [Mary Badham, who played Scout] walked into the room,” Boatwright says. “I said, ‘How old are you?’ She told me she was 9 and I said, ‘Oh, you’re perfect because you look 6 or 7.’ She looked at me and said, ‘If you smoked as many corn silks and drank as much buttermilk as I do, you might be small, too.’”

“Mockingbird” went on to garner eight Academy Awards nominations, including one for Badham as supporting actress, winning three Oscars. After serving as a Universal exec in London, Boatwright formed a casting company with Mary Selway and cast Mel Stuart’s “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” as well as Norman Jewison’s “Fiddler on the Roof.” At Columbia Pictures, she cast John Huston’s “The Man Who Would Be King” and Sydney Pollack’s “Bobby Deerfield.” In 1978, Boatwright returned to New York to join Twentieth Century Fox, where she worked with Pakula on “Sophie’s Choice.”

“These men told stories,” she says. “I don’t remember any of them ever reading a script and saying, ‘Oh, well this is going to make a lot of money.’ They just did it because of the subject of the story.”

In the 1980s, Boatwright “ran out” of studios to work for in New York City.

“I was offered jobs at United Artists and Warner Bros., but that would mean I’d have to move to L.A.,” she says. “I was in my 40s, divorced and I had two very young children. Also, I didn’t drive.”

At the encouragement of legendary talent agent Stanley Kamen, Boatwright joined the William Morris Agency. There she repped Pakula, who had become a good friend, as well as talents such as Michael Hoffman, Stephen Frears and Woodward. In 1991, she took her roster of clients, along with Sidney Lumet and Newman, and moved to ICM, where she has worked ever since.

“The first thing they asked me for when I told them I was leaving was my Rolodex,” she says. “I said, ‘Unfortunately, I took it home the other night and forgot to bring it back.’”

Boatwright’s current client list includes Frears, Tom Hooper, Jenny Lumet, Nancy Buirski and Didion for film, cable and theater. To celebrate her 30th anniversary at the agency, which fell mid-pandemic, ICM got a bench in Central Park dedicated to her and put together a testimonial video featuring the likes of Tom Hanks, Tina Fey and Graydon Carter.

One of Boatwright’s “greatest hopes” for the future is that a limited series she is working on with Tina Fey and Lorne Michaels about Mengers sees the light of day. Boatwright was close to Mengers until her death in 2011.

“She was truly the funniest person alive,” says Boatwright. “She could be mean. She could be horrid, but she was funny, and she had an imagination. She, Ali MacGraw and I had a closeness that she had with very few of her other women friends. Let’s just put it this way — Ali and I were more forgiving.”

Now in her 80s, Boatwright says she still has not lived up to her full potential.

“I’m very lucky and I’ve done some wonderful things and I’ve had some wonderful recognitions for it, but I also think as you get older the more of a legend you become.”

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