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PBS American Masters Presents Harper Lee Documentary to Coincide with Publication of Author’s “New” Novel

american masters harper lee

In honor of the publication of Harper Lee’s novel Go Set a Watchman, featuring characters from her Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird, published 55 years ago (July 11, 1960), PBS’ American Masters is presenting the newly-updated Harper Lee: Hey, Boo, the 2012 documentary by Emmy-winning filmmaker Mary McDonagh Murphy.

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The 90-minute special airs locally July 10 at 8 P.M. on Memphis WKNO2 and at 8:30 P.M. on Mississippi Public Broadcasting. Encore showings follow July 12.

Murphy authored Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of To Kill a Mockingbird. She has access to an advance copy of the prequel Go Set a Watchman, dropping July 14 from HarperCollins. During the telecast, she will tweet at #HarperLeePBS.

Miss Lee’s acclaimed novel To Kill a Mockingbird became one of the most influential American novels of the 20th century and biggest bestsellers of all time. Until Miss Lee raided a suitcase and discovered an old manuscript, it was believed to be the first and only novel by her. She believed her earlier work lost or destroyed.

“It’s a remarkable discovery,” says Murphy, “which allows Harper Lee’s legions of fans another chance to see Atticus and Scout again. How and why the manuscript disappeared is a mystery we unravel in the new version of the documentary.

“Harper Lee was ahead of her times,” says American Masters executive producer Michael Kantor. “She challenged the social order and made a cultural impact with To Kill a Mockingbird that still resonates.”

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Miss Lee, 89, rose from small-town Alabama girl to famous author and developed a tumultuous friendship with Truman Capote. She lives as a near recluse in Monroeville, Alabama and has rarely granted an interview. She 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.

The doc offers an unprecedented look at Miss 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 Miss Lee wrote in 1957. It explores the origin of such memorable characters as attorney Atticus Finch, his daughter Scout, her friend Dill, and Boo Radley.

There are interviews with Lee’s friends and family – including her centenarian sister Alice (now deceased) – who share anecdotes and biographical details.

Tom Brokaw, Pulitzer Prize-winners Rick Bragg, Rosanne Cash, James Patterson, Anna Quindlen, Richard Russo, Scott Turow, Oprah Winfrey, Andrew Young, and others reflect on the power, influence, popularity of To Kill a Mockingbird and ways it shaped their lives.

The novel is about racial injustice in a 1930s small Alabama town, where a black man is accused of raping a white girl. Idealistic attorney Atticus Finch is assigned to defend Tom Robinson and does so in blistering fashion. Watching on the sidelines is feisty daughter Scout, going about her innocent life, with brother Jam and a visiting boy, Dill [who, it’s been said, was modeled on Miss Lee’s friend Capote].

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In addition to the film adaptation, there was a stage adaptation by Christopher Serge which played London’s West End, starring Robert Sean Leonard, and had U.S. regional productions.

Funding for American Masters is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Rosalind P. Walter, Vital Projects Fund; the André and Elizabeth Kertész, Blanche and Irving Laurie, and Philip and Janice Levin Foundations; among others; and viewers like you. Original funding was provided by the National Endowment for the Arts.


Ellis Nassour
Ellis Nassour

Ellis Nassour is an Ole Miss alum and noted arts journalist and author who recently donated an ever-growing exhibition of performing arts history to the University of Mississippi. He is the author of the best-selling Patsy Cline biography, Honky Tonk Angel, as well as the hit musical revue, Always, Patsy Cline.

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