By Dennis McLellan
October 23, 2009
Paxton died Oct. 14 of brain cancer at her home in Highlands, N.C., said her husband, Scott Paxton.
Then known as Collin Wilcox, Paxton was a seasoned stage actress when she auditioned for the role of Mayella Violet Ewell in "To Kill a Mockingbird."
The film, set in Depression-era Alabama, starred Gregory Peck, who won an Oscar for his performance as Atticus Finch, the kind and principled lawyer and widowed father of two who defends the accused black man, played by Brock Peters.
In a 2007 interview with her granddaughter, Chelsea Horne, that ran in the Buffalo News, Paxton said she believed she could play the character of Mayella -- the daughter of a racist -- because she understood both sides of the racism issue.
"I had known girls from that kind of background," said Paxton, who grew up in North Carolina and was involved in desegregation activities with her parents in the 1950s.
At the audition, she recalled, "all the other girls trying out for the part were overly made up; they had curly, clean hair and wore brassieres and high heels."
"I wore a secondhand dress, tennis shoes with holes in them, and dirty little white socks. I rubbed cold cream through my hair -- that's why my hair looked so dirty," she said.
Both she and Peters were involved in the civil rights movement and the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.
"On the set, there was a main feeling that we were making a film that had meaning, had something to say," she recalled. "But no one ever expected or anticipated the kind of impact the film actually created."
Former Los Angeles Times film critic Philip K. Scheuer wrote at the time that Wilcox "gives a rather remarkable demonstration of histrionics as Mayella, the sullen, snarling victim of an alleged rape."
Paxton played her role so well that she recalled receiving "unfriendly looks" when she showed up at an NAACP conference in Monterey, Calif., where an official had to remind participants that: "Collin is here at this conference because she believes in the cause. She is not the character in the film."
"That seemed to clear the air," she said.
Collin Wilcox was born in Cincinnati on Feb. 4, 1935, and moved to Highlands with her family as a baby. Her parents were among the founders of the Highlands Community Theatre, where she made her acting debut as a child.
She studied drama at the University of Tennessee and later attended the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago and performed with the Compass Players. After moving to New York City in 1957, she studied at the Actors Studio.
She made her Broadway debut in "The Day the Money Stopped," a short-lived 1958 drama that earned her the Clarence Derwent Award for most promising female.
The same year, she played the role of young Frankie in a live TV production of "The Member of the Wedding," directed by Robert Mulligan, who went on to direct "To Kill a Mockingbird."
Paxton had guest roles on numerous TV series, including "The Twilight Zone," "The Fugitive," "Dr. Kildare," "Gunsmoke" and "The Waltons." Among her other film credits are "The Baby Maker," "Catch-22" and "Jaws 2."
In 1977, she moved from Malibu to her old family home in Highlands, where several years later she and Scott Paxton, her third husband, founded the Highlands Studio for the Arts, which offered free arts education classes to children. More recently, they resurrected the Studio as the Instant Theatre Company, which focused on the performing arts.
Collin Wilcox Paxton also wrote the play "Papa's Angels," an Appalachian Christmas stor that later became a book and a TV movie.
In addition to her husband of 30 years, she is survived by her children, Kimberley Horne, William Horne and Michael G. Paxton; and three grandchildren.
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