The Herald Bulletin

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November 16, 2013

Pendleton native found steady work as character actor

Fans of classic movies believe that "To Kill a Mockingbird" is one of the greatest Hollywood films of all time. And film buffs in Madison County know that a Pendleton native had a role in that landmark motion picture.

From the 1940s through the 1980s, William Walker appeared in over 100 movies and television shows. After serving with the United States Army in France during World War I, Walker became a singer and bandleader. Before his six decade career in Hollywood began, Walker appeared on Broadway including Oscar Hammerstein's 1929 "Golden Dawn." In 1946, Walker had a walk on part in the film "The Killers," starring Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner. Though Walker had an uncredited role in "The Killers," he found steady work as a character actor that led to him playing Reverend Sykes in "To Kill A Mockingbird."

The 1962 theatrical release was based on the novel of the same name written by Harper Lee, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her work. Gregory Peck received an Academy Award for his role as Atticus Finch in the film. In the movie, Walker portrayed Reverend Sykes, minister of the church where the accused rapist Tom Robinson attends. During the trial, Walker's character sat in the segregated balcony of the courthouse with fellow members of his race and the children of Atticus Finch. After Finch loses the case and is leaving the courtroom, Reverend Sykes tells Finch's daughter, "Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passin'." The meaning behind those spoken words have been a topic of conversation for many years.

Though William Walker became a familiar face in the movies and on television, his most important role in Hollywood may have been off camera. In the late 1940s, Walker became a civil rights activist who ensured that fellow black actors obtain roles that portrayed the race in a true light. Walker joined the Screen Actors Guild Board of Directors in 1952, where he served until 1971. During his 19 years on the Screen Actors Guild Board of Directors, Walker worked closely with Ronald Reagan, who was president of the Screen Actors Guild six times from 1947 through 1960. Reagan stood alongside Walker when the actor presented his report titled "More and Better Roles for Negroes in Motion Pictures" at the Guild's 1952 annual meeting.

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