Movie to be screened after talk
‘Murder’ producer to speak Thursday at Carnegie
by W. Winston Skinner
Dick Atkins, producer of the 1983 film version of “Murder in Coweta County,” will be sharing thoughts and memories about the production on Thursday at Newnan Carnegie Library.
The “Murder in Coweta” program will be held on the library’s upper floor on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. People planning to attend are asked to reserve a spot by calling 770-683-1347.
Atkins’s talk at the Carnegie marks a return almost exactly a year after he and his wife, entertainer and educator Joanna Pang Atkins, visited the local area. In 2013, Dick Atkins was part of a panel discussion in the historic Coweta County Courthouse, where the trial depicted in the movie actually took place.
The Atkins also traveled to Pike County, where the television movie was filmed, and to Pine Mountain, where they visited the grave of John Wallace, the Meriwether County landowner who was a central character in the story. The 1948 murder and trial were immortalized in a best-selling book, also titled “Murder in Coweta County,” by Newnan native Margaret Anne Barnes.
The story centers on the killing of William Turner, a farmhand on Wallace’s Meriwether County farm. Wallace and a group of friends were accused of killing Turner in Coweta County, though experts on the case remain divided on the particulars. Some people think the shooting was accidental, and several who have studied the events – including authors Dot Moore and Ivey Nance – believe Turner died at the Wallace farm rather than in Coweta.
Local historian and scholar Jeff Bishop has written a play version of the story, which has been discussed as a theater project locally.
The 1983 film, based on Barnes’ book, featured Andy Griffith and Johnny Cash – cast against type. Griffith, remembered for his genial television series role, portrayed Wallace as a brutal, amoral killer.
Cash, often seen as rough – at least around the edges, portrayed Coweta Sheriff Lamar Potts, who was determined to catch Wallace and see him prosecuted. Cash’s wife, June Carter Cash, played Heard County fortuneteller Mayhayley Lancaster, who was a colorful witness during the trial.
Dick and Joanna Atkins were newlyweds when the film was made, and last year’s visit took them back to several locations they remembered fondly.
Atkins was involved in making lots of television movies in the early 1980s. Last year, he said he was impressed with Barnes’ book. “What you need before you start any story is a great hero,” he said.
Reflecting on Potts, he said, “You make up characters that have that kind of determination and character and success. To find them in real life is rare.”
Along with the hero, “you need an opponent,” Atkins said. “You need a bad guy.”
Wallace and Potts “were both fascinating people.” Wallace was multilayered – “someone who not only does bad things but does good things.”
Joanna Pang Atkins leads school programs on international dance and culture. She will be leading programs for children on multi-cultural dance at the Carnegie today.
The Atkins live in New Jersey where he grew up. They have a grown son.