‘Murder in Coweta County’ producer gifts movie script to visitors center
by Bradley Hartsell
With Coweta County making waves as a film destination – “The Walking Dead,” “Hunger Games” – it is understandable if an outsider doesn’t remember a particular movie like Coweta residents do.
“Murder in Coweta County.”
The 1983 made-for-TV movie starring Johnny Cash and Andy Griffith made waves locally upon its release and is still a Newnan town favorite in 2014.
On Thursday, the Newnan Carnegie Library packed its Court Square meeting room with an audience to hear “Murder in Coweta County” producer Dick Atkins’ presentation and to watch the timeless film on Carnegie’s projector screen.
For Atkins, it was his second year in a row presenting at the Carnegie, coming all the way from New Jersey with his wife, Joanna.
With a large crowd on hand, Atkins told stories of assembling all the pieces for the Coweta movie (much of it was filmed in Pike County to portray 1940s Coweta). As a producer of 10 movies in his career, Atkins recalls how true and wonderful the “Murder in Coweta County” experience has been throughout his career. Not only is the film special to him, but Atkins said he gets the bonus of an extremely gracious community.
“It was so special to come back last year and be welcomed by the community,” he said. “To come back again today, to be welcomed was wonderful.”
“Of all the movies I’ve been involved in, [‘Murder in Coweta County’] is my favorite,” Atkins added, stating how producers’ hindsight almost always wishes something, even miniscule, was altered from the finished product.
“There isn’t anything I would change from this movie,” he said with beaming pride.
Atkins also told affecting stories of Cash and Griffith, who were huge stars in 1983, and still are today even after their passed. He remembers how funny it was that Cash and Griffith both were opposite of their public image. For one, Cash was known as the “man in black,” a gruff country music outlaw. Atkins saw firsthand that wasn’t true.
“Cash was a 10-year-old in a 50-year-old’s body,” Atkins said. “He was almost childlike, and he was such a giving person.”
Andy Griffith, on the other hand?
“Andy was not ‘Andy’ from Mayberry,” laughed Atkins, remembering Griffith’s enjoyment of the party life. “He was a tough guy, people don’t realize that. He sunk his teeth into playing the villain [John Wallace].”
Atkins praised the movie all the way around, from a really good cast, a great director in Gary Nelson (who had worked with Griffith before), an ideal location and such compelling source material in Margaret Anne Barnes’ 1976 book of the same name.
“We love true stories and we try to stay fairly faithful to them,” explained Atkins. “In ‘Murder in Coweta County,’ we had such terrific drama, a great sheriff, a hero in Lamar Potts and a fascinating villain in John Wallace.”
Atkins wrapped up his presentation by telling personal stories of what a producer’s job is. He spoke of how his son, years ago, marvelled at how much power Atkins had as a producer, but he “didn’t do anything.”
As a producer, Atkins had to make sure every piece of the movie – stars, locations, film crew, makeup and wardrobe people – was running as smoothly as possible. With a production crew of anywhere from 100 to 150 people, Atkins insists he had a lot to oversee. He then told now-humorous horror stories he and his crew experienced working on other movies and even a couple of bad memories working on “Murder in Coweta County.”
Atkins wrapped up his presentation by presenting Lorraine LaRue of Coweta County Visitors Center with the original script of the film, and then sat with his wife and the rest of the crowd for a second-annual viewing of “Murder in Coweta County.”
The true events the movie depicts occur in 1948 Coweta County – watched over by Sheriff Lamar Potts, played in the movie by Johnny Cash. As the movie tells, no felony had ever gone unsolved while Sheriff Potts was in charge in Coweta.
In the next county, though, there was a vast estate known as "The Kingdom." It was ruled by one man, John Wallace – played by Andy Griffith – whose power was absolute and beyond the law, the story contends. But when Wallace chased one of his underlings to deliver ruthless punishment, he was said to have crossed over into Coweta County, into Potts' territory. Evidence pinning a murder charge on Wallace was hunted down by a dedicated lawman in Sheriff Potts.