Coweta visit is homecoming for 'Murder' producer
by W. Winston Skinner
Leaving Luthersville to head back to Coweta County on the last leg of their 'Murder in Coweta County' tour, Dick Atkins and Joanna Pang Atkins persuaded Tray Baggarly to stop the bus.
Dick Atkins was the producer of the 1983 television film 'Murder in Coweta County,' which was based on Margaret Anne Barnes' bestselling book of the same name. The book chronicled a 1948 murder and trial centered in Coweta County and neighboring Meriwether.
The Atkins were newlyweds when the film was made, and they have a photograph of themselves with a 'Coweta County' sign made during scouting for locations more than 30 years ago. They wanted a companion photo, and Baggarly stopped the bus so they could pose for a new version.
The Atkins were in Coweta County for several days recently. He spoke on a panel at the Coweta County Courthouse on Wednesday evening. The next night he shared stories about the filming in the upper floor meeting space of the Newnan Carnegie Library before the movie was shown.
The programs were sponsored by the Coweta County Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Carnegie. Between the two programs, the visitors were taken on a tour of 'Murder in Coweta' sites by Baggarly, who heads the CVB. Along for the tour were Amy Mapel, director of the Carnegie; Joe Crain Sr., who collects memorabilia related to the 1948 case; and local historian Elizabeth Beers.
The group visited the Pike County Courthouse and jail in Zebulon, where scenes representing Newnan were filmed in 1982. After lunch at the Bulloch House in Warm Springs, the group traveled through Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park to Pine Mountain, where they spent several minutes at the grave of murderer John Wallace and his neighbors - in life and death - the Dunlap family.
As they traveled through Meriwether County, they passed the White Sulphur Springs resort, where Wallace and his wife were feted when they married, and the Meriwether County Jail, where farmhand William Turner was held on charges of cattle theft before he was killed by Wallace.
In addition to the photo op at the county line, there were stops at the site of Sunset Tourist Court, where the murder is believed to have occurred, and at the grave of Coweta County Sheriff Lamar Potts at Oak Hill Cemetery in Newnan.
Pike County Sheriff Jimmy Thomas was the group's tour guide in Zebulon. He took them through the 1908 courthouse where scenes were filmed for 'Tank' and 'Cold Sassy Tree' as well as 'Murder in Coweta County.'
'It looks super,' Atkins remarked in the courthouse.
Thomas explained the courtroom has been updated since the 1982 filming. In a bit of irony, the Zebulon site was chosen because Newnan's courthouse had been renovated subsequent to the Wallace trial, and now the old Coweta County Courthouse has been meticulously restored to how it looked decades ago.
'Very rarely do you actually film a true story where it actually happened,' Atkins noted, adding there are 'a lot of logistics' involved in filming a movie.
The Atkins married in April 1982 and came to Georgia to film the Wallace murder trial story in September or October. 'To get invited back 31 years later is wonderful,' he said.
He remembered Barnes, who grew up in Newnan and at one time worked for The Newnan Times-Herald. He visited with her once to talk about a subsequent book. She let him use her car to get to the airport.
When he got home, there was a frantic call from Barnes. 'I flew home with her car keys in my pocket,' he recalled. 'Luckily I had a friend in
Atlanta who could go pick her up.' Atkins then overnighted the keys to Barnes in Decatur.
'She wrote one heck of a book, didn't she?' he asked. The story - with powerful Wallace murdering his employee, relentlessly determined Sheriff Lamar Potts and Heard County fortuneteller Mayhayley Lancaster had 'subject matter for movies which you seldom find.'
Atkins said he was involved in making lots of television movies in the early 1980s. He remembered being impressed with the book when he became aware of it.
'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.'
Such people make 'the best kind of character for a villain,' Atkins said. 'They believe that they're right.'
'Murder in Coweta County' cast the rugged 'Folsom Prison Blues' singing Johnny Cash as heroic Potts and 'Mayberry/ Matlock' Andy Griffith as murderous Wallace. He dug his nails into playing a part like John Wallace,' Atkins said. He described Griffith as 'a pro's pro' and 'a great guy' and noted the actor and his wife sent Christmas cards to the Atkins until Griffith's death.
'There are different kinds of stars,' Atkins said. He said Griffith was a consummate professional who studied his lines and could play a wide range of characters.
Before 'Murder,' Cash did a movie, 'The Pride of Jesse Hallum,' and later he did 'The Baron and the Kid.' In both, 'he was Johnny Cash,' Atkins said. 'During this movie, he was Johnny Cash.'
Atkins remembered some persuasion was required to get movie executives to agree to let Cash's wife, June Carter Cash, play Mayhayley Lancaster and to have Cindi Knight, who later married Griffith, play Julia Turner.
Atkins remembered working with Earl Hindman, who played J.H. Potts, Lamar Potts' deputy and brother.
'Then you find gems along the way,' he said. He recalled Betty Talmadge, former wife of a U.S. senator and governor of Georgia, who played Merle Hannah, one of the witnesses to the murder.
Atkins is still in the movie business and is currently working on a film about a home burglary involving a fortune in jewels.
He and his wife, who leads school programs on international dance and culture, live in New Jersey where he grew up. There they experience, he reflected, a normality of life not possible in Los Angeles.
They have a grown son.
Atkins pondered the enduring popularity of 'Murder in Coweta County.'
'In almost every movie that you do,' he said, 'something bothers you' - something the producer would like to change if he could.'
'Murder' is 'the only movie I've ever done where I wouldn't change a thing,' he told one of his Newnan audiences. 'It was an honor for me to do and an honor for me to be welcomed here by you.'
'John loved playing the part of Sheriff Potts, and Andy relished playing a bad guy,' Atkins said. 'These celebrities are not who their images appear to be. That was the case with both of these fellows.'
Atkins said Cash was a singer who acted a little, while Griffith was an actor who sang a little. 'You deal with them differently,' he said.
Cash 'was a sweetheart,' he said.
'Andy was a little rougher guy than his image would tell.