There’s nothing like watching It’s a Wonderful Life to help make the season bright, unless you get the opportunity to talk to Jimmy Hawkins, who at the age of 4 ½ portrayed Tommy, one of the four children of James Stewart’s George Bailey. Initially a box office flop, Frank Capra’s masterpiece has become a cherished holiday classic.
It’s a Wonderful Life is available On Demand from Redbox (Paramount Home Video has also released a dazzling newly restored edition on DVD and Blu-ray).
Hawkins, 78, along with his “siblings” Carol Coombs (Janie), Karolyn Grimes (Zuzu) and Larry Simms (Pete), are among the film’s few surviving cast members and as such serve as much sought-after ambassadors for the film. Hawkins himself has written five well-received books about the film’s history and legacy. Over his 30-year career, he has appeared in some of the most popular and iconic TV shows, including The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Petticoat Junction and The Fugitive. He co-starred with the King in two Elvis Presley movies. But Wonderful Life, not surprisingly, holds a special place in his heart.
Redbox: Four years after It’s a Wonderful Life, you appeared in Winchester ‘73 with James Stewart. Did you re-introduce yourself to him?
Jimmy Hawkins: No, but it’s funny you should bring that up. I played Shelley Fabares’ boyfriend for eight seasons on The Donna Reed Show. My first day, we did a table read and I reminded Donna that I played her son Tommy. She said, ‘I remember you. We called you Rip Van Winkle.’ I asked why and she said, ‘You were so cute; you could sleep anywhere at any time. They’d wake you up when it was time to shoot a scene and you were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.’ She was a great lady.
RB: How did you get the part of Tommy?
JH: My mom always wanted her kids to be in the picture business. Her great uncle was an art director in silent films with Charlie Chaplin. My brother was in the business. I never read or auditioned for Frank Capra. He just talked to us. Then one day they called us and took us over to the set. They took a picture of the Bailey family on the front porch and Frank Capra said, ‘That’s it; I got ‘em.’
RB: It’s a Wonderful Life has such devoted fans. It must be a special thrill to see people’s faces light up when they meet Tommy Bailey.
JH: The movie does that to people. But what I think they’re thinking is, ‘My god, there’s somebody still alive from that movie?’ (laughs) And everybody has an It’s a Wonderful Life story.
RB: Can you share one?
JH: I serve on the board for the Donna Reed Foundation for the Performing Arts. Every year we have a festival. One year we brought in L. Russell Brown to lead a workshop for kids on how to write a song. He wrote ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon.’ He told me that once he had a big house on a hill and a Mercedes, but he blanked out and couldn’t write. He said he lost everything. But then he and his wife and daughter watched It’s a Wonderful Life and it inspired him to write again. That’s what the film did for him.
One of the greatest things that happened is that one year I said I wanted to show the film in a prison. I wanted to see how prisoners looked at this film and if it could touch their lives. I asked to go to Attica. We weren’t having much success. I wrote a letter to Governor Cuomo; his father and Frank Capra were good friends. He read it and made two calls. One was to Attica and the other to the superintendent of prisons. He said to make it happen. They gathered the inmates in the chapel. They were very, very moved by it. That was a fabulous experience.
RB: It’s a Wonderful Life was not a box office success, but found it’s audience when the film was in the public domain and was shown almost around the clock on television.
JH: I was talking to Sheldon Leonard who played Nick the bartender. I asked him what happened and he said, ‘What’s interesting is that movie never changed, the people changed. They need that message more than ever.’ That’s why people gravitate to it. They want that message that each man’s life touches so many others.
I appreciate Paramount Home Video for keeping it alive and keeping the film up to date with the 4K Blu-ray. I love it. It’s so vivid; you feel like you can step into it. What really turns me on are the special features.
RB: Do you have a favorite?
JH: When the other actors who played the Bailey children get together, we get along great; no egos. We’re there to deliver the movie’s message. One time I asked if they remembered the wrap party. It was a picnic with boating and sack races. There was a watermelon-eating contest and I won it. That got to be a running joke between us. They say, ‘Yeah, sure’ and I said, ‘I really did.’ Well, it turns out they recently found Super 8mm footage that someone in the crew took of the wrap party. There’s a lot of footage of us Bailey kids and it shows me winning the watermelon contest. It’s on the Blu-ray! Now, the others ask how I could have possibly won. I told them my secret; I swallowed the seeds.
RB: What’s your favorite non-Tommy scene in It’s a Wonderful Life?
JH: The scene when George and Mary are on the phone. It was just so real. I talked to Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra about it over the years; Jimmy didn’t want to do it (Donna Reed would be the first woman he kissed onscreen after returning from the war). He kept putting it off. Finally, they did it all in one take. The script lady said they had left out a whole page of dialogue, but it didn’t matter. That was pure magic up there.