The actor who portrayed young Tommy Bailey speaks about the film and its lasting impact
Jimmy Hawkins has lived a wonderful life practically since birth. He was only 5 years old when he was in a little Frank Capra film, playing one of Jimmy Stewart's son's, that was initially a box office bomb. Today, that little film, It's a Wonderful Life, is a cherished Christmas classic that has come to be essential holiday viewing. While Hawkins was just a young lad while making this movie, the film seems still very close to his heart, having written two books about the movie in recent years. It's a Wonderful Life was just re-released with a brand new colorized version on DVD on November 13, and I had a chance to talk with the actor-turned-author over the phone.
It's a Wonderful Life has become a Christmas movie staple, but it really wasn't that popular when it was first released. Why do you think it took so long for this film to catch on with the public?
Jimmy Hawkins: Well, the reason it caught on was that the film fell into public domain. Somebody at the studio let the copyright go, and TV stations all over the country could pick it up and show it for free. They took full advantage of that. It kind of caught on with people who saw films and get together and have trivia about it. Then it started to grow. More and more stations picked up on it. It was shown hundreds and hundreds of times at stations all across the country. I remember back in the early 90s it was played 14 times in L.A. between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. 14 times!
Jimmy Hawkins: You had CBS, PBS, Channel 4, all the local stations. Everybody picked it up because they showed it for free, and whatever they got from the sponsors, that was their pay for it. They didn't have to pay for any rights to show for it or anything. That went on for 19 years and then, through some manipulations, the studio got it back, or portions of it, and they could show it exclusively. If it wasn't for television, the film would never be seen. TV made it a classic. It keeps growing every year. Last year it was named the most inspirational movie of all time, and it just grows and grows. Paramount is coming out with this new DVD with the great black and white print for the purists. In talking to people and kids today, they're not big fans of black and white, apparently. They don't watch anything unless it's in color. So now, we have the opportunity to get this great message across to these young kids, now it's in color. There's no reason why they can't watch it, because now it's in color. It almost looks like it was shot in color, it's done so well. They now can get the message of the picture, that each man's life touches so many others, if they weren't around it would leave an awful hole. That's why I feel people gravitate to this movie, is because of that message. It makes everyone feel important. That's the same reason I wrote these It's a Wonderful Life for Kids books. To get that message to a 4-year-old. To instill in them at a young age that you can make a difference. Look at Tommy Bailey. He didn't think he was doing anything. He introduced somebody to somebody else and all of the sudden they got married and had a nice life together, two lonely people. How did he know what he did? Until he got this greatest gift of being able to see what the world would've been like if he had never been born. That's what Capra said. It was the greatest story he ever heard, and he had to tell it, when he read that little Christmas card that had that story on it. A man gets to see what the world would be like if he were not around. Wow. What a powerful message.
What else can people expect from this new two-disc edition, besides the colorization? Are there any new special features we can look forward to?
Jimmy Hawkins: No, and that's unfortunate. The definitive thing hasn't been brought out yet. I tried to get them interested in... I had done an audio book for It's a Wonderful Life, and you hear from Frank Capra, why he did the film, how he did certain scenes, all his insights into it. Then I have clips of Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart talking about the film, and all the other cast members and the guy that made the snow, and how they made the snow. It's an oral history of the film. I took it to them... and then they got with the lawyers, and the lawyers went, "Where's the clearance for all of this stuff?" I said "Well, it didn't bother the audio book company." They're the biggest audio book company going. These are all public domain little clips, but that's what they chose. It'll be down the road sometime, until something like that comes along. But in the meantime, you can't get a better look to the film than what Paramount has put out.
You were only 4 when you filmed this movie. At what point in your life did you realize this would be a film for the ages?
Jimmy Hawkins: Oh, 10-12 years ago. When it just started to grow and grow and grow. It's just a phenomena. Not too many movies achieved what this picture has, and rightfully so. It's impeccable. Capra was asked "What would you change, if you could do something over on this picture?" He said, "Nothing, except one thing." He would've made the Donna Reed character stronger, when Jimmy Stewart wasn't born. He said with somebody who was as strong as she was, to go after Jimmy Stewart, she loved him as a child and set her sights on getting married to him. Somebody who is that strong, she would've become more like a businesswoman, and somebody who took charge. Not a meek little librarian. He said that's the only thing he would change.
It's been quite some time since you've acted. Do you ever consider acting again, or have you had offers to come back?
Jimmy Hawkins: Well, from time to time, if a friend is doing a project, they'll say, "How would you like to play a part?" I'll say, "No, thanks." I did almost 500 TV shows and movies, starred in different pilots for MGM and other networks. I just want to explore this other side, and have more of a say in the tellingn of a motion picture. I enjoyed it very very much. I was very fortunate to work with everybody I ever wanted to work with, and everything I wanted to do, and it was time to move on. They brought me back to play Jimmy Stewart's son in a TV series, but that didn't work out. That was back in '71. But, that's it. I have no regrets.
Do you have any favorite Jimmy Stewart or Frank Capra stories you can share with us?
Jimmy Hawkins: There was so many. In talking to Frank Capra, I asked him what was the most difficult scene to shoot in It's a Wonderful Life? He said, "The scene with you kids, when he comes home." That's the most difficult because he had all this drama going on, money, and thinking he was a failure, and the kids are coming up, "How do you spell this?" and the girls pounding on the piano, and all this stuff was going on, this comedy going on in this drama, and he didn't want people to think they had to laugh during this drama, so that was the most difficult. Jimmy Stewart, just talking to him over the years, his problems from coming out of the war, seeing what he saw in the war during the war and now he's coming back to do this acting? What does that do for anybody? How does that change anything? Lionel Barrymore had a nice talk with him and he says, "You have a great gift. You can act, and you can bring characters to the people and they're sitting in the dark for two hours watching you. You can bring a great message to those people. You've gotta keep acting. You have a great gift." So, Jimmy Stewart felt that maybe he was doing something important, and after seeing what happened in the war, that he could convey to people certain characters. That he was doing something important. We all have doubts and fears, and we all have to deal with them, and that's how Jimmy Stewart dealt with them.
Do you have any other plans for any other books for It's a Wonderful Life or for anything else?
Jimmy Hawkins: No. I'm talking to some people and we're going to animate the book, make it an animated movie.
Oh, the kids book?
Jimmy Hawkins: Yes. I've had some offers, but I didn't like the companies.
Well that's about all I have. Thanks a lot for your time, Jimmy.
Jimmy Hawkins: Hey, thank you, and it's been a pleasure talking to you.
It's been a pleasure talking to you too.
It's a Wonderful Life is currently on the DVD shelves now.