The man who played Tommy Bailey discusses the enduring impact of Frank Capra's message to the world.
Every so often in the laborious world of entertainment we get to hear from people who were part of something legendary. This happened recently when MovieWeb sat in on a conference call with Jimmy Hawkins. He played Jimmy Stewart's son Tommy Bailey in the seminal Christmas film, It's a Wonderful Life. As a holiday mainstay now for many years (the film had it's 60th Anniversary DVD release this past October) it was pleasure to sit back and wax nostalgic with someone who helped create an enduring cinematic masterwork. Hawkins has written four books on the film, with the newest one It's A Wonderful Life for Kids, Too recently hitting stores courtesy of Dutton Juvenile Publishers.
What's it's like to be a part of something like It's a Wonderful Life that has stood the test of time?
Jimmy Hawkins: I have done over 500 TV shows and movies. This is the one everybody remembers, and it's so gratifying to be a part of something that is so uplifting and positive. I think the reason for the film's popularity is because of it's message. The message that Frank Capra was trying to get across was that each man's life touches so many others; if they weren't around it would leave an awful hole. Everybody at one time feels, "If I wasn't around it wouldn't make any difference." They watch George Bailey in that film and they see, when he gets the opportunity to see what life would have been like if he had never been born, how many lives he really touched and didn't even know it. He just did things naturally all the time. We don't know when we're doing good or not doing good.
If we were taken out of the equation it would make a major change in the world. That's what people want to feel. That there's a little bit of George Bailey in them. That's the main reason I wrote the It's A Wonderful Life for Kids book. So that young readers 4 to 8, can get this message and realize that they do make a difference everyday. Maybe that will give them more self esteem when they grow older? That's why that message is so powerful.
Who is the George Bailey in your life?
Jimmy Hawkins: Well, it started out to be Frank Capra because he cast me in this movie, and now I have the opportunity, because he's not around, to deliver his message. I do it through books... and spreading the word that we're all important in life and we do touch lives everyday. Hopefully, for the better. Without It's a Wonderful Life it would have been changed drastically. It has drastically changed by being a part of it too. Of course my mother and father have instilled great values and they're your guardian angels also. Even though we only worked 12 days on the film, it seems like the people liked that family. They liked what they stood for. I was just glad to be a part of it.
Do you think It's a Wonderful Life should only be thought of as a Christmas movie?
Jimmy Hawkins: Well, it wasn't supposed to be put out at Christmas time. It premiered in New York on December 20 but that's only because another RKO Film, Sinbad wasn't ready. It was right after the war and a lot of color prints weren't able to be struck. They needed another film to go into theaters right away. So Capra's It's a Wonderful Life was ready, so they put it out at Christmastime. It was meant to be out at February or March.
You were very young when you made the film, what do you remember about shooting it?
Jimmy Hawkins: I vividly remember getting up in the morning. It was still dark outside. My Mom and I would take a street car and a bus to the studio in Culver City. Then you'd walk on to this big soundstage and everything was bustling. You'd walk into the Bailey house... and there was a Christmas tree in the middle of June, you know? There was snow, they had brought in real snow outside the house and around the porch. The two main things that I remember... when we were shooting the scene where I say, "Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me...," we started the scene off in the living room and we were going toward the kitchen. Frank Capra would set that up and he'd stop Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed and everybody... then he'd bend down and talk to me face to face and say, "When you get to this mark you keep pulling on your Dad's coattails and you say, 'Excuse me, right here'."
Then they'd move to the next place and then they'd stop everybody. He'd bend down again and say, "See this mark, right here? Well, when you get here I want you to say 'Excuse me' again." (Laughs) He was very vivid in explaining what he wanted me to do, when he wanted me to do it, and I also remember sitting on Jimmy Stewart's lap. I'm putting tinsel on his head. He's thinking of losing the money... he pulls me towards him and he's crying, and he's kissing me and hugging me. I had a Santa Claus mask around my neck, and everytime he'd pull me into him that mask would hike up. That mask felt like sandpaper on the inside and it scraped my cheek. It kept happening over and over and I kept wondering, "When is this man going to stop this?"
I understand you were in contact with Jimmy Stewart up until his death?
Jimmy Hawkins: Yes, in fact when I wrote the 50th Anniversary Scrapbook, I sent him a bunch of copies for charities to sign. The week he died they came back all signed. He was very giving up until the end. Whenever I'd see him we'd talk. The colorization was a big deal at one time. He didn't like the colorization he felt it looked like, "Walt Disney threw up on it." We'd talk about scenes in the movie. It was his favorite movie. It was Capra's favorite movie as everybody knows.
Do you think that Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed were sort of fated to play the Baileys?
Jimmy Hawkins: Yes, because they were from small towns. They brought to those roles, the way I see it, those small town values. They just couldn't hide them. They were those people. George and Mary Bailey were in those people. Donna Reed, my gosh, she milked cows in the morning before going to school. Jimmy Stewart worked with his father in the hardware store. They were small town America and they brought those values to those characters.
What led you away from acting?
Jimmy Hawkins: I had done so much of it and it just got repetitive. I was playing the boyfriend of every girl on TV... and I loved doing it all, but I just yearned to be on the other side of the camera and put all the pieces together. I felt like having more say in the process of making a picture. I was raised in the business for 20 some odd years at the time, and I just gravitated to being behind the camera, picking projects that I believed in that showed that no matter what people go through, they can come out the other end.
It's a Wonderful Life will air on NBC on December 16 and 24 from 8-11pm.