6 Questions With ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’s’ Tommy Bailey
In 2021, we celebrated the 75th anniversary of Frank Capra’s timeless classic It’s a Wonderful Life . Tied to the anniversary Paramount Pictures released a two-disc Blu-ray collectible that includes a colorized version of the film in high definition, along with bonus content that reviews the preservation and revitalizing of the iconic holiday film. We caught up with actor Jimmy Hawkins (now 82) for the anniversary, who at age 4 played the youngest of the Bailey children — Tommy — in the 1946 film.
What is your favorite scene in It’s a Wonderful Life, and if you could just explain why?
Jimmy Hawkins: When George (James Stewart) comes to visit Mary (Donna Reed) … “What are you doing? Picketing?” It’s the phone scene when George and Mary are talking to Sam “Hee-Haw” Wainwright. I think it’s one of the great movie love scenes. You can actually see and feel the electricity when they are kissing. Funny thing is, when the scene was over and Frank Capra yelled “Cut! Print,” the script girl said, “Mr. Capra, they left out a page of dialogue.” Capra said, “With technique like that, who needs dialogue? Print it!” And Jimmy Stewart was so nervous about “The Kiss.” He had asked Capra to put it off for weeks.
What do you still cherish and remember about the film’s underlying message? Did you understand the film at the time?
Even at 4, I had a lot of memories about doing the film, but not what it was about. But I’ve written four books about the film and learned a lot from talking to many cast and crew members. What I and my movie siblings do today is It’s a Wonderful Life (IAWL) festivals and meet with thousands of fans. We carry Frank Capra’s message. Everyone relates to it. “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” It tells people that we are all important, we can make a difference.
Off-camera between takes, what do you remember?
I remember a few things. People ask me today: “What kind of gum are you chewing in the movie?” I tell ’em “Dubble Bubble.” My mom always gave me animal crackers in a little box with animals in a cage like at the circus. That would keep me busy. Karolyn Grimes [who played the Baileys’ daughter Zuzu] would chase us around the set at lunchtime. We would stare at the lights and ornaments on the tree but were told not to touch anything. I have a mask that I was wearing in the movie. But I think it was a double. I think the prop man gave it to my mom.
Remember, this was in June (it was 90 degrees outside). There was real snow in front of the house on Stage 14 at the RKO-Pathe lot in Culver City. I remember they took a photo of all the cast in front of that 320 Sycamore house. In front of me was a bunch of bushes with snow on them. But it wasn’t snow, it was cotton. Movies. WOW!
How many times have you watched It’s a Wonderful Life?
A lot. I’ve been a member of the Motion Picture Academy for 60 years (this year). They asked me to host a screening of IAWL at their new museum. I asked Karolyn and Carol (my siblings in the movie) to host it with me. So that’s where we’ll be Dec. 19. The eve of IAWL’s 75th anniversary. We try to do appearances together. Makes it more of an event. People (fans) can’t believe someone’s still alive from the movie. Like we made it the year of the Flood.
What are some of your favorite keepsakes from the many films you’ve made and stars you’ve worked with over the years?
I had an autograph book whenever I did a film. My mom had me get autographs of the people I worked with. I have most of the cast of IAWL and the nice things they said.
Frank Capra's 1946 classic led by James Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore will again air on NBC and some of its sister cable channels in 2023.
I know you remained close to Donna Reed over the years. Could you tell us about your last visit with her?
I have many stories about Donna Reed. I was hired to play Shelley Fabares’ boyfriend (pictured below) on the very first season of The Donna Reed Show in 1958. I was 16 years old. The first day we read the script around the table. I saw Miss Reed at the other end and walked up to her and introduced myself. I said “My name is Jimmy Hawkins. I played your son Tommy Bailey in IAWL.” She said, “Yes I know, they told me you were cast as the boyfriend. You know when were doing IAWL we called you Rip Van Winkle on the set.” “Rip Van Winkle?” I said with a grin. “Why was that?”
“Well … you’d often fall to sleep while they were lighting. They’d wake you up when they were ready and you were bright-eyed and raring to go. It was so cute. We hit it off on that show! And eight years later I was still doing it. There were many happy moments. After the show we would meet for lunch. I also would drop her a note and I always heard back from her. I remember going to her house on Christmas Day. In 1985 I had visited her in the hospital, and when I left I told her I’d drop by Christmas Day. I did, and brought her a Christmas ornament. It was ceramic with a scene from the movie, with the Bailey family on it. She looked at it and asked me to place it on her tree. I picked a spot, and she said, “Yes, right there.” As I looked back I noticed she was very tired. I told her I had to leave. “More places to go!” Something strange happened when I bent down to kiss her goodbye. Her hand touched my cheek. I instantly went back to a scene we did in It’s a Wonderful Life, when George Bailey goes ballistic in the living room. In the scene, she pulled me into her with her hand cupped on my cheek. I remembered that touch. It was warm like it was now. The same feeling I felt so many years ago. It was like The Twilight Zone. So vivid. I looked at her, then turned and walked away for the last time. She was truly a wonderful lady. It was special to have worked with her and known her as an adult friend.