70 Years Later, Jim Hawkins Remembers "It's a Wonderful Life"

by Gabriel Lerman December 10, 2016
Actor Jim Hawkins in 2016  and a scene from "It's A Wonderful Life"

Jim Hawkins and (right) a scene from It's A Wonderful Life (dir. Frank Capra, 1946) - he's the boy next to the Christmas tree.

paramount/getty images

He was Andy Hardy in a TV movie from 1962 with Mickey Rooney, was cast twice to act with Elvis Presley between 1965 and 1966 and worked regularly in many TV shows from the 50s and 60s, like The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, Annie Oakley, Ichabod and Me and The Donna Reed Show. But Jim Hawkins will be always remembered as the youngest of the four children that Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed had in It's a Wonderful Life, the 1946 film by Frank Capra that went from commercial failure to revered classic. Author of several books on the film and a willing participant in most of the homages it receives every year, Jim recently shared his experiences with us, to celebrate the release of a new Blu-ray disc, the Platinum Anniversary Edition that includes the original black and white as well as a colorized version of the revered film.

Some critics didn’t like It's a Wonderful Life very much.  Some of them were very enthusiastic, but some of them were not. 

Well they called it corn and who is going to believe in an angel that comes down from heaven?

But the film won the Golden Globe for Best Director. 

The Academy was close, but they gave it to William Wyler for The Best Years of Our Lives. Wyler was a partner of Frank Capra’s and his new company.  And they sent each other telegrams saying good luck on the film. Because they both started shooting The Best Years of Our Lives and It’s A Wonderful Life on the same day.

Do you think the people at the Golden Globes then could see something that other people didn’t?

Well, they were probably more in tune with the people of today than they were of people just getting out of a World War. Sheldon Leonard, who played Nick the Bartender in It’s a Wonderful Life, told me that the film never changed, the people changed.  They need that message more than ever and it’s growing and growing every day.  It’s getting more and more popular and it was voted the most inspirational movie of all time, and that is well deserved.  I mean, it’s taken on a life of its own. Even while Capra was filming it, things happened that he didn’t know were going to happen.  It was just that magic about great, classic movies.

Around that time it was not easy for a director to have his way...

No, the studios were the ones who call the shots.  And that’s why he started Liberty, he didn’t want to go through that.  There was new people coming up at the studios and they didn’t know who he was. He was gone for 5 years.  And after being in World War II and seeing what a war is and what it causes, he thought acting was frivolous. Lionel Barrymore straightened him out and told him he had a wonderful gift and had to use it. 

Do you remember Capra when he was directing? because you were only 4.

I remember vividly the scene where I am pulling on James Stewart’s coattails and saying excuse me, when we left the living room and we are walking towards the kitchen, he would stop, Jimmy Stewart would, everybody. And then he came over to me and he crouched down to see eye to eye and he said see where we are right now?  And he pointed to the floor and this is where I want you to say excuse me.  You understand that?  Yes sir, I understand. Okay everybody, let’s go. And then he resumed the action and then he stopped everybody, stop. And they all froze, and he got down again and said the same thing, now, I want you to say excuse me again. Right here, do you see this spot we are in?  Say excuse me, and keep pulling his coattails.  Do you understand?  I said yes.  Then we resumed it, did it one more time and then he had it.

In which way did this movie mark your life, because you are still talking about it like seventy years after it?

Well at the time of the release nothing happened, because the movie lost money and RKO sold it off to NTA for distribution.  And then nothing happened until somebody at the studio didn’t pick up the copyright and it fell into public domain in the 1970s. And that is when TV stations all around the United States would show it for free.  And they took advantage of that. And that is what made It’s A Wonderful Life a classic.  It was television and that is why that picture got renewed interest.  And it just grew and grew and grew.  I first noticed it in the 80s and went wow, this is something.  And then the 90s came and I sat on the board of The Donna Reed Foundation Festival, because for 8 years I played the boyfriend on The Donna Reed Show, and I did the very first Donna Reed show that they ever made.  And I was getting ready to read around the table the first day and I saw her at the end of the table, so I walked over to her and I said how are you doing, my name is Jimmy Hawkins and I played your son Tommy Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life.  And she said oh yes, I remember, we used to call you Rip Van Winkle.  I said what?  She said yeah.  You could sleep any place at any time and it didn’t make any difference all the commotion going on with lighting and people moving stuff and you would sleep through it all.  And then they would wake you up when you were supposed to do something and you were bright eyed and bushy tailed. But that is how you got the name Rip Van Winkle.

How was Jimmy Stewart behind the camera?

I was producing a movie called Evel Knievel, and I got a call that they wanted me to test to play Jimmy Stewart’s son in a TV series.  So we finished the movie and I flew in and the next day they were doing the test. And we talked about It’s A Wonderful Life while we were doing the test and he was very nice.  And every time after I ever asked him to do something, he signed a bunch of my books for a charity and so I could help raise money for charities through It’s A Wonderful Life.  And he died and two days later his office called after he passed away and said come pick up the books, he signed them all for you.

Do you remember our member Argentina Brunetti?

Of course. She was in It’s a Wonderful Life.  And I was invited to Jimmy Stewart’s hometown and of course Donna Reed’s hometown and I took Argentina, she came with us to talk about It’s A Wonderful Life. She was a delightful person, very funny and she told stories about meeting Capra, because he knew her mother and she was a star.  And he thought that anybody that has that mother for a mother can’t be a bad actress, and he hired her for It’s A Wonderful Life.  She had a wonderful career. In every place we went people were delighted with her and her enthusiasm. She really lit up the room whenever we went.