A chat with Jimmy Hawkins
You probably don’t recognize him by name, but if you’re an aficionado of the perennial Yuletide favorite, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” you may know Jimmy Hawkins, even if you don’t know you know him. Hawkins played Tommy Bailey, the young son of George Bailey, immortalized by Jimmy Stewart. (Tommy was the kid who, when George comes home after realizing that Uncle Billy has lost the $8,000 and is freaking out, repeatedly says, “Excuse me!”) That was 1946, and since then, Hawkins has moved behind the camera, serving as a producer for several films; he’s also become the unofficial biographer for “It’s A Wonderful Life,” having written a trivia book and a 50th anniversary scrapbook for the film, as well as a interpretation of the film in a children’s book. In celebration of NBC’s annual airing of the film, Hawkins did a teleconference, where he gladly chatted about his experiences on the set, his ongoing relationship with Stewart, and why he left acting behind for good.
Bullz-Eye: Hi, Jimmy.
Jimmy Hawkins: Howdy! How are ya?
BE: Pretty good.
BE: So, you were only about five when you worked on “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
JH: Four-and-a-half when we shot it, and five when it came out.
BE: Given that you’ve written several books about the film, can you even keep straight anymore what you experienced personally and what you’ve learned in interviews from others who were involved?
JH: Oh, yeah. I vividly remember getting up early in the morning – it was still dark outside – and my mom and I would take a streetcar and a bus to the studio in Culver City. And then you’d walk on this big sound stage, and everything was bustling, and you’d walk into the Bailey house – this big set that was on the stage – and there was a Christmas tree in the middle of June, y’know? And it was 90 degrees outside! And there was snow, they had brought in real snow, outside the house and around the porch. And the two main things that I remember is that when we were shooting the scene where I say, “Excuse me, excuse me,” we started the scene off in the living room, and we were going towards the kitchen, so Frank Capra would set that up, and then he’d stop Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed and everybody, and say, “Okay,” and then he’d bend down and talk to me face to face and say, “Now, I want you say ‘excuse me’ right here. See this mark? When you get to this mark, you keep pulling on your dad’s coattails, and you say ‘excuse me’ right here. You understand, Jimmy?” And I’d say, “Oh, yes, sir, I understand.” “Okay, all right, now, everybody, let’s keep going.” And then they’d move on to the next place…and then he’d stop everybody, he’d bend down again, and say, “You see this mark right here?” “Yes.” “Well, when you get to this mark, I want you to say ‘excuse me’ again.” So he was very vivid to me in explaining what he wanted me to do, when he wanted to do it.
And I also remember sitting on Jimmy Stewart’s lap, and I’m putting tinsel on his head, and he’s thinking of losing the money, the eight thousand dollars, and he pulls me towards him, and he’s crying, he’s kissing me and hugging me…and I had a Santa Claus mask around my neck, and every time he’d pull me into him, that mask would hike up, and the inside of the mask was like sandpaper, and it scraped my cheek. And it kept doing it over and over, and I kept wondering, “When is this man gonna stop this?” Because I wasn’t aware of rehearsals and shooting. I just remember we’d rehearse, and then Capra would stop for a second and talk with Jimmy Stewart, and then it became real quiet, and then the bell would ring, and then I knew, “Oh, I guess we’re shooting now. Something’s different.” That’s all I knew, that something was different from rehearsing and shooting. And then I remember Donna Reed’s warm hand on me when she pulled me close to her and everything, and we’d talk about it years later when I played the boyfriend on “The Donna Reed Show.” She’d talk to me about stuff, but…y’know, those things I remember. People can tell me a lot of other stories about what they were doing or what was happening in the gymnasium, or all those stories, but I separate them from the reality of actually being on the set and actually remembering those things happening to me.
BE: You continued to maintain a relationship with Jimmy Stewart long after the film; I understand you were in regular contact with him almost all the way up to his death.
JH: Yes, in fact, when I wrote the 50th anniversary scrapbook, I sent him a bunch of copies for charities to sign, and the week he died, they came back…all signed. So he was very giving, up ‘til the end, and whenever I’d see him, we’d talk. The colorization (of the film) was a big deal at one time; we got together, and he always felt…he didn’t like the colorization. He felt…it kinda looked “like Walt Disney threw up on it,” he said. And then we’d talk about different scenes in the movie. It was his favorite movie, and it was Capra’s favorite movie, as everybody knows, and they were very worried about doing a movie, because it had been five years; they’d been in a war, and they wondered if they still had it. And it was disappointing box office – they lost half a million dollars – but they lived long enough to see that television made it a classic. And Capra got hundreds and hundreds of cards all the time, asking about the movie, so he was vindicated. And they both still had it. (Laughs)
BE: And I just have one more for you.
JH: Yes, sir.
BE: You did a ton of sitcom work during the ‘50s and ‘60s – “The Donna Reed Show,” “Ozzie & Harriet,” “Petticoat Junction” – but what led you away from acting?
JH: Well… (Laughs) …I had done so much of it, and it just got repetitive. I was playing the boyfriend of every girl on the TV, doing the Nelsons’ show, 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, and I felt like having more say in the process of making a picture. I was raised in the business – for twenty-some years at the time – and I just gravitated to behind the camera and picking projects that I believed in, that showed that no matter what people go through, they can come out the other end…whether it’s Satchel Paige being a great baseball player and frustrated that Negroes couldn’t play with the Whites back then, that he overcame all those obstacles and finally got into the major leagues and pitched in a World Series. And I thought, well, if people see that, maybe they’re gonna say, “Well, my life isn’t so bad, maybe I can overcome those obstacles. And if Satchel Paige did it, or Mother Seton, or the first seeing-eye dog in America, maybe I can overcome my difficulties.” And so that’s why I gravitated. I wanted to touch lives for the better. It’s just something that apparently was instilled in me at a young age: to fight for the underdog.
BE: Have you ever been tempted to pop back in front of the camera?
JH: Nah. Uh-uh. When I did the “It’s A Wonderful Life” PBS special, which was a reenactment on television of the Lux Radio version of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” we had an all-star cast. It was Nathan Lane as Clarence, and Bill Pullman was George Bailey, and Sally Field was involved. It was just an all-star cast that wanted to do a lot of charity work for a particular charity, and they said, “Aw, you gotta play something!” But I said, “Nah, leave that to the actors.” I just enjoyed doing what I did.
BE: Thank you very much.JH: Thank you, sir.