Being cradled in the arms of legendary screen vixen Lana Turner is not a shabby way to begin your career.
Young Jimmy Hawkins was a cherubic baby with curly blond ringlets, and MGM snapped up the photogenic tot to star in some of the most important films in American cinematic history.
He made is screen debut as Lana’s bouncing baby boy at the tender age of two in “Marriage Is A Private Affair.”
After beginning my interview by wishing “little” Tommy Bailey a very, Merry Christmas, something I never would have imagined being an opportunity, he heartily replied, “a very Merry Christmas to you,” back.
‘Scuse me, ‘scuse me? It made my Friday.
Only four when he was directed by director Frank Capra; his earliest memories of taking the bus to Culver City to the MGM soundstages are as vivid to him as yesterday’s news.
“I remember getting up very early to take a bus to Culver City, and the smells of the soundstages, and the excitement that was all the production involved in making ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,'” shared Hawkins on a cold, rainy Los Angeles morning.
Along with a brilliant double DVD release of “It’s A Wonderful Life” from Paramount that has both the black and white film remastered for purists, and a gorgeous color version for the younger kids, Mr. Hawkins has delivered a lovely, timely children’s book from Dutton Children’ Book publishers that uses the central theme of Capra’s “Life” told through the voice of his young Tommy.
It spins a sweet yarn that teaches all children they are important and matter.
The book, “It’s A Wonderful Life for Kids” is timely in this age of neglected, troubled and abused kids who turn to violence toward others and themselves.
“If only someone would have read a book like this to that young man as a child in Omaha, and took an interest in him and told him that he did matter, maybe something good could have happened, it’s all so sad,” Mr. Hawkins trailed off.
The book is a modern children’s tale of self-esteem, illustrated by artwork reminiscent of another era by Douglas B. Jones, whose sentimental hand render Mr. Hawkins quiet and thoughtful tale of the power of the importance of the individual, the gift of friendship and nurturing kindness.
It is the theme of kindness which yields the strongest memories for Jimmy, as he told me about the cast of “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Kind words from star Jimmy Stewart, director Frank Capra and a gentle touch by Donna Reed to his cheek was a gesture Jimmy remembers to this day.
“During that scene where Jimmy (Stewart) is breaking down and yelling at his family, Donna (Reed) drew me to her and I felt her hand so gently touch my cheek, I never forgot it,” said Hawkins, who spoke lovingly about the actress so many regarded as a lovely all-American beauty.
“It’s nice that Paramount did a colorized version, many kids today prefer that to black and white, there are elements that pop out a little better and it I so well done it seems as if it was almost shot this way originally.”
Mr. Hawkins continued. “The message of the movie is timeless, and it is great Paramount rereleased it for both the old schoolers who prefer the original and the colorized, they are both a delight to watch.”
“I also remember the kindness of Mr. Capra, who would stop everybody, and pull me aside ad get down on my level and talk to me, saying ‘now Jimmy, when you get right next to Jimmy, you must pull his coattails and say, ‘scuse me’ but just keep pulling on his coattails,’ he was very patient with me,” remembered Jimmy.
“That was like it happened just yesterday!”
Mr. Hawkins shared some secrets of the making of “Wonderful Life,” and how real snow was used for the first time inside a giant soundstage in sunny California.
“The set covered four acres, and Capra loved real weather, see, up until then they used painted cornflakes, and Capra wasn’t having it because of the noise it made,” laughed Jimmy.
“The special effects crew used 300 tons of shaved ice and wind machines, they even won a special citation award from the Academy for their efforts,” added Jimmy.
“All of this happened during a terrible heat wave in Los Angeles,” shared Jimmy. “And Beverly Hills high school was the location for the famous pool floor opening.”
When I asked him for some of his favorite memories from the production, Mr. Hawkins shared his overall best recollection. “I loved all the commotion that was going on around me, especially during the final scenes where all the actors are coming into the Bailey house and Uncle Billy dumps the money on the table, me and the other child actors were very happy during this exciting scene, and I remember how Jimmy’s (Stewart) coat kept scratching my cheek, I had a Christmas Santa mask around my neck, and during those scenes where he comes up the stairs and is hugging us, but it is the commotion of that final scene which made a wonderful memory for me, the singing, the feeling of the moment.”
Years later after Mr. Hawkins found himself transitioning from film to television; he starred in ABC’s first family show, “The Ruggles,” before joining Gene Autry for six years as Tagg Oakley.
Jimmy got his chance to work once again with Donna Reed, in the “Donna Reed Show,” when he was cast as the boyfriend to Shelley Fabares’ character Mary.
During the first episode filming, he asked Donna if she remembered working with him in Capra’s film.
“Of course I do, you slept through everything, so we dubbed you Rip Van Winkle on set,” Mr. Hawkins remembered Donna telling him.
Jimmy is still close friends with actress Shelley Fabares, the two making an Elvis Presley movie together, and also working for the Donna Reed foundation, making annual trips to Reed’s hometown of Denison, Iowa.
Hawkins and Fabares along with guest teachers help aspiring film students and actors understand the inner workings critical for success in the film industry. Students from all over the country come to compete for over $30,000 in scholarships. “We have classes to teach the kids how to pursue a career, and what to expect, realistically.”
Jimmy thoughts went back to his remembrances of Donna Reed.
“I really loved that woman,” he recalled. “Remember I told you of that scene where she touched my cheek? Well, flashback to the eighties, Donna was really ill, it was around Christmas time (December 1985) and I went to visit her at her home, I brought her an “It’s A Wonderful Life” Christmas ornament for her tree.
She asked me to put it on her tree, and we visited, but it was hard for her to expend any energy, so I wished her a Merry Christmas and told her I had to go, and then she reached her hand up to touch my cheek just like she did when I was in that scene with her when she drew me in, and in just two weeks, she died.”