‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ actors Karolyn Grimes, Jimmy Hawkins recall memories of bringing holiday film to life

In 1946, child actors Karolyn Grimes and Jimmy Hawkins had no idea they created one of the most iconic holiday films in Hollywood history.

It was the year when Frank Capra’s film “It’s a Wonderful Life” first premiered in theaters. The beloved drama tells the story of an angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) who is sent from heaven to help George Bailey (James Stewart), a desperately frustrated businessman on the verge of suicide. Clarence shows George what life would really have been like if he had never existed.

The black-and-white classic, which also starred Donna Reed, has become a staple during the festive season and is still recognized as one of Stewart’s most popular films. Grimes, 79, and Hawkins, 78, would go on to win the hearts of millions for their roles as Zuzu and Tommy Bailey.

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In time for the season, Paramount spent over a year restoring the film using the original negative, along with the latest technology. The result is a more vibrant, detailed rich picture, which is being released on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray.

Grimes and Hawkins spoke to Fox News about bringing the enduring classic to life, their favorite memory of the late Stewart and what really happened during the wrap party.

Fox News: How does it feel to know that “It’s A Wonderful Life” is one of the most celebrated holiday movies in Hollywood history?
Karolyn Grimes: Well, it's really a privilege to be a part of that. It's an honor to be in that movie because it means so much to people, not only in the United States but around the world. And it makes such a difference in people's lives. I feel like it's become a part of American history, certainly film history... I feel very privileged to be a part of that.

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American actors James Stewart (1908 - 1997), as George Bailey, and Karolyn Grimes as his daughter Zuzu, in a scene from "It's a Wonderful Life." The film was directed by Frank Capra in 1946.

American actors James Stewart (1908 - 1997), as George Bailey, and Karolyn Grimes as his daughter Zuzu, in a scene from "It's a Wonderful Life." The film was directed by Frank Capra in 1946. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

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Jimmy Hawkins: Yeah, me, too. As Tommy used to say. "Me, too!" But [it's true]. It was a job for everybody. After World War II, things were getting back to normal, and just to be chosen as [part of the] Bailey family, it was a great experience. And then look at what happened so many years later. It became so popular. You go, "Wow! Look! We did a job on this movie for 12 days, and now it's one of the most beloved movies ever made." It's really incredible.

We’re lucky that we're still around to carry Frank Capra's message of the movie — each man's life touches so many others that if they weren't around, it would leave an awful hole. And that's why this picture is popular, because people feel, "Well, maybe there's a little bit of George Bailey in me." And it's a nice message. It's just a beautiful message.

Fox News: The film is being released on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray for the first time. How do you feel about that?
Grimes: It’s just fabulous. It's just so clear and crisp. You feel like you're right there, and you're a part of the story.
Hawkins: It’s beautiful. They've restored it. It's probably better now than when they saw it on the screen originally. That's how great a job they did.

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Jimmy Hawkins (pictured here) won the watermelon-eating contest at the film's wrap party.

Jimmy Hawkins (pictured here) won the watermelon-eating contest at the film's wrap party. (Photo courtesy of Jimmy Hawkins)

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Fox News: The remastered version highlights a bonus clip for fans. Can you tell us more about that?
Hawkins: They uncovered this eight-millimeter footage of the wrap party, which was a picnic out at Arthur's Lake, in a town called Lake Malibu. Things come out of it. About 25, 30 years ago, when we first got together, we would talk about [it]. And I said, "Oh, yeah, I remember I won the watermelon contest at the picnic.”

Grimes: And we said, "No, you didn't. You were four-and-a-half years old. You couldn't have won that!"
Hawkins: We were at a special screening at the Academy… They said, "We have a surprise for you." And I said, "Oh, well, that's great. I like to be surprised." And up pops nine minutes of this picnic. Whoever shot it must have liked us Bailey kids because there's a lot of footage of us. And footage of me winning the watermelon contest.

Grimes: Four years old. I said, "How did you do it? How did you do it?" He said, "I ate the seeds."
Hawkins: That’s it. You don't take time out... And I won. Now they know I won.

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Actor Jimmy Stewart smiling during a break in filming on the set of the movie "It's A Wonderful Life."

Actor Jimmy Stewart smiling during a break in filming on the set of the movie "It's A Wonderful Life." (Photo By Martha Holmes/The LIFE Premium Collection/Getty Images)

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Fox News: What's one memory of James Stewart that still makes the both of you smile today?
Grimes: Well, when I was upstairs in the petal scene with him and I was sick, I messed up a line. Jimmy Stewart said, "That's OK, Karolyn. You'll get it right next time." We did the scene again and I got the line perfectly. I’ll tell you, it was really good for my ego and my self-confidence.

He really gave me a pat on the back there, and I'll never forget that. He was a wonderful, wonderful man. He touched a lot of lives, just being him. He was George Bailey in real life.
Hawkins: He was. You could see where Jimmy Stewart came from. Indiana, Pennsylvania — kind of a small town. And of course, Donna Reed in Denison, Iowa. They brought the elements of those towns to that movie. You could see it. They were just regular people and they captured who they really were, from small-town America.

Fox News: What were they like after the filming of “It’s a Wonderful Life”?
Hawkins: The thing you remember most is years after the movie, how when you run into Jimmy Stewart, or — I had the pleasure of working with Donna Reed years later, too, — and how nice they were. They were just very nice people. And very giving. That's the best memory you can take away from doing a picture at four-and-a-half years of age. These people were very nice. Very, very nice.

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James Stewart (1908-1997) and Donna Reed (1921-1986) smiling in a publicity portrait issued for the film, "It's A Wonderful Life," circa 1946.

James Stewart (1908-1997) and Donna Reed (1921-1986) smiling in a publicity portrait issued for the film, "It's A Wonderful Life," circa 1946. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

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Fox News: Karolyn, does it ever get tiresome to say your famous line “Daddy, teacher says every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings?”
Grimes: Not at all. The movie has touched our lives in a very positive way. I’m always happy to share it with others.

Fox News: It’s been said director Frank Capra was also very kind to the both of you. Is that true?
Grimes: Oh, yes. He was very kind. He'd get down on his knees and look us in the eyes. On our level, so that he could get us to do what he wanted us to do. It worked every time. It really did.

Hawkins: And he was very patient. I had asked him one time, "What was the most difficult scene to shoot in the movie?" And he said, "It was the one with you kids." And I went, "Oh, were we difficult?" He said, "No, no, no." He said, "There was so much going on." You had the little girl pound on the piano and the boy asking, "How do you spell this?" And you're burping and you had all these funny things going on, and yet George Bailey was considering, "Oh, my God! $8,000!" He said, "It was a fine line so that the people wouldn't be laughing at you."

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The Italian American director and screenwriter Frank Capra smiling while leaning on a camera, circa 1930s.

The Italian American director and screenwriter Frank Capra smiling while leaning on a camera, circa 1930s. (Photo by Mondadori via Getty Images)

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He wanted them to laugh with you, and the scene really turned out perfect. You just go, "That's the way families are," and he captured that. He was doing a balancing act, he felt. But it turned out great... It was a great scene and he did a wonderful job. He really was a great man.