When Jimmy Hawkins showed up for work on "The Donna Reed Show," he asked the star if she remembered him from "It's a Wonderful Life."
"I played your son," he remembers saying.
"Oh yes," Reed replied. "We called you 'Rip Van Winkle' because you slept all the time. They'd finish the lighting and then they'd wake you up. You'd be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed."
Hawkins, a busy child actor, joined the popular sitcom as one of Shelley Fabares' teenage friends. He stayed for eight years but, more important, remained a Reed friend for life.
"We were very close," Hawkins said. "Two weeks before she died, I went over to her house and showed her an ornament they had come out with for the movie. She said, 'Put it on the tree.' I gave her a hug, and that was the last time I saw her."
When Fabares and Reed's TV son Paul Petersen were interested in honoring her with a festival in Denison, Iowa — Reed's hometown — they naturally included Hawkins. The event — which lasted some 25 years — was an ideal way for friends to pay tribute to a woman they had grown to love.
"We gave out thousands of dollars in scholarships," Hawkins said of the Donna Reed Festival. "It was a great way to give back to the town that gave Donna her start."
A 'LIFE' CONNECTION
"It's a Wonderful Life," now a holiday staple, was among a flurry of films the Oscar-winner made after arriving in Hollywood. MGM had loaned her out to RKO to make the film, and she later said it was the most difficult job she ever had. The reason? Director Frank Capra was extremely demanding.
Hawkins saw a different side to the director.
"Frank improvised a lot," he said. "He'd squat down next to me and explain things. He'd say, 'Put tinsel on his head,' and I'd do it."
That flexibility worked well with Capra's run-and-gun style.
Four-and-a-half years old when he was cast, Hawkins said he worked 12 days on the film. "We'd get up early every morning, take streetcars and buses to get to Culver City," he said.
When the cast posed for photos in front of the Bailey house, he looked closely at the "snow" in the bushes.
"When they were setting up the shot, I realized it wasn't snow, it was cotton," he said.
Hawkins wrote five books about the film, and admits Capra only copped to one mistake — making Reed's character, Mary Hatch, a meek librarian.
"She was a single-minded woman who went after what she wanted," he said. "She would have been a businesswoman because she took control."
Otherwise, Capra liked the film. "He felt the movie was about how each man's life touches so many others," Hawkins said. "He saw that we're all important."
While "It's a Wonderful Life" wasn't a hit when it was released in 1946, it gained in popularity when it started airing on television.
Hawkins, who turned 79 on Friday, said he'll glance at it if happens to be on while he's wrapping gifts, but he doesn't make a habit of watching it every year. Memories, though, do flood back.
Jimmy Stewart, who played his father in the film, stayed in touch and years later worked with him on "Winchester '73."
"He didn't like when they colorized it," Hawkins said of "Wonderful Life."
"It wasn't that good when they first did it. He thought it looked like they threw up all over it."
Now, however, a new state-of the-art colorized version has been released and "it's incredible," Hawkins said. "It looks like you could step right into the movie."
The new edition could draw new fans and, yes, demonstrate why Capra wished he had changed Mary's career path.
While working on "The Donna Reed Show," Hawkins saw Reed's quiet power. A producer of the show, Reed never exercised her clout.
"She was very quiet on set, but she knew what she wanted," he said. "She wasn't some bossy lady. She didn't bring up any problems, because they were solved before we got there."
That approach, he added, was one of the reasons why life was so idyllic on the TV show.
"She brought more of the women's point of view to the show — it was 'Mother Knows Best.'"
In "It's a Wonderful Life," that strength comes through.
When he shows the film to groups, it's among the aspects he notices. And the film?
"It keeps on getting better," Hawkins said.