Karolyn Grimes was just 6 years old when she was offered to appear in a movie that would forever change her life.
By then, she had already done four movies. But in the summer of 1946, she got to work on a new project titled “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The Frank Capra-directed classic, which starred Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, has become a beloved holiday tradition across the globe.
The film centers on the character of George Bailey, played by Stewart, who considers suicide until his guardian angel intervenes and shows him all the people whose lives he has touched and the difference he has made in the community. One memorable character is Zuzu, played by Grimes. She gets to say, ″Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.″
Grimes, 81, spoke to Fox News about what it was really like filming “It’s a Wonderful Life,” how she got the role of Zuzu and why she left Hollywood.
Fox News: What inspired you to write this book now?
Karolyn Grimes: It was the Jimmy Stewart Museum! They called me and said they were out of my book because it was written 25 years ago. So I thought it was time to write a new one for the 75th anniversary. The publisher loved the idea and we got to work right away because there weren’t many people around left who were part of this film. But it was really exciting for me to work on it. I’ve been traveling all over the world and people always want to hear stories about “It’s a Wonderful Life” and what it was really like making it.
Fox News: How did you get the role of Zuzu Bailey?
Grimes: We didn’t have auditions back in the day. We had interviews. And most of the kids had the same agent. So if the studio said, “We want a blond-hair, blue-eyed freckled kid,” they had a hand at picking the best child for the role. They had a hand at picking everyone, even the extras. I spoke to Mr. Frank Capra himself and next thing you know, I got the role!
Fox News: What was your initial impression of Jimmy Stewart?
Grimes: He was very tall and very thin. But he was just the best thing. He was very gentle and kind. He was very generous with his time and really patient with me. So I really enjoyed working with him. I remember I made a mistake with a line and he said, “Well, that’s all right Karolyn, you’ll get it the next time.” He was very encouraging. I felt like I learned a lot working with him.
Fox News: What was your relationship like with the rest of the cast?
Grimes: We all got along. It was very pleasant. And it’s always fun when you can go on set and play with other kids. It was the summertime, so we weren’t quite in school yet. We didn’t have to do lessons. So I remember it being a lot of fun.
Fox News: That must have been surreal, to pretend it’s Christmas, but it’s the summertime.
Grimes: Oh yes, in the film you see all this wonderful snow and it’s fake. It doesn’t snow in Hollywood *laughs*. And I remember it was really warm when we filmed. But Frank Capra did bring magic to that set.
Fox News: What’s a fun fact about your time filming “It’s a Wonderful Life” that would surprise fans today?
Grimes: That’s a tough one because I think the fans know everything already *laughs*. But it’s interesting, people always ask me, “What was it like working with Donna Reed?” And I have to admit, I don’t really remember. I was so into Jimmy Stewart that I didn’t even look at Donna Reed!
Jimmy Stewart left such an impression on me. He was so gentle with me. I was always in his arms or on his neck. And you have to remember, sometimes you have to film a scene over and over again, especially with Capra because he was such a perfectionist. But Jimmy never complained. He never made me feel bad if I got a line wrong. So I really appreciated all of those things as a child.
Fox News: When did you realize that “It’s a Wonderful Life” had become so big among fans?
Grimes: In 1980, someone came to my front door. I was living in the middle of Kansas by then. They knocked on my door and the person said, “Are you that little girl who was in the movie ‘It’s a Wonderful Life?’” I said, “Well, yes.” And the person said, “Can we have an interview?” I thought, “What in the world is going on?” The movie came out so long ago. But clearly, there was an interest in it still. I dug up all of my memorabilia from the basement and started sharing stories. Then the fan mail started coming in.
That’s when I thought, “I have to see what’s going on.” I then sat down and watched the film for the very first time. I was just so moved. I was in tears. I was 40 and the film took me on an emotional roller coaster. Up and down and all around. When it was over, I realized what a masterpiece it was. I then understood why people were so interested in it still. You have to remember, when you’re making a film, you’re just doing a job. And then you move on to the next project. Sometimes you never really get to see it. To this day, I regret the fact that I never started watching it as a family tradition in my own home.
Fox News: Why do you believe “It’s a Wonderful Life” has remained so timeless?
Grimes: I think the story applies to everyone. They see themselves in George Bailey. They identify with the struggles he went through and how he survived. He made his own life wonderful. And there are wonderful things in life. It’s a story of hope and how we can all make a difference, even when things seem hopeless. You don’t know how many letters I’ve received from people over the years who tell me they were on the bridge and after watching this movie, they realized that their lives weren’t so bad after all. And they walked off the bridge.
Fox News: You lost your parents at such a young age. You lost your mother at age 12 and then your father not long after that. How did you cope?
Grimes: My parents instilled in me that in the end, everything is going to be OK. It may not feel that way at the moment, but it will be. Life is what you make of it. And I wanted it to be good. My parents also gave me a religious background that was very solid. I have a certain amount of respect for anyone who believes in a higher being and tries to follow a good path in life. I think that’s something we should all strive to do. It’s difficult these days, but geez, if we could just try. It’s a scary world out there. And we need a film like “It’s a Wonderful Life” now more than ever. I think that’s how I coped.
Fox News: After your parents passed away, you moved to Kansas, a far cry from Hollywood. What was that like for you?
Grimes: At first, I thought I’d died. It took about a year for me to feel at ease. And unfortunately, I was in a really terrible home situation. But I was in a town of 800 people and they all knew my situation. These townspeople rallied around me – the merchants, my teachers, all the kids, everybody – and they just welcomed me with open arms. They gave me so much love and self-confidence. Then I realized I didn’t want to go back to Hollywood anymore. It was a shallow, dog-eat-dog world. I didn’t want that in my life. So I felt content staying in Kansas. At first, I did miss Hollywood. But after I was in Kansas for a year, things changed for me.
Fox News: Were you still getting offers while in Kansas?
Grimes: I went to live with my father’s brother and his mean wife. She immediately cut all my ties with anybody I’d ever known or worked with in Hollywood. It became my past life.
Fox News: What’s life like for you today?
Grimes: Wild and crazy *laughs*. I’m on the road for a solid three months a year just talking about “It’s a Wonderful Life.” And for the rest of the year, I’m doing appearances. My whole life is a wonderful life. For me, my life is about spreading that message.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.