Jimmy Hawkins has a favorite memory from when he played young Tommy Bailey in the 1946 Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Though he was only four years old when shooting ended, he remembered, “they didn’t have a wrap party, but [director] Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart threw a picnic and they had three-legged races. I won the watermelon-eating contest!”

The actors who portrayed the Bailey children in the holiday favorite have stayed in touch over the years and fondly recall their time on-set together. “To be part of this family is a blessing,” Carol Coombs, 82, who played daughter Janie, said. But she admitted she had no idea the film would become such an indelible part of her life — and the nation’s. “I don’t think anybody did, except maybe Capra.” Karolyn Grimes, 77, who played Bailey daughter Zuzu didn’t even see the film until she was 40 years old, but she said she wasn’t nervous to work with her famous co-stars when she was just age six. “I wasn’t a little girl who was intimidated by much,” she admitted.

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(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Besides, added Carol, Jimmy Stewart was “a very kind person,” and careful of their feelings. Before filming the scene in which a broken George Bailey yelled at Janie to stop playing the piano, “he told me exactly what he was going to be doing beforehand,” Carol recalled. “He said, ‘This is how I’m supposed to act so don’t take it personally.’ But even so, those were real tears!”

Those emotional scenes have certainly resonated with viewers over the past 71 years, and Capra’s granddaughter Monica Capra Hodges said her grandfather is proud that the movie became even more beloved when it started airing on TV. “He said that was the best thing, to have that movie come back to life for so many people,” she told Closer. “That’s what it’s all about.”

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