What Happened To The Cast Of It's A Wonderful Life After It Came Out?

"It's a Wonderful Life" was released over 75 years ago in 1946. The inspirational movie centers on George Bailey, who in the midst of a financial crisis and other troubles wishes he had never been born and considers taking his own life. He is then visited by a guardian angel named Clarence, who shows George how wonderful his life truly is. The film wasn't initially a hit. It wasn't until several decades after its release when it started airing regularly on television that it began resonating with audiences, according to Parade.

The movie is now a holiday classic. It was nominated for five Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Sound Recording, and Best Film Editing), and director Frank Capra won a Golden Globe for the movie. While most of the stars are long gone, you may wonder what happened to them and their careers after they made the film. Read more below.

Jimmy Stewart

James "Jimmy" Stewart launched his acting career in the 1930s after signing a contract with MGM, according to the Jimmy Stewart Museum. He made nearly two-dozen films before enlisting in the military during World War II. His first acting gig following the war was playing George Baily in "It's A Wonderful Life," for which he earned an Oscar nomination. Stewart furthered his Hollywood career in the 1950s, working with several well-known directors, including Alfred Hitchcock, Cecil B. DeMille, and John Ford.

However, he didn't give up his military roots. After the war he joined the Air Force Reserves and earned the rank of Brigadier General. During the 1970s, he also played characters who were soldiers themselves, like his roles in "Shenandoah," and "The Flight of the Phoenix." In the 1980s, President Reagan presented Stewart with the Medal of Freedom, the highest award an American civilian can receive. 

Stewart had a softer side, writing a book of poems, which became a bestseller after he recited "A Dog Named Beau" during an appearance on "The Johnny Carson Show." He died at the age of 89 in 1997, according to Variety.

Frank Capra

Italian-American filmmaker Frank Capra produced and directed "It's a Wonderful Life." He made numerous films in the 1930s and won three Academy Awards, according to Britannica. He and two other directors created Liberty Films in 1945, and "It's a Wonderful Life" was the first film the studio produced. It was Capra's most expensive film to date and put Liberty Films in a bit of a financial pickle–they were in the red for around $500,000. As a result, Capra and his partners sold their company to Paramount.

His films in the 1950s were less successful, and he took an 8-year hiatus, which the director believed was forced in part due to being blacklisted because of his political opinions he expressed in the 1930s. Capra retired from movies in 1961, but he went on to sponsor a filmmaking program at Caltech and became a college lecturer. He also wrote the autobiography "The Name Over the Title." In 1982, he won a life achievement award from the American Film Institute, according to the Los Angeles Times. During his acceptance speech, Capra said: "Don't follow trends. Start trends. Don't compromise. Believe in yourself because only the valiant can create, only the daring should make films, and only the morally courageous are worthy of speaking to their fellow man for two hours and in the dark." 

Capra died in 1991, at the age of 94.

Donna Reed

Donna Reed earned the female lead in "It's a Wonderful Life" after movie execs saw her performance in the 1945 film "They Were Expendable," according to TCM. She starred in several more films in the 40s and 50s, and in 1953 she appeared in ”From Here to Eternity" for which she earned an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, according to the New York Times

Then Reed decided to make the leap to television in 1958 with "The Donna Reed Show." She played a TV mom, and over time it became one of the small screen's top programs. During its run, Reed was nominated for four Emmy awards and won a Golden Globe in 1963. 

The series was cancelled in 1966, and Reed took a break from acting for over a decade. An anti-Vietnam War activist, she joined the group Another Mother for Peace. In 1979 she returned to acting in the made-for-TV movie "The Best Place To Be" before appearing in shows such as "The Love Boat" and "Dallas," in which she replaced actress Barbara Bel Geddes to play Miss Ellie Ewing. Bel Geddes had left because she was unwell, but when she got better, she wanted the role back. Reed ended up winning a $1.25 million settlement because she had signed a 3-year contract for the "Dallas" role. 

Reed died in 1986 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 64.

Lionel Barrymore

Lionel Barrymore played Mr. Potter, the curmudgeonly banker in "It's a Wonderful Life." Prior to landing the role, he appeared in the TV series "Young Dr. Kildare" in 1938, after spending many years in and out of a wheelchair due to a hip injury, according to the New York Times. Barrymore's disability didn't prevent him from working, and filmmakers wrote parts and blocking that would accommodate his use of a wheelchair. In addition, viewers didn't question his wheelchair-bound roles.

In 1951, Barrymore co-wrote the book "We Barrymores" and wrote the novel "Mr. Cantonwine: A Moral Tale." In 1952, one of his musical compositions, "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" was released. He was also very active in his community and lent his hand to civic causes, including the National Arthritis Research Foundation, for which he was the chairman of the national board of sponsors. Prior to his death in 1954 at the age of 76, he was honored by the Treasury Department for his work in promoting the sale of U.S. Savings Bonds. 

By his own estimates, his family, consisting of the Drews and the Barrymores, had devoted their lives to acting for over two centuries. His parents were Maurice (née Blythe) and Georgie (Drew) Barrymore. His granddaughter is actress Drew Barrymore.

Karolyn Grimes

Karolyn Grimes played the youngest Bailey, 6-year-old Zuzu, in "It's a Wonderful Life." She is known for saying, "Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings," according to the National Catholic Register. Grimes had already appeared in four films before landing the iconic role, she explains on her official website. And while she starred in 16 movies, Zuzu was her most memorable role. 

But when Grimes was 8 years old, her mother got sick, so she had to stop acting. Her mother died of early-onset Alzheimer's when Grimes was just 14 years old. The following year, her father died in a car accident, so she moved to a small town in Missouri to live with an uncle. Grimes taught Bible School, and after graduating from high school became a medical technologist, a job she held for two decades. Sadly, she endured even more tragedy in her life. Her first husband, whom she had divorced, died in a hunting accident. She remarried, and her youngest child died by suicide at age 18. Her second husband died of lung cancer after 25 years of marriage. 

In the 1990s, Grimes became an unofficial ambassador for "It's a Wonderful Life." She teamed up with several other actors from the film for a reunion tour around the United States. In 1996, she released "Zuzu Bailey's It's A Wonderful Life Cookbook." As of 2021, she still attends screenings, benefits, and conventions related to the film.

Henry Travers

English actor Henry Travers was a stage performer who set his sights on Hollywood in the 1930s. While Travers starred in numerous films, most people recognize him as the guardian angel Clarence in "It's a Wonderful Life." His role as the friendly angel trying to earn his wings by helping James Stewart's depressed character appreciate his life was instrumental in making the film the popular Christmas classic that it is today, according to TCM

Travers played similar characters in other movies but was also known for some dramatic roles earlier on in his career. Travers also starred in the western "Dodge City" and appeared in Alfred Hitchcock film "Shadow of a Doubt," and he even earned an Academy Award nomination for "Mrs. Miniver." Yet it was his role as Clarence that defined his career.

He stopped acting in 1949 and only made four films after "It's a Wonderful Life," including "The Flame," "Beyond Glory," "The Accused," and "The Girl from Jones Beach," according to IMDB. Travers died in 1965 from artery disease at 91 years old.

Virginia Patton

Virginia Patton played George Bailey's sister-in-law, Ruth Dakin Bailey, in "It's a Wonderful Life." She was the only cast member whom Frank Capra personally signed on to the film, according to the National Catholic Register. All the other actors from the movie were under contract with other studios and were "loaned" to the director. In 2013, Patton talked about how she received many letters about the film from fans around the world who said it changed their lives and gave them hope, which she found to be "heartwarming." Patton appeared in four more films after "It's a Wonderful Life" but retired from acting in 1949 to raise a family in Michigan.

Over the years, Patton also appeared at promotional events for the film. In 2012 she attended a screening in Plymouth, outside of Detroit, according to the Patch, where she posed for photographs and signed autographs for fans. While director Frank Capra tried to encourage her to stick to her Hollywood career, he supported Patton's decision to focus on family life. Patton became involved with the Young Presidents' Organization and became a docent at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. She also joined other community organizations. As for acting, she told the Patch: "I couldn't see me doing that for my life. That isn't what I wanted."

Thomas Mitchell

In 1946, Thomas Mitchell played George Bailey's sad Uncle Billy in "It's a Wonderful Life." And even though he appeared in numerous films over his career, including a role as Scarlett O'Hara's father in "Gone With The Wind," he is perhaps more known for his role as Uncle Billy. But Mitchell was a character actor who accumulated over 100 credits during his acting career. He made a major mark in Hollywood in 1939 by appearing in a whopping five films that are still very well known today: "Stagecoach," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Only Angels Have Wings," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," and the aforementioned Civil War flick, according to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette

Mitchell also appeared on Broadway on several occasions, including in 1962 in the play "Prescription: Murder" in a role that Peter Falk later played when it was incorporated into the TV series "Columbo." At some points in his career, Mitchell made six films a year. He was also one of the few actors to earn the Triple Crown of Acting honor by receiving an Oscar ("Stagecoach"), Emmy ("The Doctor"), and Tony awards ("Hazel Flagg"). He spent a good part of the 1950s on the small screen, according to the Encyclopedia of Film Actors. Mitchell died in 1962.

Beulah Bondi

Beulah Bondi played George Bailey's mother, Ma Bailey, in "It's a Wonderful Life." She made over 50 films during her career, according to the New York Times. Bondi was a character actor who often played supporting roles. In 1939, she starred opposite Lionel Barrymore, also from "It's a Wonderful Life," in the film ”On Borrowed Time." Years later, in 1953, she was in the play the movie was based on, when the play had a revival on Broadway. Amazingly, she played the role a third time in 1957 during a "Hallmark Hall of Fame" program on the small screen.

Bondi often played women that were much older than her actual age. She played grandmothers even though she was in her forties, once telling a reporter: ”I had this face that somehow seemed older. And with the proper hairdo, I was just right.” In 1977, the actress won an Emmy for a guest performance on ”The Waltons.” She also appeared in TV series such as "Wagon Train" and "Perry Mason." She died in 1981 at the age of 92.

Gloria Grahame

Gloria Grahame played Violet in "It's a Wonderful Life" and appeared in over 30 films during her career, according to the New York Times. In 1952, she won an Oscar for her supporting role in ”The Bad and the Beautiful." But perhaps she's most well known for a sex scandal involving one of her stepchildren. In 1951, her director husband Nicholas Ray found Grahame in an inappropriate situation with his 13-year-old son, Tony, from a previous marriage, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Nine years later, Grahame married her stepson, and the couple had two children together. (This does not make what she did any less abusive.) In a strange twist, Tony became the stepfather to his half-brother Timothy, whose mother was Grahame and father was Nicolas Ray. Grahame and Tony Ray's marriage lasted 14 years.

During the 1950s, Grahame starred in ”The Greatest Show on Earth” and ”Oklahoma!” but took some time off from acting to raise her children. In the 1970s she once again dabbled with acting in film, on television, and on the stage. In 1977, for example, she starred in the theater production "The Man Who Came to Dinner." She married a total of four times.

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Jimmy Hawkins

Jimmy Hawkins was just 4 and a half years old when he played the youngest Bailey child, Tommy, in "It's a Wonderful Life," according to Mass Live. He still had clear memories of making the film in 2019, recalling, "I remember sitting on Mr. Stewart's lap and putting tinsel on him. I vividly remember Frank Capra crouching down and directing me." He also called Donna Reed a "jewel" to work with. After making the film, Hawkins played the son of top-billed stars such as Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, and Lana Turner. He appeared in the television show "Annie Oakley" as well as "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet." He later worked with Reed again for eight years on "The Donna Reed Show" playing one of Shelley Fabares' friends. Overall, he has over 350 acting credits to his name. He has also worked behind the camera as a writer and producer.

Hawkins told the St. Louis Dispatch that he and Reed had a close relationship. He visited her shortly before her death and gave her a Christmas ornament that had been released for "It's a Wonderful Life." In addition, Hawkins took part in the Donna Reed Festival following her death. Hawkins even wrote five books about the movie.

Carol Coombs-Mueller

Carol Coombs Mueller played Janie Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life" and told the Orange County Register that she herself has also had a wonderful life. For over two decades, Coombs Mueller made frequent appearances to promote the film. And like her co-star Virginia Patton, she met fans who said the film changed their lives. These fans recited lines back to her and told her how much hope the film provided them. Coombs was 10 years old when she made the film, and she continued acting for another decade. She had at most a half-dozen lines in the movie and appeared in 17 films over her career until 1958.

Coombs Mueller attended Los Angeles State College, now called Cal State Los Angeles, and met her husband Chet Mueller. She became an elementary school teacher. In 1993, she reunited with several cast members during a promotional tour for the movie. She also rang the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange. She regularly attends events related to the movie, including the annual It's a Wonderful Life Festival in Seneca Falls, New York. She and her husband have also accumulated quite a bit of memorabilia related to the film, including movie posters, snow globes, and autographed photos.