This time of year, film fans everywhere remind Bob Anderson of his wonderful life. Called Bobbie at age 12, Anderson was the clean-cut kid who portrayed Jimmy Stewart’s character, a young soda jerk, in the opening scenes of Frank Capra’s latent classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Stewart would later commend Anderson for his performance as the young George Bailey, a film genus that both men would share for a lifetime.
Capra produced, directed and cast the film down to the extras. Anderson, now 63, says that when Capra chose him, he was a confident, hard-working “good little actor.”
In Capra’s dark masterpiece about a man on the brink of suicide and the pixie-like guardian angel who saves him, Anderson worked alongside some of the best: Jimmy Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, H.B. Warner.
Remember Mr. Gower? Warner, a distinguished actor from silents, played the disheveled, drunken pharmacist. Distraught over the sudden death of his son, Mr. Gower would have poisoned a child had it not been for George Bailey.
Anderson remembers that Warner, a true Method actor, began nipping the hard stuff early on shooting day. Capra let Warner alone with his bottle until the old actor was ripe.
Even after repeat viewings, it’s an intense moment when Mr. Gower delivers those whacks to young George’s trick ear.
“He actually bloodied my ear,” Anderson recalls with the same soft rasp in his voice that he had as a youngster. “We rehearsed, and as the day progressed, the louder and more demanding H.B. got. We’d rest for a little while; I’d go back to school. They’d bring me back out, and we’d spar a little more.”
Near the end of the day, cameras rolled. This time, Anderson recalls, Stewart stood next to Capra, both eyeing the big moment with great expectation. It took just minutes to capture one of the film’s most disturbing scenes.
“That was Capra’s way of getting it to the Academy Award point,” Anderson says. “My ear was beat up and my face was red and I was in tears. I knew when I went through the door of that drugstore to go behind those pillboxes, I was gonna get knocked on my butt, and it was an emotional high. . . .
“I was a baby,” he says, “I didn’t know what we were building for. H.B. was perfect. He reached the crescendo. At the end when it was all over, he was very lovable. He grabbed me and hugged me, and he meant it.”
Anderson also worked with Thomas Mitchell as half-wit Uncle Billy and Lionel Barrymore as ol’ man Potter. As he remembers them, neither actor was in real life as the movie’s fans might expect.
Barrymore, in his Potter regalia and wheelchair, went to the young actor’s rescue one day.
“Thomas Mitchell, well, one day he was getting pretty irritated and I was missing my cues,” Anderson explains. “People always say what a great guy Mitchell was. I don’t know what he was like personally, but on that day he was a monster. And Lionel Barrymore--you hear these stories of this wheelchaired son of a bitch--he was a sweet man. He grabbed Mitchell by the arm and said, ‘I don’t think we have to be quite so strong with the lad.’ ”
There was an intangible aura that went along with the legendary name of Barrymore, who actually did use a wheelchair.
“He would wheel himself to the set, and you knew the bull was over,” he says. “It was not because he felt he was a big star. He was so professional it made everyone around him stay on their toes. He didn’t have to turn a script page. He didn’t have to say, ‘Where are we today?’ He was there, on the set, ready to work and get it over with so everyone could go home at the end of the day.”
The professionalism displayed by Capra’s company has made Anderson appreciate the way films were produced in those days, when the studio system was alive and well and control lay in the hands of those who knew what they were doing.
Anderson, who started acting at 3, dancing in several Shirley Temple films, has seen the industry from every angle, most recently on the producing and directing teams of several films (“Heat,” “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” “Passenger 57" and “Demolition Man” among them).
There just may be a little bit of residual Potter vengeance in him these days.
“The agencies have taken over all the creative control in the motion picture industry,” he says with some disgust. “Agents run the studios, and few of them know how to make movies. They’re just swinging the deals. Making movies today can be gut-wrenching. It’s not all a wonderful life, but there is hope.”
* “It’s a Wonderful Life” airs Saturday at 8 p.m. on NBC.