'It's a Wonderful Life' actress reflects on extraordinary life

PORT ORCHARD, Wash. -- The most beloved movie ever made, Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life," let us know George Bailey, an optimistic man, faced with life's hardships, who struggles with suicide, is allowed the gift of seeing firsthand the lives he has touched, and as a result learns to understand the miracle of family and friendship.

OK, so there might be some debate about the "most beloved movie ever made." The Wizard of Oz comes to mind. so does The Sound of Music, Casablanca, etc. But you get the point: It's a Wonderful Life is a timeless classic that is revered like very few movies in the history of the medium.

The sun is shining in Port Orchard, and a young-looking 74-year old woman named Karolyn Grimes smiles as she looks out from her deck to the still water view of Rich Passage that never seems to grow old.

"I love it here," she says in a voice that sounds a lot like Dolly Parton's. "It's pretty quiet and you can kind of collect yourself and rejuvenate for the next round."

She has a twinkle in her eye and she lets out a delightful laugh.

When you meet Karolyn, you are not struck with a jolt of recognition. You don't think to yourself, "I know her!" But you do.

She is 74-years old, it's true. But Karolyn is frozen forever as 6-year old ZuZu.

You can see her now, can't you? The little girl with the curls, sitting on the bed with her daddy, Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, upset that some petals have fallen off her flower.

"Look Daddy! Paste it!" she says. George turns away and secretly puts the petals into his pocket.

That little girl grew up to become Karolyn Grimes. I am visiting her because I can't help but wonder, "What's it like being ZuZu?"

It turns out a lot of people wonder the same thing. Karolyn starts by telling me she's not famous, not a star, not even an actress, really.

"Well," she says, "I really consider myself a piece of film history."

It was a small role in a movie that was made 66 years ago. But it was an important role, a memorable one. She was a vision of childlike innocence playing counterpoint to George Bailey's growing frustration.

Karolyn lights up still when you mention Jimmy Stewart's name.

"He was very gently. Very gentle. I messed up a line in the petal scene, and he said, 'Th... th... that's alright, you'll get it next time'...and I did!"

Sixty-six years later she's surrounded by images of the movie. We walk up a staircase decorated with two giant posters of It's A Wonderful Life. George Bailey is everywhere in this home!

She takes me into a room solely dedicated to memories from her days as ZuZu, and it is a revelation.

"I got so many cool things," she says. It's an understatement.

There's a picture of her as a child with Bing Crosby. There are stacks of DVDs of the movie, books about the movie. Angels wings that someone sent her. A giant photo taken of the entire cast the day shooting on the movie wrapped. A signed picture of her as an adult, with her friend Jimmy Stewart. A leg lamp signed by the cast of A Christmas Story. The kid that got his tongue stuck on the flag pole wrote, "It's A Wonderful Life: #2 Christmas movie. A Christmas Story: #1!" The walls are filled, one end to the other.

People love to send Karolyn bells, so there is a whole shelf of them. I help her pull a large box out of a closet, and inside is a treasure trove of original stills from the movie, black and white shots capturing a little girl's role in a movie that captured the whole world's heart.

Even now, after all these years, sometimes it seems like she can't believe it herself. She looks at a still of ZuZu wrapped in the arms of George Bailey.

She sighs. "It's just.. whew... it's just such a privilege to be this little girl. It really is."

As it turns out, being ZuZu is a full-time gig.

One minute she's on the phone, trying to talk Donna Reed's daughter into appearing in a parade with her. "I'm gonna tell her you're willing to do it then..." The next she's showing me the new book she just wrote called, "It's a Wonderful Life: How the Movie's Message of Hope Lives On."

There are new It's a Wonderful Life Christmas tree ornaments to get out there as well.

"I get new ones every year," she says.

And then there are the personal appearances. The Christmas season is go-time for ZuzZu Bailey. As it turns out, there is huge demand all over the world for one of the last living cast members of the classic movie.

Talk shows, tree-lighting ceremonies, Christmas festivals, the unveiling of a Jimmy Stewart statue in a wax museum, she's there for all of them.

And every year there is a grand celebration in Seneca Falls, New York, a town that has almost become Bedford Falls from the movie.

"No one really recognizes me, but when they find out who I am,' she says, "Oh my gosh, their faces light up, they get all excited because they love the fact that I'm that little girl, because that movie means so much to them.'

But the best part for Karolyn, is the mail. It comes from everywhere. People who's lives have been touched by the movie, and there are legions of them, want someone to reach out to, someone to express their gratitude to. Karolyn provides that outlet, with pride.

"I mean the letters I get are just incredible," she says. "They love the movie, they thank me for being in the movie. What a great gift I've been given! And I don't take it for granted, I really don't."

One man wrote not long ago, telling her that he took a gun into the backyard and was going to kill himself. But he remembered that he left the TV on, and went inside to turn it off. It's a Wonderful Life was, by chance, just starting. He sat down and watched the whole thing, and when it was over he carefully put the gun away and decided to live his life.

The letters Karolyn Grimes receives are not just fan letters.

The movie was a flop when it came out in 1947. But in the late 70s it seemed to dawn on the whole world that Frank Capra's movie was a masterpiece. Suddenly, tucked away in Kansas, Karolyn was being asked for interviews.

"A guy knocked on my door and asked, 'Are you Zuzu from the movie?'" she recalls. "I said, 'Yesss', and he asked me for an interview. So I did an interview. The next week, the same thing happened!"

It's obvious the story tickles her still.

"Then I started getting fan mail," she says. "And I thought, 'You know what? I think I'm gonna have to sit down and watch this movie.' I'd never seen it. I was 40 years old!"

It is a bombshell that leaves me speechless for a moment. Keep in mind, I watch that movie every single year at Christmas time, and as long as my children live under my roof, so will they. I bet by the time I was 40 years old, I'd seen It's a Wonderful Life 25 or 30 times. And the woman who played Zuzu had never even seen it once? Unbelievable.

I blurted out, "You had never SEEN it?"

"No," she laughed, "I was raising children! I was living in the laundry room, the kitchen, and the car!"

She says that when she saw the movie that first time, it blew her away. Changed her life forever. She understood what all the fuss was about, a message both simple and profound: each person touches so many other lives, and changes them, and the fabric of our lives are woven together into a miraculous tapestry that can never be taken for granted.

Karolyn has chosen to embrace the soul of the movie she played in, and sitting there in her home, reminiscing, I found myself thinking, "How perfect it all seems." But, as it turns out, much of ZuZu's life has been anything but wonderful.

Karolyn lost her Mom when she was 14. Her Dad died when she was 15. She was shipped of to live with an Uncle in Kansas. There was a "mean" Aunt, and her movie career came to a screeching halt.

Later on her first husband died in a hunting accident. She married again, and her second husband died from cancer.

And there is more. Karolyn doesn't flinch when she tells me about the cruelest blow of all: her 18-year old son took his own life.

She shows me a framed picture of him, blonde, gentle-looking, smiling.

"He was a good kid," she says softly.

The guilt never really goes away, she tells me.

"I chose to face it. Feel it. And release it. I did the best I could."

And then she says something that I won't forget.

"It's all in how you look at your life, because no one has a wonderful life. But you can make it what you want it to be."

Suddenly I begin to understand how this beautiful movie, made so long ago, is so deeply embedded into this woman's soul that there's no separating them, no place where one ends and the other begins.

"Well, it has put me on a path," she says. "I am not longer Karolyn, so much as I really am ZuZu."

At the end of the movie, there's that famous line, you know the one, where a bell rings, and resting in her Daddy's arms, ZuZu says, "Teacher says every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings!"

"It's a wonderful line!" Karolyn tells me, "a wonderful gesture." She recites it for me without me even asking. By now she understands how much people get a kick out of it.

She's leaving for Seneca Falls the next day to continue keeping ZuZu alive, to give people what they want: a reason to believe in Frank Capra and George Bailey and Bedford Falls the very idea of life being wonderful.

She signs a picture for me, and sends us off. And as we pull away, with here in the door waving, I'm struck by something that makes my heart pound a little faster.

You see, the most beloved movie ever made let us know George Bailey, but it also let us know Karolyn Grimes, an optimistic woman, faced with life's hardships, who struggled with a suicide, has been allowed to see firsthand the lives she has touched, and as a result has learned to appreciate the miracle of family and friendship.