Finally, Hollywood calls for Dr. Mary Walker

Actor and producer Jimmy Hawkins, above left, examines the top hat of Dr. Mary Walker along with Oswego County Historian Justin White on Wednesday at the Richardson-Bates House. Hawkins, whose role in “It’s A Wonderful Life” kickstarted his Hollywood career, is researching a biopic about Walker.

OSWEGO — Pre-production is in the works for a biopic about Oswego Town’s Dr. Mary Walker, the iconoclastic women’s rights activist, Civil War surgeon and the first and only female recipient of the Medal of Honor.

Hollywood actor and producer Jimmy Hawkins, who played Tommy Bailey in the iconic 1946 holiday movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” stopped in Oswego Wednesday to meet with local historical experts about Oswego Town’s revolutionary Civil War physician ahead of the 70th annual celebration of Frank Capra’s iconic film in Seneca Falls.

According to Oswego County Historian Justin White, Hawkins’ trip was an effort to “meet us and research documents and artifacts that we have including the Medal of Honor.”

“It’s really exciting because it’s really a once-in-a-lifetime experience to have him be here,” White said.

According to Hawkins, the film would feature an irreverent take on the upbringing of Mary Edwards Walker (1832-1919), born in Oswego Town’s Bunker Hill, and how her father Alva Walker supported freed slaves escaping to Canada via the Underground Railroad. Mary Walker’s free-thinking and devoutly Christian family set her on a lifelong course of breaking many glass ceilings and supporting progressive causes — dress reform for women, emancipation and anti-imperialism, among them.  

As a volunteer surgeon on the Civil War battlefield, Walker caught the attention of Union generals when she was taken captive by Confederate troops at the Castle Thunder prison camp. Walker was later exchanged for male Confederate troops in an prisoner swap with the Union army.

Hawkins said the movie would focus on Walker’s ahead-of-her-time take on women’s rights issues, which alienated her from polite society and even mainstream suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. For refusing to wear corsets and long dresses and her contention that the Constitution inherently contained justification for women’s right to vote, Walker spent multiple nights in jail and was banned from several suffragist associations.

“Everyone’s so amazed that they don’t know about her and the uniqueness of how she worked and that’s what we’re trying to capture,” Hawkins said. “Our opinion was that she never changed — it was the people around her that changed. The studio didn’t understand that at first, because they go, ‘in a movie, you got to see somebody change,’ but it’s the people around her that had to change.”

After playing the son of some of Hollywood’s most popular actors in the 1940s, including Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Hawkins has spent the last several decades as a Hollywood film and television producer. When he learned about Oswego’s hometown hero and women’s rights activist, he saw the makings of a compelling biopic.

According to Hawkins, he was introduced to a one-person play about Dr. Mary Walker by “It’s a Wonderful Life” co-star Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu Bailey, at the film’s annual festival in Seneca Falls. The small upstate town is not only a primary inspiration for Frank Capra’s 1946 Christmas film but a landmark in the women’s suffrage movement for incubating the first women’s rights convention in U.S. history. Seneca Falls also hosted a play about Dr. Mary, Hawkins said, written by Hawkins’ friend and longtime collaborator, Lloyd J. Schwartz.  

Schwartz, Hawkins longtime friend who gained success from television shows like “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Brady Bunch,” urged Hawkins to purchase the rights to his play, “Independence,” a one-woman recount of Dr. Mary’s life.

“[Schwartz] told me ‘I would like to give you the rights to go out and sell it’ — her story,” Hawkins said.   

Hollywood film producer David Permut, Hawkins’ longtime collaborator since the 1980s, was hot off an Academy Award Best Picture nomination at the 79th Oscars for 2016’s “Hacksaw Ridge” when Hawkins came to him with Schwartz’s play, which was produced in Oswego in 2018.

Permut told Hawkins he was eager to “get on that stage” at the annual Academy Awards celebration, according to Hawkins, and the ambitious producer told Hawkins he “knew [Hawkins] knew good projects” that could take him there.

“I started telling him about Mary Walker and he said, ‘this is a wonderful story,’” Hawkins said. “He said, ‘I’ll sell this.’”

Hawkins said Permut pitched the project to Walden Media, a production company that “specializes in entertainment for the whole family,” according to the company’s website.

“They make these kinds of positive, uplifting pictures, and so we entered into an agreement with Walden that they’ll finance it,” Hawkins said.

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