James Stewart
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James Stewart

James Stewart
Annex - Stewart, James (Call Northside 777) 01.jpg
Studio publicity photograph, c. 1948
James Maitland Stewart

(1908-05-20)May 20, 1908
DiedJuly 2, 1997(1997-07-02) (aged 89)
Resting placeForest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California, U.S.
Other namesJimmy Stewart
Alma materPrinceton University (B.A., 1932)
  • Actor
  • military officer
Years active1932-1991
Notable work
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Philadelphia Story, The Shop Around the Corner, It's a Wonderful Life, Harvey, Rear Window, Vertigo, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Political partyRepublican
Gloria Hatrick McLean
(m. 1949; died 1994)
AwardsList of awards and nominations
Military career
Allegiance United States
Service/branch United States Army
 United States Air Force
Years of service1941-1968
RankUS Air Force O8 shoulderboard.svg Major General
UnitArmy Air Forces
Air Force Reserves
Battles/warsWorld War II
* European Theater of Operations
Vietnam War
AwardsList of Military and civilian awards

James Maitland Stewart (May 20, 1908 – July 2, 1997) was an American actor and military officer who is among the most honored and popular stars in film history. Known for his distinctive drawl, down-to-earth authentic personas and everyman acting style, Stewart's film career spanned over 55 years and 80 films. With the strong morals he portrayed both on and off the screen, Stewart epitomized the "American ideal" in the 20th-century United States. The characters he played spanned a wide range of subjects and appealed to large audiences. His emotional film performances contributed to his cinematic acclaim.

Stewart began his career as a performer on Broadway which earned him a film contract at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). He began his career portraying idyllic and moral characters and established himself as a movie star working with Frank Capra for You Can't Take It with You (1938) and then Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), which earned him his first of five Academy Award nominations for Best Actor. The following year he won the Academy Award for his work in the screwball comedy The Philadelphia Story, which also starred Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant.

Stewart served during World War II and also in the Vietnam War as a pilot, rising to the rank of brigadier general in the United States Air Force Reserve, becoming the highest-ranking actor in military history. In 1985, Stewart was promoted to major general, reserve list by President Ronald Reagan, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In 1946 Stewart starred as George Bailey in the Capra Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life, his most recognized role, earning another Oscar nomination. He expanded his acting roles during his later career to include more flawed and disillusioned characters in films by Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann. Among his nine films with Mann are Winchester '73 (1950) and The Naked Spur (1953), while amongst his four films with Hitchcock came Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), with Grace Kelly, and Vertigo (1958). Vertigo was unenthusiastically received at its time of release, but has since been reevaluated as an American cinematic masterpiece. Stewart's other later prominent roles included the comedy-drama Harvey (1950) and the courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder (1959), both of which landed him Academy Award nominations, and westerns such as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964), both directed by John Ford.

In 1949 Stewart married former model Gloria Hatrick McLean, with whom he had twin daughters. He also adopted her two children from her previous marriage. Many of the films in which he starred have become enduring classics. Stewart received an Academy Honorary Award for his achievements in 1985 and in 1999 Stewart was named the third-greatest male screen legend of the Golden Age of Hollywood by the American Film Institute, behind only Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant.

Early life

James Maitland Stewart was born on May 20, 1908, in Indiana, Pennsylvania,[1] the eldest child and only son born to Elizabeth Ruth (née Jackson; March 16, 1875 – August 2, 1953) and Alexander Maitland Stewart (May 19, 1871 - December 28, 1961).[2][3][4] Stewart's sisters Mary and Virginia were born in 1912 and 1914 respectively.[5] The Stewart family had lived in Pennsylvania for many generations; his father ran the family business, the J.M. Stewart Hardware Store, and hoped that Stewart would take over the family business after completing college.[6] Stewart was of Scottish and Ulster Scots ancestry and was raised as a Presbyterian.[7][8] His paternal great-great grandfather William Stewart, his wife Margaret and two children from County Antrim, Ireland settled in the United States.[9] He was descended from veterans of the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the American Civil War.[8] His mother was an excellent pianist, but his father discouraged Stewart's request for music lessons. When his father once accepted a gift of an accordion from a guest, Stewart quickly learned to play the instrument, which became a fixture offstage during his acting career. As the family grew, music continued to be an important part of family life.[5] At a young age, he was prescribed glasses after being diagnosed with astigmatism. However, after being called "Specks" by schoolchildren, he threw the glasses away and didn't wear them for many years.[10]

Stewart attended Mercersburg Academy prep school, graduating in 1928.[11] He was active in a variety of activities. He was a member of the track team (competing as a high jumper under coach Jimmy Curran),[12] was art editor of the KARUX yearbook, and a member of the choir club, glee club,[13] and John Marshall Literary Society.[14] Regrettably to Stewart, he was only a third-string member of the football team due to his slender and non-muscular physique.[14] During his first summer break, Stewart returned to his hometown to work as a brick loader for a local construction company and on highway and road construction jobs.[15] Over the following two summers, he took a job as an assistant with a professional magician.[16] He made his first appearance onstage at Mercersburg, as Buquet in the play The Wolves.[17]

A black and white torso shot of Stewart in a dark suit, sitting in front of a flower-print curtain
Photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1934

A shy child, Stewart spent much of his after-school time in the basement working on model airplanes, mechanical drawing, and chemistry--all with a dream of going into aviation.[18] It was a dream greatly enhanced by the legendary 1927 flight of Charles Lindbergh, whose progress 19-year-old Stewart, then stricken with scarlet fever, was avidly following from home, foreshadowing his starring movie role as Lindbergh 30 years later. The scarlet fever led to a kidney infection. He was unable to finish the school year, delaying his graduation.[19] However, he abandoned visions of being a pilot when his father insisted that instead of the United States Naval Academy he attend Princeton University.[20] Stewart enrolled at Princeton in 1928 as a member of the class of 1932.[21] He became one of the more notable members of the Princeton Charter Club.[22] He excelled at studying architecture, so impressing his professors with his thesis on an airport design that he was awarded a scholarship for graduate studies,[23][24] but he gradually became attracted to the school's drama and music clubs, including the Princeton Triangle Club.[25] His acting and accordion talents at Princeton led him to be invited to the University Players, an intercollegiate summer stock company in West Falmouth, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod.[26][27] The company had been organized in 1928 and would run until 1932, with Joshua Logan, Bretaigne Windust and Charles Leatherbee as directors.[28] Stewart performed in bit parts in the Players' productions in Cape Cod during the summer of 1932, after he graduated.[29] The University Players had previously included Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan.[30]


Theatre and early films, 1932–1941

When Stewart came to New York at the end of the summer stock season, which had included the Broadway tryout of Goodbye Again, he shared an apartment with Fonda, who had by then finalized his divorce from Sullavan.[31][32] Along with fellow University Player Myron McCormick, Stewart debuted on Broadway in the brief run of Carry Nation and a few weeks later - again with McCormick - as a chauffeur in the comedy Goodbye Again, in which he had a walk-on line.[33]The New Yorker commented, "Mr. James Stewart's chauffeur... comes on for three minutes and walks off to a round of spontaneous applause."[34] The play was a moderate success, but times were hard. Many Broadway theaters had been converted to movie houses and the Depression was reaching bottom. "From 1932 through 1934", Stewart later recalled, "I'd only worked three months. Every play I got into folded."[35] By 1934, he was given more substantial stage roles, including the modest hit Page Miss Glory[36] and his first dramatic stage role in Sidney Howard's Yellow Jack, which convinced him to continue his acting career.[37] In the fall of 1934, Fonda's success in The Farmer Takes a Wife took him to Hollywood.[38] Finally, Stewart attracted the interest of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) scout Bill Grady who saw Stewart on the opening night of Divided by Three, a glittering première with many luminaries in attendance, including Irving Berlin, Moss Hart and Fonda, who had returned to New York for the show. With Fonda's encouragement, Stewart agreed to take a screen test, after which he signed a contract with MGM in April 1935, as a contract player for up to seven years at $350 a week.[39]A Journey By Night would be Stewart's last Broadway performance for ten years. However, the New York Times likened Stewart's performance to, "wandering through...like a bewildered Austrian tourist just off the banks of the Danube."[40]

Black and white trailer screenshot of Stewart, shoulders-up in a suit
Stewart in After the Thin Man, 1936

Upon Stewart's arrival by train in Los Angeles, Fonda greeted him at the station and took him to Fonda's studio-supplied lodging, next door to Greta Garbo.[41] Stewart's first job at the studio was as a participant in screen tests with newly arrived starlets. At the beginning of his career, Stewart had trouble being cast in Hollywood films owing to his gangling looks and shy, humble screen presence.[42] His first on-screen performance was an unbilled appearance in a Shemp Howard comedy short called Art Trouble in 1934.[43] He did not have a credited film role until Spencer Tracy's vehicle The Murder Man (1935).[44]Rose Marie (1936), an adaptation of a popular operetta, was more successful and led to his Stewart's casting in eight films in 1936.[45][46] After having mixed success in films, he received his first intensely dramatic role in 1936's After the Thin Man,[47] and played Jean Harlow's character's frustrated boyfriend in the Clark Gable vehicle Wife vs. Secretary earlier that same year.[48] On the romantic front, he dated newly divorced Ginger Rogers.[49] The romance soon cooled, however, and by chance Stewart encountered Margaret Sullavan again.[50]

Stewart found his footing in Hollywood thanks largely to Sullavan, who campaigned for Stewart to be her leading man in the 1936 romantic comedy Next Time We Love. She rehearsed extensively with him, having a noticeable effect on his confidence. She encouraged Stewart to feel comfortable with his unique mannerisms and boyish charm and use them naturally as his own style.[51] The film led Stewart to be noticed by critics, particularly Time magazine, and MGM. Casting director Billy Grady reported that Sullavan had taught Stewart to be himself.[52] Stewart was enjoying Hollywood life and had no regrets about giving up the stage, as he worked six days a week in the MGM factory.[53] In 1936, he acquired big-time agent Leland Hayward, who would eventually marry Sullavan. Hayward started to chart Stewart's career, deciding that the best path for him was through loan-outs to other studios. One of these loan-outs was to RKO Pictures to film Vivacious Lady.[54][N 1] The film showed Stewart's talent for performing in romantic comedies.[55] James Stewart began a successful partnership with director Frank Capra in 1938, when he was loaned out to Columbia Pictures to star in You Can't Take It With You. Capra had been impressed by Stewart's minor role in Navy Blue and Gold (1937). The director had recently completed several well-received films, including It Happened One Night (1934), and was looking for the right actor to suit his needs--other recent actors in Capra's films such as Clark Gable did not fit. Not only was Stewart just what he was looking for, but Capra also found Stewart understood that archetype intuitively and required very little directing. Later Capra commented, "I think he's probably the best actor who's ever hit the screen."[56] In fact, according to film critic Andrew Sarris, while MGM was hesitant to cast Stewart in leading roles, Capra made Stewart a star.[57]

Stewart in a tuxedo sitting at a fancy restaurant table across from Jean Arthur

You Can't Take It With You, starring Capra's "favorite actress", comedian Jean Arthur, won the 1938 Best Picture Academy Award.[58][59] The following year saw Stewart work with Capra and Arthur again in the political comedy-drama Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Stewart replaced intended star Gary Cooper in the film, playing an idealist thrown into the political arena.[60] Upon its October 1939 release, the film garnered critical praise and became a box-office success.[61] Of his performance, The Nation said, "Jimmy Stewart as Jefferson Smith takes first place among Hollywood actors...Now he is mature and gives a difficult part, with many nuances, moments of tragic-comic impact."[62] Later, critic Andrew Sarris qualified Stewart's performance as "lean, gangling, idealistic to the point of being neurotic, thoughtful to the point of being tongue-tied", describing Stewart as "particularly gifted in expressing the emotional ambivalence of the action hero."[62] Stewart received his first nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor, becoming a major movie star.[63] Stewart's father was still trying to talk him into leaving Hollywood and its sinful ways and to return to his home town to lead a decent life.[64] Stewart took a secret trip to Europe to take a break and returned home in 1939 just as Germany invaded Poland.[65]Destry Rides Again, also released in 1939, becoming Stewart's first western film, a genre with which he would become identified later in his career.[66][67] In this western parody, he is a pacifist lawman and Marlene Dietrich is the dancing saloon girl who comes to love him but does not get him. Off-screen, Dietrich did get her man, but the romance was short-lived.[68]Made for Each Other (1939) had Stewart sharing the screen with Carole Lombard in a melodrama that garnered good reviews for both stars but did less well with the public.[69]Newsweek wrote that they were "perfectly cast in the leading roles".[70] However, Stewart was disappointed in the box-office performance of the film, blaming it on poor directing and screenwriting.[71] Between movies, Stewart began a radio career and became a distinctive voice on the Lux Radio Theater, The Screen Guild Theater and other shows. So well-known had his slow drawl become that comedians began impersonating him.[72] In 1940 Stewart and Sullavan reunited for two films. The first, the Ernst Lubitsch romantic comedy, The Shop Around the Corner, starred them as co-workers unknowingly involved in a pen-pal romance but who cannot stand each other in real life. It was Stewart's fifth film of the year and one of the rare ones shot in sequence; it was completed in only 27 days.[73]The Mortal Storm, directed by Frank Borzage, was one of the first blatantly anti-Nazi films to be produced in Hollywood and featured Sullavan and Stewart as friends and then lovers caught in turmoil upon Hitler's rise to power, literally hunted down by their own friends.[74][75]

Close up of Stewart with an intense facial expression carrying a smiling Hepburn
Stewart won his only Academy Award for Best Actor for 1940's The Philadelphia Story. He is seen here with co-star Katharine Hepburn.

Stewart also starred with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in George Cukor's classic The Philadelphia Story (1940).[76] The New York Herald Tribune said of Stewart's performance, "Stewart...contributes most of the comedy to the show...In addition, he contributes some of the most irresistible romantic moments."[77] His performance as an intrusive, fast-talking reporter earned him his only Academy Award in a competitive category (Best Actor, 1941); he beat out his good friend Henry Fonda (The Grapes of Wrath) and English actors Laurence Olivier and Charlie Chaplin.[76] Stewart had voted for Fonda, believing Fonda was more deserving of the award.[78] Stewart thought his own performance in The Philadelphia Story was "entertaining and slick and smooth" but lacking the "guts" of "Mr. Smith".[79] Stewart believed he won the award as payback for not winning the Oscar for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, considering his role in The Philadelphia Story was merely a supporting role behind Cary Grant.[80] Stewart gave the Oscar statuette to his father, who displayed it for many years in a case inside the front door of his hardware store, alongside other family awards and military medals.[81] During the months before he began military service, Stewart appeared in a series of screwball comedies with varying levels of success. He followed No Time for Comedy (1940) with Rosalind Russell,[82]Come Live with Me (1941) with Hedy Lamarr, the Judy Garland musical Ziegfeld Girl and the George Marshall romantic comedy Pot o' Gold, featuring Paulette Goddard.[83] On March 22, 1941, Stewart was drafted into the U.S. Armed Forces marking a turning point in Stewart's career, with 28 movies to his credit at that point.[84][85]

Military service, 1941–1945

Stewart in military uniform standing near a military plane talking to a crew member
Major James Stewart in 1943

James Stewart's family on both sides had deep military roots, as both grandfathers had fought in the Civil War,[8] and his father had served during both the Spanish-American War and World War I.[86] Members of his family had previously been in the infantry, but Stewart chose to become a flier.[87] An early interest in flying led Stewart to gain his private pilot certificate and commercial pilot license.[88] Nearly two years before the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Stewart had accumulated over 400 hours of flying time.[84] Considered a highly proficient pilot, he entered a cross-country race as a co-pilot with Leland Hayward in 1937.[89] Stewart, along with musician/composer Hoagy Carmichael, saw the need for trained war pilots and joined with other Hollywood celebrities to invest in Thunderbird Field, a pilot-training school built and operated by Southwest Airways in Glendale, Arizona.[90][91][N 2]

In late 1940, Stewart attempted to enlist in the United States Army but was rejected for failing to meet the weight requirements for his height for new recruits--Stewart was 10 pounds (4.5 kg) under the standard.[92] In order to gain weight, he sought out the help of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's muscle man and trainer Don Loomis, who was noted for his ability to help people gain or lose weight in his studio gymnasium.[93][94] Stewart subsequently attempted to enlist in the Air Corps, but still came in underweight, although he persuaded the enlistment officer to run new tests, this time passing the weigh-in,[95][N 3] with the result that Stewart enlisted and was inducted into the Army on March 22, 1941.[95] He became the first major American movie star to wear a military uniform in World War II, having been enlisted prior to the USA entering the conflict.[96] Stewart enlisted as a private[97] but applied for an Air Corps commission as both a college graduate and a licensed commercial pilot. Soon to be 33, he was beyond the maximum age restriction for Aviation Cadet training, the normal path of commissioning for pilots, navigators and bombardiers.[98] Stewart received his commission as a second lieutenant on January 1, 1942.[99]

Lieutenant James Stewart in Winning Your Wings, 1942

Public appearances by Stewart were limited engagements scheduled by the Army Air Forces.[98] Stewart appeared on network radio with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, he performed with Orson Welles, Edward G. Robinson, Walter Huston and Lionel Barrymore in the radio program We Hold These Truths.[100] In early 1942, Stewart was asked to appear in a film to help recruit the 100,000 airmen the USAAF anticipated it would need to win the war. The USAAF's First Motion Picture Unit shot scenes of Lieutenant Stewart in his pilot's flight jacket and recorded his voice for narration. The short recruitment film Winning Your Wings appeared in movie theaters nationwide beginning in late May and was very successful, resulting in 150,000 new recruits.[101][102]

Stewart was concerned that his celebrity status would relegate him to duties behind the lines.[103] His fears were confirmed when, after his promotion to first lieutenant on July 7, 1942,[104] he was stationed training pilots at Kirtland Army Airfield in Albuquerque, New Mexico.[105] He was promoted to captain on July 9, 1943, and appointed a squadron commander.[106] To Stewart, now 35, combat duty seemed far away and unreachable, and he had no clear plans for the future. However, a rumor that Stewart would be taken off flying status and assigned to making training films or selling bonds called for immediate action because what he dreaded most was "the hope-shattering spectre of a dead end".[107] Stewart appealed to his commander, 30-year-old Lt. Col. Walter E. Arnold Jr., who understood his situation and recommended Stewart to the commander of the 445th Bombardment Group, a B-24 Liberator unit heading to final training at Sioux City Army Air Base, Iowa.[108][N 4]

A military officer pinning an award to Stewart's decorated military jacket among other uniformed soldiers
Colonel Stewart receiving the Croix de Guerre with Palm, 1944

Following a mission to Ludwigshafen, Germany, on January 7, 1944, Stewart was promoted to major.[110][N 5] Stewart was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for actions as deputy commander of the 2nd Combat Bombardment Wing.[112] He was awarded the French Croix de Guerre with palm. He also earned the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters.[113] Stewart was promoted to full colonel on March 29, 1945,[114] becoming one of the few Americans to ever rise from private to colonel in only four years.[115] At the beginning of June 1945, Stewart was the presiding officer of the court martial of a pilot and navigator who accidentally bombed Zurich, Switzerland;[116][N 6] the first such American proceeding for friendly fire.[116]

Stewart returned to the United States aboard RMS Queen Elizabeth, arriving in New York City in early fall 1945.[117] Stewart continued to play a role in the Army Air Forces Reserve following World War II.[118] He was also one of the 12 founders and a charter member of the Air Force Association in October 1945.[119] Stewart rarely spoke about his wartime service,[120] but did appear in January 1974 in an episode of the TV series The World At War, "Whirlwind: Bombing Germany (September 1939 - April 1944)", commenting on the disastrous mission of October 14, 1943, against Schweinfurt, Germany. He was identified only as "James Stewart, Squadron Commander" in the documentary.[121][122]

Brigadier General James Stewart, circa 1968.

On July 23, 1959, Stewart was promoted to brigadier general, becoming the highest-ranking actor in military history.[123][124] During his active duty periods, he remained current as a pilot of Convair B-36 Peacemaker, Boeing B-47 Stratojet and Boeing B-52 Stratofortress intercontinental bombers of the Strategic Air Command.[125] On February 20, 1966, Brigadier General Stewart flew as a non-duty observer in a B-52 on an Arc Light bombing mission during the Vietnam War.[126] He did not like to talk about his military experiences, refusing to even discuss them with his children.[120] Stewart served for 27 years. He officially retired from the Air Force on May 31, 1968 when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 60 years old.[127] Stewart received a number of awards during his military service and upon his retirement was also awarded the United States Air Force Distinguished Service Medal.[128] On May 23, 1985, President Ronald Reagan awarded Stewart the Presidential Medal of Freedom and promoted him to Major General on the Retired List.[129]

Postwar career, 1946–1959

Travers stands behind a seated Stewart putting his hand on Stewart's shoulder
As George Bailey, with guardian angel Clarence Odbody, in It's a Wonderful Life, 1946. Stewart received an Oscar nomination for the performance, and the film is widely considered a Christmas classic.

After the war, James Stewart took time off to reassess his career.[130] He was an early investor in Southwest Airways, founded by Leland Hayward, and considered going into the aviation industry if his restarted film career did not prosper.[131] Upon Stewart's return to Hollywood in the fall of 1945, he decided not to renew his MGM contract. He signed with the MCA talent agency. His former agent Leland Hayward got out of the talent business in 1944 after selling his A-list of stars, including Stewart, to MCA.[132] For his first film in five years, Stewart appeared in his third and final Frank Capra production, It's a Wonderful Life (1946).[133][N 7] The role was Stewart's first since returning from service in World War II, during which he experienced what is now recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder.[134] Capra paid RKO for the rights to the story and formed his own production company, Liberty Films.[135] The female lead went to Donna Reed when Capra's perennial first choice, Jean Arthur, was unavailable, and after Ginger Rogers, Olivia de Havilland, Ann Dvorak, and Martha Scott had all turned down the role.[136][137] Stewart appeared as George Bailey, an upstanding small-town man who becomes increasingly frustrated by his ordinary existence and financial troubles. Driven to suicide on Christmas Eve, he is led to reassess his life by Clarence Odbody,[138] an "angel, second class" played by Henry Travers.[139]

Although It's a Wonderful Life was nominated for five Academy Awards,[140] including Stewart's third Best Actor nomination, it received mixed reviews and only disappointingly moderate success at the box office.[141] Several critics wrote that the movie was too gushy and sentimental; however, Bosley Crowther wrote that Stewart did a, "warmly appealing job, indicating that he has grown in spiritual stature as well as in talent during the years he was in the war."[142] Andrew Sarris claimed Stewart's performance was underappreciated by critics of the time who could not see "the force and fury" of it. Sarris considered Stewart's "proposal" scene with Mary, "one of the most sublimely histrionic expressions of passion..."[143] However, in the decades since the film's release, it grew to define Stewart's film persona and is widely considered as a sentimental Christmas film classic and,[144] according to the American Film Institute, one of the 100 best American movies ever made.[145] In an interview with Michael Parkinson in 1973, Stewart declared that out of all the movies he had made, It's a Wonderful Life was his favorite.[146] After viewing the film, President Harry S. Truman concluded, "If Bess and I had a son we'd want him to be just like Jimmy Stewart."[147] In the aftermath of the film, Capra's production company went into bankruptcy, while Stewart started to have doubts about his ability to act after his military hiatus.[148] Meanwhile, in Hollywood, his generation of actors was fading and a new wave of actors would soon remake the town, including Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and James Dean.[149]Magic Town (1947), a comedy film directed by William A. Wellman, starring James Stewart and Jane Wyman, was one of the first films about the then-new science of public opinion polling. It was poorly received.[150][151] He completed Call Northside 777 (1948),[152] and weathered a box-office disappointment with On Our Merry Way (1948),[153] a comedic musical ensemble in which Stewart and Henry Fonda were paired as two jazz musicians.[154] He also acted in You Gotta Stay Happy (1948),[155] which was a bigger box office success than It's a Wonderful Life.[156]

He returned to the stage to star in Mary Coyle Chase's Harvey, which had opened to nearly universal praise in November 1944,[157] as Elwood P. Dowd, a wealthy eccentric living with his sister and niece, and whose best friend is an invisible rabbit as large as a man. Dowd's eccentricity, especially the friendship with the rabbit, is ruining the niece's hopes of finding a husband. While trying to have Dowd committed to a sanatorium, his sister is committed herself.[158] Stewart took over the role from Frank Fay and gained an increased Broadway following in the unconventional play.[159] The play, which ran for nearly three years with Stewart as its star, was successfully adapted into a 1950 film, directed by Henry Koster, with Stewart reprising his role and Josephine Hull portraying his sister.[160]Bing Crosby was the first choice, but he declined.[161] Stewart received his fourth Best Actor nomination for his performance.[162] Stewart also played the role on Broadway in 1970,[163] which was shot on videotape for NBC as part of the Hallmark Hall of Fame series in 1972, and on the London stage in 1975.[164] The film received mixed reviews. John McCarten of the New Yorker stated that "though James Stewart...doesn't bring his part to the battered authority of Frank Fay...he nevertheless succeeds in making plausible the notion that Harvey, the rabbit, would accept him as a pal."[165] The film failed to make a profit, because the producer played a large amount for the screen rights. Stewart later admitted that he was dissatisfied with his performance, stating that "[he] played him a little too dreamily, a little too cute-cute"[165] Similar to It's a Wonderful Life, Harvey would achieve acclaim later, after frequent television showings.[166] Despite its poor box office performance, Stewart received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.[167] After Harvey, Stewart performed in the World War II film Malaya (1949) with Spencer Tracy. In the conventional but highly successful biographical film The Stratton Story in 1949, Stewart's first pairing with "on-screen wife" June Allyson, sent his career in another direction.[168] During the 1950s, he expanded into the Western and suspense genres, thanks to collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann.[169]

A closeup on Stewart wearing brown, Western-themed clothing and a cowboy hat
Stewart in The Naked Spur, 1953

In James Stewart's collaborations with director Anthony Mann, he entered the realm of the western.[170] Stewart's first appearance in a film directed by Mann came with the 1950 western Winchester '73. In choosing Mann (after first choice Fritz Lang declined), Stewart cemented a powerful partnership.[171] The film, which became a box-office hit upon its release, set the pattern for their future collaborations.[172] In it, Stewart is a tough, vengeful sharpshooter, the winner of a prized rifle which is stolen and then passes through many hands, until the showdown between Stewart and his brother (Stephen McNally).[173][174] Other Stewart-Mann westerns, such as Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954) and The Man from Laramie (1955),[175] were perennial favorites among young audiences entranced by the American West. Frequently, the films featured Stewart as a troubled cowboy seeking redemption, while facing corrupt cattlemen, ranchers and outlaws; a man who knows violence first hand and struggles to control it. The Stewart-Mann collaborations laid the foundation for many of the westerns of the 1950s and remain popular today for their grittier, more realistic depiction of the classic movie genre. Audiences saw Stewart's screen persona evolve into a more mature, more ambiguous, and edgier presence.[176] Other performances during this time included the Delmer Daves Western Broken Arrow, which featured Stewart as an ex-soldier and Indian agent making peace with the Apache.[177] Stewart took a small, supporting role as a troubled clown in Cecil B. DeMille's 1952 Academy Award-winning Best Picture The Greatest Show on Earth. Critics were curious why Stewart had taken such as small, out of character role; Stewart always responded that he was inspired by Lon Chaney's ability to completely disguise himself while letting his character emerge.[178] He also played as a railroad worker named Grant McLaine in the 1957 western film Night Passage[179] and Stewart's role as Charles Lindbergh in Billy Wilder's 1957 The Spirit of St. Louis.[180] He also starred in the Western radio show The Six Shooter for its one-season run from 1953 to 1954.[181][N 8]

Stewart and Mann also collaborated on other films outside the western genre. The Glenn Miller Story (1954) was critically acclaimed,[184] garnering Stewart a BAFTA Award nomination,[185] and (together with The Spirit of St. Louis) continued Stewart's portrayals of 'American heroes'.[186]Thunder Bay, released the same year, transplanted the plot arc of their western collaborations to a more contemporary setting, with Stewart as a Louisiana oil driller facing hostile fishermen.[187]Strategic Air Command, released in 1955, allowed Stewart to use his experiences in the United States Air Force on film.[188] Admittedly a "propaganda" film, Stewart believed it was important to use the film to show audiences that extensive military spending on weapons delivery systems was necessary.[189] Despite criticism for the dry, mechanistic storyline, it was commercially successful and became the sixth highest-grossing film of 1955.[190] In 1957, Stewart was cast in Bell, Book and Candle (1958) with Kim Novak. However, he felt that he was miscast, as he did not believe that he could serve as a believable love interest for Novak.[191] He was fifty years old at the time and silver-haired (he began wearing a silver hairpiece in his movies by the 1950s)."[192] Stewart's starring role in Winchester '73 was also a turning point in Hollywood. Universal Studios, who wanted Stewart to appear in both that film and Harvey, balked at his $200,000 asking price. His agent, Lew Wasserman, brokered an alternate deal, in which Stewart would appear in both films for no pay, in exchange for a percentage of the profits as well as cast and director approval.[193] Stewart ended up earning about $600,000 for Winchester '73 alone.[193][N 9]

A trailer screenshot of Stewart sitting in a wheelchair with a morose facial expression
Rear Window (1954) was one of four films Stewart made with Alfred Hitchcock. Stewart became the highest-grossing star of 1954 as a result.

The second collaboration to define Stewart's career in the 1950s was with director Alfred Hitchcock. Like Mann, Hitchcock uncovered new depths to Stewart's acting, showing a protagonist confronting his fears and his repressed desires.[195] Stewart's first movie with Hitchcock was the technologically innovative 1948 film Rope, shot in long "real-time" takes.[196] The complicated filming process put a lot of pressure on Stewart to shoot flawless takes. Stewart reportedly slept little and drank more heavily than usual.[197] The film received mixed reviews, including a scathing review from Andrew Sarris who believed Stewart was grossly miscast in the role.[198] Writer Scott Eyman echoed that Stewart was miscast as a Nietzche loving philosophy professor.[199] Moreover, Arthur Laurents, the scriptwriter, related that "the casting of [Stewart] was absolutely destructive. He's not sexual as an actor".[200] Stewart and Hitchcock collaborated for the second of four times on the 1954 hit Rear Window, widely considered one of Hitchcock's masterpieces. Stewart portrays photographer L.B. "Jeff" Jeffries, loosely based on Life photographer Robert Capa,[201][202] who projects his fantasies and fears onto the people he observes out his apartment window while on hiatus due to a broken leg. Jeffries gets into more than he can handle, however, when he believes he has witnessed a salesman (Raymond Burr) hiding evidence of a murder, and his glamorous girlfriend (Grace Kelly), at first disdainful of his voyeurism and skeptical about any crime, eventually is drawn in and tries to help solve the mystery.[203] Limited by his wheelchair, Stewart is led by Hitchcock to react to what his character sees with mostly facial responses.[204] It was a landmark year for Stewart becoming the most popular Hollywood star in the world, displacing John Wayne.[205] Hitchcock and Stewart formed a corporation, Patron Inc., to produce the film, which later became the subject of a Supreme Court case Stewart v. Abend (1990).[206] Most of the initial acclaim for Rear Window would be directed towards Hitchcock;[207] however, later, critic Vincent Canby would describe Stewart's performance in Rear Window as "grand" and that "[his] longtime star status in Hollywood has always obscured recognition of his talent."[208] Additionally, writer and critic Gary Fishgall called Stewart's performance "well-modulated".[207]

Stewart holds Novak in front of the blustering ocean
With Kim Novak in Vertigo, 1958

After starring in Hitchcock's remake of the director's earlier production, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), with Doris Day, Stewart starred, with Kim Novak, in what many consider Hitchcock's most personal film, Vertigo (1958).[209][210] The movie starred Stewart as John "Scottie" Ferguson, a former police investigator suffering from acrophobia, who develops an obsession with a woman he is shadowing. Scottie's obsession inevitably leads to the destruction of everything he once had and believed in.[211] Though the film is widely considered a classic today, Vertigo met with very mixed reviews and poor box-office receipts upon its release, and marked the last collaboration between Stewart and Hitchcock.[212][213] The director reportedly blamed the film's failure on Stewart looking too old to be Kim Novak's love interest, and cast Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest (1959), a role Stewart had very much wanted. (Grant was actually four years older than Stewart but photographed much younger.)[214] However, several critics complimented Stewart for his "sensitive" performance.[215] Bosley Crowther noted that "Mr. Stewart, as usual, manages to act awfully tense in a casual way".[216] In 2012 Vertigo was ranked highest in the Sight & Sound critics poll for the greatest films ever made, controversially taking the title from long-standing favorite Citizen Kane.[217]

Later career, 1960–1978

A Black and white closeup image of Stewart with an intense facial expression
Anatomy of a Murder, 1959

In 1960, James Stewart received his fifth and final Academy Award for Best Actor nomination, for his role in the 1959 Otto Preminger film Anatomy of a Murder. This courtroom drama stars Stewart as Paul Biegler, the lawyer of a hot-tempered soldier (played by Ben Gazzara) who claims temporary insanity after murdering a tavern owner who raped his wife.[218] The film was considered quite explicit for its time but was a box-office success.[219] Stewart's nomination was one of seven for the film, and saw his transition into the final decades of his career. For the film, Stewart was awarded the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor.[220] Stewart received critical acclaim for the performance with Bosley Crowther calling it "one of the finest performances of his career."[221] Stewart transitioned into more family-related films in the 1960s when he signed a multi-movie deal with 20th Century Fox.[222] These included the successful Henry Koster outing Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962), and the less memorable films Take Her, She's Mine (1963) and Dear Brigitte (1965), which featured French model Brigitte Bardot as the object of Stewart's son's infatuation.[223] Stewart starred in the Civil War period film Shenandoah (1965), with strong antiwar and humanitarian themes, the film was a box office success.[224][225][226] Another successful film, Stewart starred in the western family film The Rare Breed (1966).[227] Stewart was one of the actors considered for To Kill a Mockingbird, but he turned down the role, concerned that the film contents were too controversial.[228]

A yellow film poster featuring images of Stewart holding a gun and Wayne in a cowboy hat
Alongside John Wayne in the film poster for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962

In the early 1960s, Stewart took leading roles in three John Ford films, his first work with the director. The first, Two Rode Together, paired him with Richard Widmark in a Western with thematic echoes of Ford's The Searchers.[229] The next, 1962's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Stewart's first picture with John Wayne,[230] is a classic "psychological" western,[231] shot in black and white film noir style featuring powerful use of shadows in the climactic sequence,[232] with Stewart as an Eastern attorney who goes against his non-violent principles when he is forced to confront a psychopathic outlaw (played by Lee Marvin) in a small frontier town. At story's end, Stewart's character -- now a rising political figure -- faces a difficult ethical choice as he attempts to reconcile his actions with his personal integrity.[233] The film's billing is unusual in that Stewart was given top billing over Wayne in the trailers and on the posters but Wayne was listed above Stewart in the film itself.[234] The complex picture garnered mixed reviews but it became a critical favorite over the ensuing decades.[235]How the West Was Won (which Ford co-directed, though without directing Stewart's scenes) was a western epic released in 1962.[236] One of only a handful of movies filmed in true Cinerama, shot with three cameras and exhibited with three simultaneous projectors in theatres,[237]How the West Was Won went on to win three Oscars and reap massive box-office figures.[238][239]Cheyenne Autumn in which a white-suited Stewart played Wyatt Earp in a long semi-comedic sequence in the middle of the movie, was released in 1964,[236][240] failed domestically and was quickly forgotten. The historical drama was Ford's final Western and Stewart's last feature film with Ford. Stewart's entertainingly memorable middle sequence is not directly connected with the rest of the film and was often excised from the lengthy film in later theatrical exhibition prints and some television broadcasts.[241][242][243][244]

As an aviator, Stewart was particularly interested in aviation films and had pushed to appear in several in the 1950s, including No Highway in the Sky (1951),[245] and Strategic Air Command (1955)[188] and The Spirit of St. Louis (1957).[246] He continued in this vein in the 1960s, in a role as a hard-bitten pilot in The Flight of the Phoenix (1965). Subbing for Stewart, famed stunt pilot and air racer Paul Mantz was killed when he crashed the "Tallmantz Phoenix P-1", the specially made, single-engined movie airplane, in an abortive "touch-and-go".[247][248] Stewart also narrated the film X-15 in 1961.[249] In 1964, he and several other military aviators, including Curtis LeMay, Paul Tibbets, Bruce Sundlun and Arthur Godfrey, became the founding directors on the board of Executive Jet Aviation Corporation.[250]

A sepia-toned headshot of a silver-haired Stewart in a suit
In 1973 TV series Hawkins

After a progression of lesser western films in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Stewart transitioned from cinema to television.[251] In the 1950s he had made guest appearances on the Jack Benny Program.[252] Stewart first starred in the NBC comedy The Jimmy Stewart Show, on which he played a college professor. It was poorly received and Stewart was secretly upset that his wife Gloria was not granted the role of his wife on the show. He disliked the immense amount of work needed to film the show each week; it seemed to him that he was filming one short film per week. He was relieved when it was canceled after one season.[253] He followed it with a short-lived CBS mystery Hawkins, in which he played a small-town lawyer investigating cases, similar to his character in Anatomy of a Murder. The series garnered Stewart a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Dramatic TV Series.[254][N 10] During this time, Stewart periodically appeared on Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show, sharing poems he had written at different times in his life.[256] His poems were later compiled into a short collection, Jimmy Stewart and His Poems (1989).[257][258] After Stewart participated in the Broadway revival of Harvey in 1970, he announced his "semi-retirement" from acting in 1971.[259]

Stewart returned to films after an absence of five years with a major supporting role in John Wayne's final film, The Shootist (1976) where Stewart played a doctor giving Wayne's gunfighter a terminal cancer diagnosis.[260] At one point, both Wayne and Stewart were flubbing their lines repeatedly and Wayne told Don Siegel, "if you want the scene done better, you'd better get yourself a couple of better actors." Later, Wayne commented privately that Stewart knew the lines, but could not hear his cues due to a hearing impairment.[261] For some time, Stewart's vanity would not allow him to wear a hearing aid despite the fact that he needed one.[262] Stewart also appeared in supporting roles in Airport '77,[263] the 1978 remake of The Big Sleep starring Robert Mitchum as Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe,[264] and The Magic of Lassie (1978).[265] Despite mixed critical reviews, Airport '77 was a box office success.[263][266]The Big Sleep received poor reviews. Harry Haun of New York Daily News wrote it was "really sad to see James Stewart struggle so earnestly with materal that just isn't there."[267]The Magic of Lassie flopped at the box office.[268] Stewart was offered the role of Howard Beale in the 1976 film Network, but refused the role due to its explicit language.[228]

Final projects, 1980–1991

Following the failure of The Magic of Lassie, James Stewart retired from acting.[268] However, he still starred in some minor projects. In the 1980s and '90s, he did voiceover work for commercials for Campbell's Soups.[269] Stewart was offered the role of Norman Thayer in On Golden Pond, but turned it down because he did not like the relationship between Norman and his daughter. Fonda assumed the role instead and won the Academy Award for Best Actor; Stewart was reportedly nothing but happy for him.[228] He filmed several television movies in the 1980s, including Right of Way with Bette Davis[270] and Mr. Krueger's Christmas, which allowed him to fulfill a lifelong dream to conduct the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.[271] Reception of the program was mixed. John Corry from the New York Times wrote that it was nothing better than a home movie and called it a "sentimental curio". Frank Torrez from the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner on the other hand said it was a "fine opportunity to watch [Stewart's] artistry."[272]

Stewart made frequent visits to the Reagan White House and traveled on the lecture circuit.[273] The re-release of his Hitchcock films gained Stewart renewed recognition.[274]Rear Window and Vertigo were particularly praised by film critics, which helped bring these pictures to the attention of younger movie-goers.[275] Stewart was presented with an Academy Honorary Award by Cary Grant in 1985, "for his 50 years of memorable performances, for his high ideals both on and off the screen, with respect and affection of his colleagues".[147] Shortly before his 80th birthday, he was asked how he wanted to be remembered. "As someone who 'believed in hard work and love of country, love of family and love of community.'"[147] In 1991, James Stewart voiced the character of Sheriff Wylie Burp in the movie An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, which was his last film role.[276]

Personal life

Stewart in a suit and McLean in a wedding dress walking out of a church with wedding attendants in suits behind them
Stewart and Gloria H. McLean walking out of Brentwood Presbyterian Church after their wedding ceremony, 1949

Marriage and family

Stewart's first interaction with his future wife, Gloria Hatrick McLean, was at Keenan Wynn's Christmas party in 1941. He had crashed the party and became inebriated, leaving a poor impression of himself with Hatrick. A year later, Gary Cooper and his wife Veronica invited Hatrick and Stewart to a dinner party, hoping that Hatrick would end Stewart's bachelor life. Having conversed, Hatrick and Stewart realized they had a lot in common and began dating.[277] A former model, Hatrick was divorced with two children.[278] As Stewart loved to recount in self-mockery, "I, I, I pitched the big question to her last night and to my surprise she, she, she said yes!"[279] Stewart and Hatrick were married at Brentwood Presbyterian Church on August 9, 1949.[280] The couple remained married until her death from lung cancer on February 16, 1994, at the age of 75.[281] Stewart and his wife owned a home in Beverly Hills from 1951 until his death in 1997.[282][283] They briefly owned the Winecup Gamble Ranch in Nevada from 1953 to 1957.[284]

Stewart adopted Gloria's two sons, Michael and Ronald, and with Gloria, he had twin daughters, Judy and Kelly, on May 7, 1951.[285][286] Despite being a prominent Hollywood actor, Stewart discovered balance in life that allowed him to keep his job separate from his home life. Consequently, Stewart was a strict disciplinarian and an involved parent.[287] He was patient, fun-loving, and strived to treat his children and stepchildren as equals.[288] The Stewarts liked to take time to go out with their children to sporting events, theme parks, and picnics.[289] Both Stewart and his wife loved animals, always having dogs around the house. A notably unique pet in the household during his daughter's teenage years was a galago named Davey, bought while on a trip to Africa.[290] Ronald was killed in action in Vietnam on June 8, 1969, at the age of 24, while serving as a lieutenant in the Marine Corps.[291][292] Daughter Kelly Stewart is an evolutionary anthropologist.[293]

Romantic relationships

Stewart and Sullavan sitting close and looking into each other's eyes
Margaret Sullavan and Stewart in The Shopworn Angel, 1938.

Having married in his forties, Stewart had a series of relationships with leading actresses prior to his marriage. He was called by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper the "Great American Bachelor".[294] After being introduced to Ginger Rogers by Fonda, they had a brief romantic relationship in 1935.[49] While filming Destry Rides Again, Stewart had a romantic relationship with his co-star Marlene Dietrich, who was married at the time; however, biographer, Marc Eliot stated that Stewart did not mind that she was married because he would not have to worry about marriage himself.[295] The relationship had resulted in a pregnancy, but due to their affair it was kept secret and quickly terminated.[296] Their relationship ended after filming because Stewart was worried she was becoming obsessive. Hurt by Stewart's rejection, she barely mentioned him in her memoir and waved him off as a one-time affair.[295] Stewart dated Olivia de Havilland in the late 1930s and early 1940s and even proposed marriage to her, but de Havilland rejected his proposal because she believed he was not ready to settle down.[297] She ended the relationship shortly before he began his military service because she fell in love with director John Huston.[298] In 1942, while serving in the military, Stewart met singer Dinah Shore at the Hollywood Canteen, a club mainly for servicemen. They began a romantic relationship and Shore regularly met him at his base so they could spend nights in hotels together. They were nearly married in Las Vegas, but Stewart called off the marriage before they arrived, citing cold feet.[299]

While filming The Stratton Story, Stewart began a relationship with Myrna Dell. Though gossip columnists made claims that they were planning to marry, Dell stated that was not true, because he was still in love with Margaret Sullavan.[300] Stewart had met Sullavan while they were both performing for the University Players; he was smitten with her and invited her on a date.[301] She was his acting mentor in Hollywood and according to director Edward H. Griffith, Sullavan "made [him] a star".[302] They co-starred in four films together, and she was briefly married to Stewart's best friend Henry Fonda.[303] He was in love with her, but they never began a romantic relationship.[304] On January 1, 1960, Stewart received news of Sullavan's death.[305] As a friend, mentor, and focus of his early romantic feelings, she had a unique influence on Stewart's life.[306]

Friendships, interests, and character

Stewart's fifty-year friendship with Henry Fonda began in Manhanttan when Fonda invited Stewart to be his third roommate in order to make rent.[307] Stewart and Fonda became close friends over the summer of 1932 as they shared an apartment with Joshua Logan and Myron McCormick.[30] When Fonda moved to Hollywood in 1934, he was again a roommate with James Stewart in an apartment in Brentwood,[308] and the two gained reputations as playboys.[309] Over their careers, they starred in four films together: On Our Merry Way (1948), How the West Was Won, Firecreek (1968), and The Cheyenne Social Club (1970).[310][311][N 11] Both men's children later noted that their favorite activity when not working seemed to be quietly sharing time together while building and painting model airplanes, a hobby they had taken up in New York years earlier.[313] Besides building model airplanes, Stewart and Fonda also liked to build and fly kites, play golf, and reminisce about the "old days".[314] Fonda died in 1982.[315] Their fifty-year friendship was chronicled in Scott Eyman's 2017 biography, "Hank and Jim".[316] On April 17, 1961, longtime friend Gary Cooper was too ill to attend the 33rd Academy Awards ceremony, so Stewart accepted the honorary Oscar on his behalf.[317][318][N 12]

In addition to Stewart's lucrative film career, he had diversified investments including real estate, oil wells, a charter-plane company and membership on major corporate boards, and he became a multimillionaire.[147] Stewart was active in philanthropy over the years. His signature charity event, "The Jimmy Stewart Relay Marathon Race", held each year since 1982, has raised millions of dollars for the Child and Family Development Center at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California.[321][322] He was a lifelong supporter of Scouting, having been a Second Class Scout when he was a youth, an adult Scout leader, and a recipient of the prestigious Silver Buffalo Award from the Boy Scouts of America (BSA).[323][N 13] An award for Boy Scouts, "The James M. Stewart Good Citizenship Award" has been presented since May 17, 2003.[324]

Stewart was a Life Member of the Sons of the Revolution in the State of California.[325] One of Stewart's lesser-known talents was his homespun poetry. Once, while on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, he read a poem entitled "Beau" that he had written about his dog. By the end of this reading, Carson's eyes were welling with tears.[326] This was later parodied on a late 1980s episode of the NBC sketch show Saturday Night Live, with Dana Carvey as Stewart reciting the poem on Weekend Update and bringing anchor Dennis Miller to tears. Stewart was also an avid gardener. He purchased the house next door to his Beverly Hills home, had it razed, and installed his garden on the lot.[327] From a young age, Stewart had a passion for aviation, earning a private pilot's license and later flying in the military.[328] He lived a modest lifestyle, preferring to drive moderately priced cars rather than expensive cars.[329]

Stewart preferred to lead a private life. He was known as a loner who did not have intimate relationships with very many people. Director John Ford said of Stewart, "You don't get to know Jimmy Stewart, Jimmy Stewart gets to know you."[330] Biographer Scott Eyman explained that Stewart was self-contained and tended to avoid the emotional connection in interviews that he was known for in his films. However, Stewart did not intend to keep secrets from the public, but rather preferred to keep his thoughts and feelings to himself.[331] Stewart was almost universally described by his collaborators as a kind, soft-spoken man and a true professional.[332]Joan Crawford praised the actor as an "endearing perfectionist" with "a droll sense of humor and a shy way of watching you to see if you react to that humor".[147]

Political views

An elderly Stewart standing in a tuxedo on a stage, holding a microphone
Speaking at The Kennedy Center on Inauguration Day, 1981, in Washington D.C.

James Stewart was a staunch Republican[333] and actively campaigned for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.[334] He aggressively contended for the ultra right-wing presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964. Campaigning in between filming, whenever he had extra time, biographer Marc Eliot said Stewart erred on the obsessive prior to the election.[335] He was a hawk on the Vietnam War, and maintained that his son, Ronald, did not die in vain.[336] Stewart actively supported Reagan's bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976.[337] He attended Reagan's campaign rallies, in one speech, assuring that he was more conservative than ever, regardless of the death of his son in the war.[338] However, following the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, Stewart, Charlton Heston, Kirk Douglas and Gregory Peck issued a statement calling for support of President Lyndon Johnson's Gun Control Act of 1968.[339][340]

In 1988, Stewart made an impassioned plea in Congressional hearings, along with, among many others, Burt Lancaster, Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, and film director Martin Scorsese, against Ted Turner's decision to 'colorize' classic black and white films, including It's a Wonderful Life. Stewart stated, "the coloring of black-and-white films is wrong. It's morally and artistically wrong and these profiteers should leave our film industry alone".[341] In 1989, Stewart founded the American Spirit Foundation to apply entertainment industry resources to developing innovative approaches to public education and to assist the emerging democracy movements in the former Iron Curtain countries.[342]

Stewart supported the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and its investigation of the motion picture industry's communist ties. When director Frank Capra was investigated by the committee, Stewart refused to publicly defend him, because he did not want to get involved. This caused a rift with Stewart's staunchly liberal best friend and fellow actor Henry Fonda as Fonda worked with other actors to expose the unfair tactics of HUAC.[343] Having different ideologies, a political argument in 1947 resulted in a fistfight, according to some accounts, but they maintained their friendship by never discussing politics again.[344] The fistfight may be apocryphal as Jhan Robbins quotes Stewart as saying, "Our views never interfered with our feelings for each other. We just didn't talk about certain things. I can't remember ever having an argument with him--ever!"[344] The subject of politics caused heated battles in Stewart's family.[345] Stewart loathed draft-dodgers, deeming them cowards.[346] During the Vietnam war, Stewart's stepson Michael, a conscientious objector, actively protested the war; Stewart's daughter Kelly echoed these opinions. Dinner-table conversations sometimes erupted with yelling and shouting.[345] In the last years of his life, he donated to the campaign of Bob Dole for the 1996 presidential election and to Democratic Florida governor Bob Graham in his successful run for the Senate.[333]


Raised in the Presbyterian church by his deeply religious father, Stewart was a devout Presbyterian and regularly attended church much of his life.[347] He attended religiously affiliated Mercenberg Academy in his youth.[348] During Stewart's military service, he stated that he relied on prayer to prevent him from making mistakes while flying and found peace in attending a Protestant church despite his church inactivity in his Hollywood years that he attributed to "laziness".[349] On these lines, Stewart received disapproval from his father for his lack of religious fervor during his bachelor life.[350] Despite Gloria's lack of religious interest, Stewart and Gloria were married in his Presbyterian church in 1949.[351] According to Stewart, one of his most important honors in life was his election to eldership in the Presbyterian church.[352]

At Stewart's stepson Ronald's funeral, there was a miscommunication with the organist about the starting time and the funeral was conducted without music. Stewart was furious and attended a different church congregation for several months to voice his displeasure.[353] After the incident, Stewart's wife Gloria refused to attend church services for the rest of her life. Stewart stated that his biggest failure in life was his inability to get his family to attend church.[354]

Final years and death

A flat, bronze grave marker surrounded by grass and decorated with flowers and small American flags
James Stewart's grave

Stewart's wife Gloria was diagnosed with lung cancer in fall 1993. She died on February 16, 1994.[281] Stewart biographer Donald Dewey said that Gloria's death left Stewart depressed and "lost at sea".[355] After her death, Stewart became even more reclusive, spending most of his time in his bedroom, exiting only to eat and visit with his children. Stewart shut out most people from his life, not only media and fans but also his co-stars and friends.[356] However, Stewart's friends Leonard Gershe and Gregory Peck said that Stewart was not depressed or unhappy but finally allowed to rest and be alone.[357]

James Stewart was hospitalized after falling in December 1995.[358] In December 1996, he was due to have the battery in his pacemaker changed but opted not to, preferring to let things happen naturally. In February 1997, he was hospitalized for an irregular heartbeat.[359] On June 25, a thrombosis formed in his right leg, leading to a pulmonary embolism one week later. Surrounded by his children on July 2, 1997, Stewart died of a heart attack at the age of 89[360] at his home in Beverly Hills, California, with his final words to his family being, "I'm going to be with Gloria now."[361] President Bill Clinton commented that America had lost a "national treasure ... a great actor, a gentleman and a patriot".[147] Stewart was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.[362] Over 3,000 mourners attended Stewart's memorial service including June Allyson, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, Lew Wasserman, Nancy Reagan, Esther Williams, and Robert Stack, Stewart's friends and co-stars. The service included full military honors and three volleys of musketry.[363]

Acting style and screen persona

"He had the ability to talk naturally. He knew that in conversations people do often interrupt one another and it's not always so easy to get a thought out. It took a little time for the sound men to get used to him, but he had an enormous impact. And then, some years later, Marlon came out and did the same thing all over again--but what people forget is that Jimmy did it first.[364]

-- Cary Grant on Stewart's acting technique.

According to reports in Scott Eyman's biography "Hank and Jim", Stewart was an instinctive actor. He was natural and at ease in front of the camera, despite the fact that he was shy off-screen.[365] In line with his natural and conversational acting style, Stewart's costars found him easy to work with as Stewart was willing to improvise around any situation that arose while filming.[366] However, later in Stewart's career, he began to resent his reputation of "natural" acting technique. He asserted that there wasn't anything natural about standing on a sound stage in front of lights and cameras while acting out a scene alone.[367] Stewart was also known for his pauses that had the ability to hold the audience's attention. Film critic Geoffrey O'Brien related that Stewart's "stammering pauses" created anxious space for the audience, leaving them in anticipation for the scene which Stewart took his time leading up to.[368] Additionally, he tended to act with his body, not only with his voice and face as exemplified by Harvey where Stewart portrays the main character's age and loneliness by slighting hunching down.[369] Stewart was particularly adept at performing vulnerable scenes with women. Jack Lemmon suggested that Stewart's talent for performing with women was that he was able to allow the audience to see the women through his eyes, seeing his respect and gentility. He showed that his characters needed them as much as their characters needed him.[370]Screen Rant described Stewart as the 20th-century's greatest everyman, an actor adept at portraying ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances that audiences can easily identify with. He portrayed this persona most strongly in the 1940s but represented a classic everyman throughout his career.[371][372][373]

Unlike many actors who developed their on-screen persona over time, Stewart's on-screen persona was recognizable as early as Art Trouble, Stewart's uncredited, first film role, where Stewart was relaxed and comfortable on-screen.[374] Stewart had established early in his career that he was proficient at communicating personality and character nuances from his performances alone.[52] Eyman described that Stewart could portray several different characters: "the brother, the sweetheart, [and] the nice guy next door with a bias toward doing the right thing, always decent but never a pushover".[375] In Stewart's early career, Louella Parsons described that Stewart's "boyish appeal" and "ability to win audience sympathy" the reason for his success as an actor; Stewart's performances appealed to young and old audiences.[376] However, Stewart himself claimed to dislike his earlier film performances, claiming he was "all hands and feet", yet added that he "didn't seem to know what to do with either".[377] Stewart added that even though he didn't always like his performances, he would not get discouraged. He said, "But I always tried, and if the script wasn't too good, well, then, I just tried a little bit harder. I hope, though, not so hard that it shows."[378] Stewart's co-star Kim Novak stated of Stewart's acting style that for emotional scenes, Stewart would access emotions deep inside of him and would take time to wind down after the scene ended. He could not turn it off immediately after the director yelled cut.[379]

Stewart was well known for his powerful emotional performances that could captivate audiences; however, Stewart had a tendency to handle some of his performances too clumsily or informally.[380] Stewart handled his roles tenderly, letting his personality shine through. The scene in The Shop Around the Corner in which Novak reads a letter out loud from her mystery correspondent and Kralik realized he wrote the letter was called by Andrew Sarris, "one of the most memorable occurrences in the history of cinema".[381] Stewart used an "inside-out" acting technique, preferring to represent the character through personality rather than through accents, makeup, and props.[382] Stewart was a versatile and adaptive actor, but frequently played "the Good American", a good man in a difficult situation. Stewart's acting style has been compared to that of Gary Cooper and Tom Hanks.[382] During his postwar career, Stewart avoided appearing in comedies, Harvey being the exception. He played many different types of characters, including manipulative, cynical, obsessive, or crazy characters.[383] Stewart found that acting allowed him to express the fear and anxiety that he could not express during the war; his post-war performances were received well by audiences because they could still see the innocent, pre-war Stewart underneath his dark roles.[384] Due to his strong morals, Stewart became known as the ideal Midwestern American and often played characters which reflected this ideal. However, Stewart played more flawed characters in his later career, most notably in his Hitchcock films.[385] According to Andrew Sarris, Stewart was, "the most complete actor-personality in the American cinema."[386]


A pink star on the sidewalk with "James Stewart" written in gold
Stewart's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

Stewart's film career spanned over 55 years, from 1935 to 1991.[387] During that time, he appeared in 80 films.[387] He was a major movie star from the beginning of the sound film era to the end of the golden age of Classical Hollywood.[147][388] His natural and seemingly effortless acting style appealed to audiences.[389] He cultivated a versatile career and recognized screen image in such classics as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Mortal Storm, The Philadelphia Story, The Shop Around the Corner, It's a Wonderful Life, Rope, Harvey, The Glenn Miller Story, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Shenandoah.[390][391][392] According to Quigley's annual poll, Stewart was one of the top money-making stars for ten years, appearing in the top ten in 1950, 1952-1959, and 1965. He topped the list in 1955.[393]

He is the most represented leading actor on the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time list presented by Entertainment Weekly.[394] As of 2019, twelve of his films have been inducted into the United States National Film Registry.[395] In 1972, he was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.[396] Two of his characters--George Bailey and Jefferson Smith--made AFI's list of the one hundred greatest heroes and villains, both of them heroes.[397] In 1999, the American Film Institute (AFI) ranked Stewart third on its list of the greatest American male actors.[398] He worked for many renowned directors during his career, among them Frank Capra, George Cukor, Henry Hathaway,[399] Cecil B. DeMille,[400] Ernst Lubitsch, Frank Borzage, George Stevens, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Billy Wilder,[401] Don Siegel,[402] and Anthony Mann.[390][403]

Stewart's legacy extends to the United States military, where he interrupted his successful film career to serve in the United States Army at a time when many actors in Hollywood were actively trying to avoid service.[95] He was the first major movie star to serve in World War II,[96] and influenced over one hundred thousand people to enlist in the military.[101] In 1985 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.[404] A number of Stewart's film have become classics of American cinema, with five of his pictures (It's a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Rear Window, The Philadelphia Story, and Vertigo) featured on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 Greatest American Films of all time. Stewart and Robert DeNiro share the title for the most films represented on the list.[405][406]Harvey and The Philadelphia Story were included in the AFI's list of the Greatest American Comedies.[407] His hesitant drawl was one of his most distinctive qualities and remains instantly recognizable.[408][147][About this soundSample, from The Man from Laramie trailer (1955) ] According to biographer Marc Eliot, Stewart's legacy is the "image of the American idealist" preserved in his film performances. After Stewart's death, Charlton Heston observed, "He was the quintessential American face...He was a role model and inspiration."[409]

Stewart has also impacted popular culture. In the 2001 song, "Here's Lookin' at You" by hardcore punk band Every Time I Die, Stewart is referenced in the line "Jimmy Stewart suicidal sex appeal", referenced along with several other movie stars of the Golden era of Hollywood.[410] Additionally, the making of the film Anatomy of a Murder is the subject of the song, "Marquette County, 1959", by Great Lakes Myth Society.[411] The lyrics read: "Jimmy Stewart came to Marquette County in 1959/ And he was shot for two months there/ And all the pines wept stardust for a while/ And the Duke would play his soundtrack there/ As Preminger had cast him in the film/ His character was Pie-Eye".[412] Moreover, scenes from It's a Wonderful Life have been parodied by televisions shows such as South Park, The Simpsons, and Saturday Night Live.[413]


On May 20, 1995, his 87th birthday, The Jimmy Stewart Museum was established in his hometown of Indiana, Pennsylvania.[414] The museum is located near his place of birth, the home in which he grew up, and the former location of his father's hardware store.[415] The museum houses movie posters and photos, awards, personal artifacts, a gift shop and an intimate 1930s-era theatre in which his films are regularly shown.[416] A large statue of Stewart stands on the lawn of the Indiana County Courthouse and a plaque marks his birthplace.[417] Additionally, the Indiana County-Jimmy Stewart Airport was named in his honor.[418]

On February 8, 1960 Stewart was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1700 Vine Street for his contribution to the film industry.[419][420] In 1997, Princeton University, Stewart's alma mater, honored Stewart with the dedication of the James M. Stewart Theater along with a retrospective of Stewart's work.[421] Stewart has also been honored with his own postal stamp as part of the "Legends of Hollywood" stamp series.[422] In 1999, a bust of Stewart was unveiled at the Eighth Air Force Heritage Museum in Georgia.[423] The library at Brigham Young University houses his personal papers and movie memorabilia including letters, scrapbooks, recordings of early radio programs, and his accordion.[424][425][426]

Awards and nominations

James Stewart was the recipient of many official accolades throughout his life, receiving film industry awards; military and civilian medals; honorary degrees; and memorials and tributes for his contribution to the performing arts, humanitarianism, and military service.[427] Stewart received the Cecil B. DeMille Award in 1965, an award intended to honor "outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment".[428] In 1984, Stewart received the Academy Honorary Award.[429] His roles in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Philadelphia Story, It's a Wonderful Life, Harvey, and Anatomy of a Murder earned him Academy Award nominations--with one win for The Philadelphia Story.[430][431]


From the beginning of James Stewart's film career in 1935, through his final theatrical project in 1991, he appeared in more than 170 films, television programs, and shorts.[432][389][433] His film career covered a range of genres, including Westerns, suspense thrillers, family films, biographies, and screwball comedies.[434][435][403] Five of his movies were included on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 greatest American films: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; The Philadelphia Story; It's a Wonderful Life; Rear Window and Vertigo.[436]

Broadway performances

  • Carry Nation as "Constable Gano" (October - November 1932)[437]
  • Goodbye Again as "Chauffeur" (December 1932 - July 1933)[438]
  • Spring in Autumn as "Jack Brennan" (October-November 1933)[439]
  • All Good Americans as "Johnny Chadwick" (December 1933 - January 1934)[440]
  • Yellow Jack as "Sgt. John O'Hara" (May 1934)[441]
  • Divided By Three as "Teddy Parrish" (October 1934)[442]
  • Page Miss Glory as "Ed Olsen" (November 1934 - March 1935)[443]
  • A Journey By Night as "Carl" (April 1935)[40][444]
  • Harvey as "Elwood P. Dowd" (July-August 1947, July-August 1948, replacing vacationing Frank Fay, who created the role on Broadway)[N 14][445]
  • Harvey as "Elwood P. Dowd" (revival, February-May 1970)[446][447]
  • A Gala Tribute to Joshua Logan as himself (March 9, 1975)[448]

Radio appearances

Year Program Episode Reference
June 14, 1937 Lux Radio Theatre Madame X [449]
1937 Good News of 1938 As himself [450][451]
March 12, 1939 The Screen Guild Theater Tailored By Toni [452]
November 5, 1939 The Gulf Screen Guild Theater Going My Way [453]
February 11, 1940 The Gulf Screen Guild Theater Single Crossing [453]
September 29, 1940 Screen Guild Players The Shop Around the Corner [454]
November 10, 1945 Lux Radio Theatre Destry Rides Again [455]
February 21, 1946 Suspense Consequence [456]
March 10, 1947 Lux Radio Theatre It's A Wonderful Life [457]
December 15, 1947 Lux Radio Theatre Magic Tow] [458]
March 18, 1948 Readers' Digest Radio Edition One Way to Broadway [454]
December 1, 1949 Suspense Mission Completed [454]
January 17, 1949 Lux Radio Theatre You Gotta Stay Happy [457]
August 29, 1949 Lux Radio Theatre June Bride [459]
December 9, 1949 Screen Directors Playhouse Call Northside 777 [460]
February 13, 1950 Lux Radio Theatre The Stratton Story [457]
February 26, 1951 Lux Radio Theatre When Johnny Comes Marching Home [457]
November 12, 1951 Lux Radio Theatre Winchester '73 [461]
April 28, 1952 Lux Radio Theatre No Highway in the Sky [462]
March 1, 1953 Theatre Guild on the Air O'Halloran's Luck'' [463]
September 20, 1953 - June 24, 1954 The Six Shooter Starred as Britt Ponset [464][465]

See also



  1. ^ In 1937, Stewart filmed Vivacious Lady with Ginger Rogers. The production was shut down for months as Stewart recovered from an undisclosed illness. Stewart later revealed that he had been hospitalized and lost weight due to the illness. RKO initially wanted to replace Stewart, but eventually, the project was canceled. However, Rogers's success in a stage musical caused the film to be picked up again.[55]
  2. ^ This airfield became part of the United States Army Air Forces training establishment and trained more than 10,000 pilots during World War II.[91]
  3. ^ Stewart later confided that he had a "friend" operating the weight scales.[95]
  4. ^ Walter E. "Pop" Arnold became commander of the 485th Bombardment Group in September 1943 and his B-24 was shot down over eastern Germany on August 27, 1944, making him a prisoner of war.[109]
  5. ^ While leading the 445th on this date, Stewart made a decision in combat to not break formation from another group that had made an error in navigation. The other group lost four bombers in a subsequent interception, but Stewart's decision possibly saved it from annihilation and incurred considerable damage to his own 48 aircraft. His decision resulted in a letter of commendation and promotion to major on January 20, 1944. Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay used the episode in their novel 12 O'Clock High.[104][111]
  6. ^ They were charged with dereliction of duty for having accidentally bombed the Swiss city of Zurich the previous March--the first instance of U.S. personnel being tried for an attack on a neutral country. The court acquitted the defendants.[116]
  7. ^ Although Stewart was always Capra's first choice, in an interview later in life, he conceded that "Henry Fonda was in the running."[133]
  8. ^ During this time, Stewart wore the same cowboy hat and rode the same horse, "Pie", in most of his Westerns.[182][183]
  9. ^ Hollywood's other stars quickly capitalized on this new way of doing business, which further undermined the decaying "studio system".[194]
  10. ^ The TV series failed to gain a wide audience, possibly because it rotated with Shaft, another high-quality series but with a starkly conflicting demographic, and was canceled after one season. However, author Wesley Hyatt suggested that it was canceled at the request of Stewart due to his fatigue.[255]
  11. ^ Despite the fact they both appeared in How the West Was Won, they did not have any scenes together.[312]
  12. ^ Stewart's emotional speech hinted that something was seriously wrong, and the next day newspapers ran the headline, "Gary Cooper has cancer". One month later, on May 13, 1961, six days after his 60th birthday, Cooper died.[319][320][318]
  13. ^ In later years, he made advertisements for the BSA, which led to his being sometimes incorrectly identified as an Eagle Scout.[323]
  14. ^ The reference does not mention the second set of dates, or that Frank Fay created the role.


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