Hand color tinted photo of James Stewart from the 1950 movie, Harvey
James Maitland “Jimmy” Stewart (May 20, 1908 – July 2, 1997) was an American film and stage actor, best known for his self-effacing persona. Over the course of his career, he starred in many films widely considered classics and was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning one in competition and receiving one Lifetime Achievement award. He was a major MGM contract star. He also had a noted military career, rising to the rank of Brigadier General in the United States Air Force Reserve.
Throughout his seven decades in Hollywood, Stewart cultivated a versatile career and recognized screen image in such classics as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Philadelphia Story, Harvey, It’s a Wonderful Life, Rear Window, Rope, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Vertigo. He is the most represented leading actor on the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) and AFI’s 10 Top 10 lists. He is also the most represented leading actor on the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time list presented by Entertainment Weekly. As of 2007, ten of his films have been inducted into the United States National Film Registry.
Stewart left his mark on a wide range of film genres, including westerns, suspense thrillers, family films, biographies and screwball comedies. He worked for a number of renowned directors later in his career, most notably Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Billy Wilder, Frank Capra, George Cukor, and Anthony Mann. He won many of the industry’s highest honors and earned Lifetime Achievement awards from every major film organization. He died in 1997, leaving behind a legacy of classic performances, and is considered one of the finest actors of the “Golden Age of Hollywood.” He was named the third Greatest Male Star of All Time by the American Film Institute.
Early life and career
James Maitland Stewart was born on May 20, 1908 in Indiana, Pennsylvania, the son of Elizabeth Ruth (née Jackson) and Alexander Maitland Stewart, who owned a hardware store. Stewart’s parents were of Scottish Presbyterian origin. His Jackson ancestors served in the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Civil War. The eldest of three children (he had two younger sisters, Virginia and Mary), he was expected to continue his father’s business, which had been in the family for three generations.
His mother was an excellent pianist but his father discouraged Stewart’s request for lessons. But when his father accepted a gift of an accordion from a guest, young Stewart quickly learned to play the instrument, which became a fixture off-stage during his acting career. As the family grew, music continued to be an important part of family life.
Stewart attended Mercersburg Academy prep school, graduating in 1928. At Mercersburg, Stewart was active in a variety of activities. He played on the football and track teams. He was art editor for the KARUX yearbook and member of the choir club, glee club, and John Marshall Literary Society. During his first summer break, Stewart returned to Indiana, Pennsylvania to work as a brick loader for a local construction company and on highway and road construction jobs where he painted lines on the roads. Over the following two summers, he took a job as an assistant with a professional magician. He also made his first appearance on the stage at Mercersburg, as Buquet in the play The Wolves.
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. But he abandoned visions of being a pilot when his father insisted that instead of the United States Naval Academy he attend Princeton University.
Stewart enrolled at Princeton in 1928 as a member of the Class of 1932. There, 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, but he gradually became attracted to the school’s drama and music clubs, including the famous Princeton Triangle Club. He was a member of the Princeton Charter Club as well as a head cheerleader. In his spare time, he enjoyed going to the movies at the time when ‘talkies’ were just displacing silent films.
His acting and accordion talents at Princeton led him to be invited to the University Players, an intercollegiate summer stock company in West Falmouth, a town on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. This company had been organized in 1928 and would run until 1932, with Joshua Logan, Bretaigne Windust, and Charles Leatherbee as the directors. Stewart performed in bit parts in the Players’ productions in Cape Cod during the Summer of 1932 after he graduated. The troupe had previously included Henry Fonda, who married Margaret Sullavan on Christmas Day 1931 while the University Players were located in Baltimore, Maryland for an 18-week winter season. Sullavan, who had rejoined the University Players in Baltimore in November 1931 at the close of the post-Broadway tour of A Modern Virgin, left the Players for good at the end of The Trial of Mary Dugan in Baltimore in March 1932. By the time Stewart joined the University Players on Cape Cod after his graduation from Princeton in 1932, Fonda and Sullavan’s brief marriage had ended. Stewart and Fonda became great friends over the summer of 1932 when they shared an apartment with Joshua Logan and Myron McCormick. When he came to New York at the end of the summer stock season, which had included the Broadway try-out of Goodbye Again, he shared an apartment with Henry Fonda, who had by then finalized his divorce from Sullavan. Along with fellow University Players Alfred Dalrymple and Myron McCormick, Stewart debuted on Broadway as a chauffeur in the comedy Goodbye Again, in which he had two lines. The New Yorker noted, “Mr. James Stewart’s chauffeur… comes on for three minutes and walks off to a round of spontaneous applause.”
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.” By 1934, he got more substantial stage roles, including the modest hit Page Miss Glory and his first dramatic stage role in Sidney Howard’s Yellow Jack, which convinced him to continue his acting career. However, Stewart and Fonda, still roommates, were both struggling.
In the fall of 1934, Fonda’s success in The Farmer Takes a Wife took him to Hollywood. Finally, Stewart attracted the interest of 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 and 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
. On his arrival by train to Los Angeles, Fonda greeted Stewart at the station and took him to Fonda’s studio-supplied lodging, next door to Greta Garbo. His first job at the studio was as a participant in screen tests with newly-arrived starlets. At first, he had trouble being cast in Hollywood films owing to his gangling looks and shy, humble screen presence. His first film was the poorly received Spencer Tracy vehicle, The Murder Man (1935), but Rose Marie (1936), an adaptation of a popular operetta, was more successful. After mixed success in films, he received his first substantial part in 1936’s After the Thin Man.
On the romantic front, he found himself dating newly divorced Ginger Rogers, whom he had revered while a student at Princeton only a few years earlier. The romance soon cooled, however, and by chance Stewart encountered Margaret Sullavan again. 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. In the meantime, roommate Fonda continued to arrange parties with starlets, who found Stewart different from the other young actors and irresistible in his own way. 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. In 1936, he acquired big-time agent Leland Hayward, who would eventually marry Margaret Sullavan. Hayward started to chart Stewart’s career, deciding the best path for him was through loan-outs to other studios.
In 1938, Stewart had a brief, tumultuous, and well-publicized romance with Hollywood queen Norma Shearer whose husband Irving Thalberg, head of production at MGM, had died two years earlier. 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. Frank Capra had been impressed by Stewart’s minor role in Navy Blue and Gold (1937). The director had recently completed several popular movies including It Happened One Night (1934) and was looking for the right type of actor to suit his needs—which other recent actors in his films such as Clark Gable, Ronald Colman and Gary Cooper did not quite fit. Not only was Stewart just what he was looking for, but Capra also found Stewart understood that prototype intuitively and required very little directing. Later Capra commented, “I think he’s probably the best actor who’s ever hit the screen.”
This heart-warming Depression-era film (You Can’t Take It With You), starring Capra’s “favorite actress”, comedienne Jean Arthur, won the 1938 Best Picture Academy Award. The following year saw Stewart work with Capra and Arthur again for the political comedy-drama Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Stewart replaced intended star Gary Cooper in the film featuring an idealistic man who is thrown into the political arena. Upon the film’s October 1939 release, it garnered critical praise and became a box office success. For his performance, Stewart was nominated for the first of five Academy Awards for Best Actor. Even after this great success, Stewart’s parents were still trying to talk him into leaving Hollywood and its sinful ways and to return to his home town to lead a decent life. Instead, he took a secret trip to Europe to take a break and returned home just as Germany invaded Poland.
Destry Rides Again, also released in 1939, became Stewart’s first western film, a genre with which he would become identified later in his career. In this Western parody, Stewart is a pacifist lawman and Marlene Dietrich is the saloon dancing girl who comes to love him, but doesn’t get him. In it she sings her famous song “The Boys In the Back Room”. Off-screen, Dietrich did get her man, but the romance was short-lived. Made for Each Other (1939) had Stewart sharing the screen with irrepressible Carole Lombard in a melodrama that garnered good reviews for both stars, but did less well with the public. Newsweek wrote that they were “perfectly cast in the leading roles.” Between movies, Stewart began a radio career and became a distinctive voice on the “Lux Radio Theater,” “The Screen Guild Theater” and other radio shows. So well-known had his slow drawl become that comedians started to impersonate him, a form of flattery which continued for most of his life.
In 1940, Stewart and Margaret Sullavan reunited for two films. The first, the Ernst Lubitsch romantic comedy, The Shop Around the Corner, starred Stewart and Sullavan as co-workers unknowingly involved in a pen-pal romance who cannot stand each other in real life (this was later remade into the romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan). It was Stewart’s fifth film of the year and that rare film shot in the story’s sequence; it was completed in only 27 days. The Mortal Storm, directed by Frank Borzage, was one of the first blatantly anti-Nazi films to be produced in Hollywood and featured the pair as a husband and wife caught in turmoil upon Hitler’s rise to power.
Stewart also starred with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in George Cukor’s classic The Philadelphia Story (1940). His performance as an intrusive, fast-talking reporter earned him his only Academy Award in a competitive category (Best Actor, 1941) and he beat out his good friend Henry Fonda (The Grapes of Wrath). Stewart thought his performance “entertaining and slick and smooth” but lacking the “guts” of “Mr. Smith.” 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.
During the months before he began military service, Stewart appeared in a series of screwball comedies with varying levels of success. He followed the mediocre No Time for Comedy (1940) and Come Live with Me (1941) with the Judy Garland musical Ziegfeld Girl and the George Marshall romantic comedy Pot o’ Gold. Stewart was drafted in late 1940 and it coincided with the lapse in his MGM contract, marking a turning point in Stewart’s career, with 28 movies to his credit at that point.
The Stewart family had deep military roots as both grandfathers had fought in the Civil War, and his father had served during both the Spanish-American War and World War I. Since Stewart considered his father to be the biggest influence on his life, it was not surprising that when another war eventually came, he too served. Although members of his family had previously served in the infantry, Stewart chose to become a military flyer.
An early interest in flying led Stewart to gain his Private Pilot certificate in 1935 and Commercial Pilot certificate in 1938. He often flew cross-country to visit his parents in Pennsylvania, navigating by the railroad tracks. Nearly two years before the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Stewart had accumulated over 400 hours of flying time.
Considered a highly proficient pilot, he even entered a cross-country race as a co-pilot in 1939. Along with musician/composer Hoagy Carmichael, seeing the need for trained war pilots, Stewart joined with other Hollywood celebrities to invest in Thunderbird Field, a pilot training school built and operated by Southwest Airways in Glendale, Arizona. This airfield became part of the United States Army Air Forces training establishment and trained more than 10,000 pilots during WWII, and is now the home of Thunderbird School of Global Management.
Later in 1940, Stewart was drafted into the United States Army but was rejected for failing to meet height and weight requirements for new recruits – Stewart was five pounds under the standard. To get up to 148 pounds he sought out the help of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s muscle man, Don Loomis, who was noted for his ability to add or subtract pounds in his studio gymnasium. Stewart subsequently attempted to enlist in the Army Air Corps, but still came in under the weight requirement, although he persuaded the AAC enlistment officer to run new tests, this time passing the weigh-in, with the result that Stewart successfully enlisted in the Army in March 1941. He became the first major American movie star to wear a military uniform in World War II.
Stewart enlisted as a private and began pilot training in the USAAC. During this time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, bringing the US into direct involvement in the war. Stewart continued his military training and earned a commission as a second lieutenant in January, 1942. He was posted to Moffett Field and then Mather Field as an instructor pilot in single- and twin-engine aircraft.
Public appearances by Stewart were limited engagements scheduled by the Army Air Forces. “Stewart appeared several times on network radio with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, he performed with Orson Welles, Edward G. Robinson, Walter Huston and Lionel Barrymore in an all-network radio program called We Hold These Truths, dedicated to the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights.” In early 1942, Stewart was asked to appear in a propaganda film to help recruit the anticipated 100,000 airmen the USAAF would need to win the war. The USAAF’s First Motion Picture Unit shot scenes of Lieutenant Stewart in his pilot’s flight suit and recorded his voice for narration. The short film, Winning Your Wings, appeared nationwide beginning in late May and was very successful, resulting in 150,000 new recruits.
Stewart was concerned that his expertise and celebrity status would relegate him to instructor duties “behind the lines.” His fears were confirmed when he was stationed for six months at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico to train bombardiers. He was transferred to Hobbs AAF to become an instructor pilot for the four-engined B-17 Flying Fortress. He trained B-17 pilots for nine months at Gowen Field.
“Still, the war was moving on. For the 36-year-old Stewart, combat duty seemed far away and unreachable and he had no clear plans for the future. But then a rumor that Stewart would be taken off flying status and assigned to making training films or selling bonds called for his immediate and decisive action, because what he dreaded most was the hope-shattering spectre of a dead end.” Stewart appealed to his commander, a pre-war aviator, who understood the situation and reassigned him to a unit going overseas.
In August 1943 he was finally assigned to the 445th Bombardment Group at Sioux City AAB, Iowa, first as Operations Officer of the 703rd Bombardment Squadron and then as its commander, at the rank of Captain. In December, the 445th Bombardment Group flew its B-24 Liberator bombers to RAF Tibenham, Norfolk, England and immediately began combat operations. While flying missions over Germany, Stewart was promoted to Major. In March 1944, he was transferred as group operations officer to the 453rd Bombardment Group, a new B-24 unit that had been experiencing difficulties. As a means to inspire his new group, Stewart flew as command pilot in the lead B-24 on numerous missions deep into Nazi-occupied Europe. These missions went uncounted at Stewart’s orders. His “official” total is listed as 20 and is limited to those with the 445th. In 1944, he twice received the Distinguished Flying Cross for actions in combat and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. He also received the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters. In July 1944, after flying 20 combat missions, Stewart was made Chief of Staff of the 2nd Combat Bombardment Wing of the Eighth Air Force. Before the war ended, he was promoted to colonel, one of very few Americans to rise from private to colonel in four years.
At the beginning of June 1945, Stewart was the presiding officer of the court-martial of a pilot and navigator who were charged with dereliction of duty when they accidentally bombed the Swiss city of Zurich the previous March – the first instance of U.S. personnel being tried over an attack on a neutral country. The Court acquitted the accused.
Stewart continued to play an active role in the United States Air Force Reserve after the war, achieving the rank of Brigadier General on July 23, 1959. Stewart did not often talk of his wartime service, perhaps due to his desire to be seen as a regular soldier doing his duty instead of as a celebrity. He did appear on the TV series, The World At War to discuss the October 14, 1943, bombing mission to Schweinfurt, which was the center of the German ball bearing manufacturing industry. This mission is known in USAF history as Black Thursday due to the high casualties it sustained; in total, 60 aircraft were lost out of 291 dispatched, as the raid consisting entirely of B-17s was unescorted all the way to Schweinfurt and back due to the contemporary escort aircraft available lacking the range. Fittingly, he was identified only as “James Stewart, Squadron Commander” in the documentary.
He served as Air Force Reserve commander of Dobbins Air Reserve Base in the early 1950s. In 1966, Brigadier General James Stewart flew as a non-duty observer in a B-52 on a bombing mission during the Vietnam war. At the time of his B-52 flight, he refused the release of any publicity regarding his participation as he did not want it treated as a stunt, but as part of his job as an officer in the Air Force Reserve. After 27 years of service, Stewart retired from the Air Force on May 31, 1968.
After the war, Stewart took time off to reassess his career and spent much time with friend Fonda. He was an early investor in Southwest Airways, founded by Leland Hayward, and he considered going into the aviation industry if his re-started film career didn’t pan out. Upon Stewart’s return to Hollywood in Fall 1945, he decided not to renew his MGM contract. He signed with an 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. The move made Stewart one of the first independently contracted actors, and gave him more freedom to choose the roles he wished to play. For the remainder of his career, Stewart was able to work without limits to director and studio availability.
For his first film in five years, Stewart appeared in his third and final Frank Capra production, It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra paid RKO for the rights to the story and formed his own production company, Liberty Films. The female lead went to Donna Reed, after Capra’s perennial first choice, Jean Arthur was unavailable, and after turndowns from Ginger Rogers, Olivia de Havilland, Ann Dvorak and Martha Scott. Stewart appeared as George Bailey, a small-town man and upstanding citizen, 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 AS2, an “angel, second class,” played by Henry Travers.
After viewing It’s a Wonderful Life, President Harry S. Truman concluded, “If Bess and I had a son, we’d want him to be just like Jimmy Stewart.”
Although the film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Stewart’s third Best Actor nomination, it received mixed reviews and only moderate success at the box office, possibly due to its dark nature. 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, according to the American Film Institute, one of the best movies ever made.
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. His father kept insisting he come home and marry a local girl. Meanwhile in Hollywood, his generation of actors were fading and a new wave of actors would soon remake the town, including Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and James Dean.
After a poorly received Magic Town (1947) and the completion of Rope (1948) and Call Northside 777 (1948), Stewart had two flops On Our Merry Way (1948) and You Gotta Stay Happy (1949). In the documentary film James Stewart: A Wonderful Life (1987), hosted by Johnny Carson, Stewart said that he went back to Westerns in 1950 in part because a string of films that were flops.
Stewart decided to return to the stage for the Mary Chase-penned comedy, Harvey, which had opened to nearly universal praise in November 1944. Elwood P. Dowd, the protagonist and Stewart’s character, is a wealthy eccentric living with his sister and his niece, and whose best friend is an invisible rabbit as large as a man. His 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 while the play follows Dowd on an ordinary day in his not-so-ordinary life. Stewart took over the role from Frank Fay and gained an increased Broadway following in the unconventional play. 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 playing Dowd and Josephine Hull as his sister, Veta. Bing Crosby was the first choice for the movie but he declined. For his performance in the film, Stewart received his fourth Best Actor nomination.
After Harvey, the comedic adventure film Malaya (1949) with Spencer Tracy and the conventional but highly successful biographical film The Stratton Story in 1949, his first pairing with “on-screen wife” June Allyson, his career took another turn. During the 1950s, he expanded into the western and suspense genres, thanks largely to collaborations with directors Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock.
Other notable performances by Stewart during this time include the critically acclaimed 1950 Delmer Daves western Broken Arrow, which featured Stewart as an ex-soldier and Indian agent making peace with the Apache; a troubled clown in the 1952 Best Picture The Greatest Show on Earth; and Stewart’s role as Charles Lindbergh in Billy Wilder’s 1957 film The Spirit of St. Louis. He also starred in the Western radio show The Six Shooter for its one season run from 1953-1954.
Collaborations with Hitchcock and Mann
James Stewart’s collaborations with director Anthony Mann increased Stewart’s popularity and sent his career into the realm of the western. 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. The film, which became a massive box office hit upon its release, set the pattern for their future collaborations. In it, Stewart is a tough, revengeful 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).
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) 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. Their 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.
Stewart and Mann also collaborated on other films outside the western genre. 1953’s The Glenn Miller Story was critically acclaimed, garnering Stewart a BAFTA Award nomination, and (together with The Spirit of St. Louis) cemented the popularity of Stewart’s portrayals of ‘American heroes’. Thunder Bay, released the same year, transplanted the plot arch of their western collaborations in the present day, with Stewart as a Louisiana oil-driller facing corruption. Strategic Air Command, released in 1955, allowed Stewart to use his experiences in the United States Air Force on film.
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. Stewart’s 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 and cast and director approval.
This wasn’t the first such deal at Universal; Abbott and Costello also had a profit participation contract, but they were no longer top-flight moneymakers by 1950. Stewart ended up earning about $600,000 for Winchester ’73 alone. Hollywood’s other stars quickly capitalized on this new way of doing business, which further undermined the decaying “studio system.”
The second collaboration to define Stewart’s career in the 1950s was with acclaimed mystery and suspense director Alfred Hitchcock. Like Mann, Hitchcock uncovered new depths to Stewart’s acting, showing a protagonist confronting his fears and his repressed desires. Stewart’s first movie with Hitchcock was the technologically innovative 1948 film Rope, shot in long “real time” takes.
The two collaborated for the second of four times on the 1954 hit Rear Window, one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces. Stewart portrays photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries, loosely based on Life photographer Robert Capa, 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) commit a murder, and when 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. Limited by his wheelchair, Stewart is masterfully led by Hitchcock to react to what his character sees with mostly facial responses. It was a landmark year for Stewart, becoming the highest grossing actor of 1954 and the most popular Hollywood star in the world, displacing John Wayne.
After starring in Hitchcock’s remake of the director’s earlier production, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), with co-star Doris Day, Stewart starred in what many consider Hitchcock’s most personal film, Vertigo (1958). The movie starred Stewart as “Scottie”, 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. Though the film is widely considered a classic today, and the pairing with Kim Novak, one of the screen’s most perfect, Vertigo met with negative reviews and poor box office receipts upon its release, and marked the last collaboration between Stewart and Hitchcock. Stewart was also disappointed. The director blamed the film’s failure on Stewart looking too old to still attract audiences, 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).
Career in the 1960s and 1970s
In 1960, James Stewart was awarded the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor and received his fifth and final Academy Award for Best Actor nomination, for his role in the 1959 Otto Preminger film Anatomy of a Murder. The early courtroom drama starred Stewart as Paul Biegler, the lawyer of a hot-tempered soldier Ben Gazzara who claims temporary insanity after murdering a tavern owner who raped his wife (played by Lee Remick). The film featured a career-making performance by George C. Scott as the prosecutor. The film was sexually frank for its time (some thought it sordid), and its provocative promotional campaign helped gain it box office success, though Ben-Hur outgrossed all movies by a huge margin and swept the Academy Awards that year. Stewart’s nomination was one of seven for the film (Charlton Heston was the winner), and saw his transition into the final decades of his career.
On January 1, 1960 Stewart received the devastating news that Margaret Sullavan had committed suicide, most likely over despondency from her loss of hearing and its impact on her stage career. As a friend, mentor, and focus of his early romantic urges, she had a unique impact on Stewart’s life.
In the early 1960s Stewart took leading roles in three John Ford films, his first work with the acclaimed director. The first, Two Rode Together, paired him with Richard Widmark in a Western with thematic echoes of Ford’s The Searchers. The next, 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (with John Wayne), is a classic “psychological” western, with Stewart featured 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. The film’s billing is unusual in that Stewart was given top billing over Wayne in the trailers and on the posters but Wayne had top billing in the film itself, a system later repeated by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men. The film garnered so-so reviews and fared poorly at the box office, but is now considered a late Ford classic.
How the West Was Won (which Ford co-directed, though without directing Stewart’s scenes) and Cheyenne Autumn were western epics released in 1962 and 1964 respectively. While the Cinerama production How the West Was Won went on to win three Oscars and reaped massive box office figures, Cheyenne Autumn, in which a white-suited Stewart played Wyatt Earp in a long sequence in the middle of the movie, failed domestically and was quickly forgotten. It was Ford’s final Western and Stewart’s last feature film with Ford.
Having played his last romantic lead in 1958’s Bell, Book and Candle, and silver-haired (although not all was his – he had begun wearing a hairpiece in the early 1950s), Stewart transitioned into more family-related films in the 1960s when he signed a multi-movie deal with 20th Century Fox. 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 mash notes. The Civil War period film Shenandoah (1965) and the western family film The Rare Breed fared better at the box office; the Civil War movie with strong antiwar and humanitarian themes was a smash hit in the South.
As an aviator, Stewart was particularly interested in aviation films and had pushed to appear in several in the 1950s; most notably Strategic Air Command and The Spirit of St. Louis. He continued in this vein in the 1960s, most notably in a role as a hard-bitten pilot in 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-engine movie model, in an abortive “touch-and-go”. Stewart also narrated the film X-15 in 1961. In 1964, he and several other military aviators, including Curtis LeMay, Paul Tibbets, and Bruce Sundlun were founding directors of the board of Tibbet’s Executive Jet Aviation Corporation.
After a progression of lesser western films in the late ’60s and early ’70s, James Stewart transitioned from cinema to television. In the 1950s he had made guest appearances on the Jack Benny Program (Benny was his real life neighbor and good friend). Stewart first starred in the NBC comedy The Jimmy Stewart Show, on which he played a college professor. He followed it with the CBS mystery Hawkins, in which he played a small town lawyer investigating his cases. The series garnered Stewart a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Dramatic TV Series, but failed to gain a wide audience and was cancelled after one season. (Andy Griffith fared much better later in Matlock, based on a similar formula.) During this time, Stewart periodically appeared on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show, sharing poems he had written at different times in his life. His poems were later compiled into a short collection titled Jimmy Stewart and His Poems (1989).
Stewart returned to films after an absence of five years with a major role in John Wayne’s final film, The Shootist (1976) where Stewart played a doctor giving Wayne’s gunfighter a terminal cancer diagnosis. At one point, both Wayne and Stewart were flubbing their lines repeatedly and Stewart turned to director Don Siegel and said, “You’d better get two better actors.” Stewart also appeared in supporting roles in Airport ’77, the 1978 remake of The Big Sleep with Robert Mitchum and The Magic of Lassie (1978). The latter film received poor reviews and flopped at the box office. Some critics expressed their dismay at seeing the 70-year-old veteran singing as the grandfather. Stewart responded it was the only script he had been offered without any sex, profanity and graphic violence.
Later career and death
Following the failure of The Magic of Lassie, Stewart went into semi-retirement from acting. Stewart was presented an Academy Honorary Award by his friend Cary Grant in 1985, “for his fifty years of memorable performances, for his high ideals both on and off the screen, with respect and affection of his colleagues.”
Stewart’s best friend Henry Fonda died in 1982 and his long-time friend Grace Kelly, his favorite female co-star, died shortly afterwards. A few months later, Stewart starred with Bette Davis in Right of Way, which had the distinction of being the first made-for-cable movie. Stewart filmed several television movies in the 1980s, including Mr. Krueger’s Christmas (which allowed him to fulfill a lifelong dream, to conduct the Mormon Tabernacle Choir), after which he retired from acting to spend more time with his family, although he continued to receive offers to play “grandfather” roles. He made frequent visits to the Reagan White House and traveled on the lecture circuit. The re-release of his Hitchcock films gained Stewart renewed recognition. Rear Window and Vertigo were particularly praised by film critics, which helped bring these films to the attention of younger movie-goers.
Stewart became a real life “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” in 1988, when he made an impassioned plea in Congressional hearings, along with colleagues Burt Lancaster and Katharine Hepburn 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”.
One of Hollywood’s most shrewd businessmen, Stewart had diversified investments including real estate, oil wells, a charter-plane company and membership on major corporate boards. He became a multimillionaire. In the 1980s and 1990s, he did voiceovers for commercials for Campbell’s Soups.
In 1989, Stewart joined Peter F. Paul in founding 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. Paul arranged for Stewart, through the offices of President Boris Yeltsin, to send a special print of It’s a Wonderful Life, translated by Lomonosov Moscow State University, to Russia as the first American program ever to be broadcast on Russian television. On January 5, 1992, coinciding with the first day of the existence of the democratic Commonwealth of Independent States and Russia, and the first free Russian Orthodox Christmas Day, Russian TV Channel 2 broadcast It’s a Wonderful Life to 200 million Russians who celebrated an American holiday tradition with the American people for the first time in Russian history.
In association with politicians and celebrities such as President Ronald Reagan, Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, California Governor George Deukmejian, Bob Hope and Charlton Heston, Stewart worked from 1987 to 1993 on projects that enhanced the public appreciation and understanding of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
In 1991, James Stewart voiced the character of Sheriff Wylie Burp in the movie An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, which was his final role in a film before his death.
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.'”
Stewart died at the age of 89 on July 2, 1997, at his home in Beverly Hills. His death came one day after fellow screen legend and The Big Sleep co-star Robert Mitchum had died. Stewart is interred in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
“America lost a national treasure today,” President Bill Clinton said on the day Stewart died. “Jimmy Stewart was a great actor, a gentleman and a patriot.”
James Stewart was almost universally described by his collaborators as a kind, soft-spoken man and a true professional.
Joan Crawford, Stewart’s co-star in the early period, praised him 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.”
When Henry Fonda moved to Hollywood in 1934, he was again a roommate with Stewart in an apartment in Brentwood and the two gained a reputation as playboys. Once married, both men’s children 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.
After World War II, Stewart settled down, at age 41, marrying former model Gloria Hatrick McLean (1918-1994) on August 9, 1949. 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!”.
Stewart adopted her two sons, Michael and Ronald, and with Gloria he had twin daughters, Judy and Kelly, on May 7, 1951. The couple remained married until her death from lung cancer on February 16, 1994. Ronald McLean was killed in action on June 8, 1969, at the age of 24, while serving as a Marine Corps Lieutenant in Vietnam. Dr. Kelly Stewart is an anthropologist at the University of California, Davis.
While visiting India in 1959, Stewart reportedly smuggled the remains of a supposed yeti, the so-called Pangboche Hand, by hiding them in his luggage (specifically, in his wife’s underwear) when he flew from India to London, as a favor to Tom Slick.
James Stewart was active in philanthropic affairs 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.
Stewart was a lifelong supporter of Scouting. He was 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). In later years, he made advertisements for BSA, which led to him sometimes incorrectly being identified as an Eagle Scout. (Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, was also the leader of the “Boy Rangers”, a fictional organization patterned after cub scouts.) An award for Boy Scouts, “The James M. Stewart Good Citizenship Award” has been presented since May 17, 2003.
One of Stewart’s lesser-known talents was his homespun poetry. He once read a poem that he had written about his dog, entitled “Beau,” while on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. By the end of this reading, Carson’s eyes were welling with tears. 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.
In addition to poetry, Stewart would talk during Tonight Show appearances about his avid gardening. Stewart purchased the house next door to his own home at 918 North Roxbury Drive, razed the house, and installed his garden in the lot.
Politically, Stewart was a staunch supporter of the Republican Party and actively campaigned for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. He was a “hawk” on the Vietnam War and told interviewers that he “absolutely hated” students who dodged the draft, condemning them as “cowards”. Following the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, Stewart and Charlton Heston, Kirk Douglas and Gregory Peck issued a statement calling for support of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Gun Control Act of 1968.
One of his best friends was Henry Fonda, despite the fact that the two men had very different political ideologies. A political argument in 1947 resulted in a fist fight between them, but the two apparently maintained their friendship by never discussing politics again. There is brief reference to their political differences in character in their movie The Cheyenne Social Club. However, in the last years of his life, his political views may have taken a more moderate turn, as he supported Bob Dole—a moderate Republican—in 1996 and supported Florida governor Bob Graham in his successful run for the Senate.