This World War II Veteran Was one of America's Most Beloved Actors
This World War II Veteran Was one of America’s Most Beloved Actors

This World War II Veteran Was one of America’s Most Beloved Actors

Larry Holzwarth - January 20, 2020

James, “Jimmy” Stewart was one of the most beloved actors of American history. He starred in comedies, dramas, mysteries, westerns, on film, stage, and television. Stewart was a master of them all. He worked with directors as diverse as Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock, and John Ford. During his lifetime his easily recognizable drawl coupled with a halting manner of speech was widely imitated, often to his own amusement. He was married but once, for forty-five years to his wife Gloria, whom he met after crashing a Christmas party in 1947. They didn’t begin dating for another year, in part because the somewhat intoxicated Stewart failed to make a good impression.

This World War II Veteran Was one of America’s Most Beloved Actors
James Stewart received the French Croix de Guerre for his service during World War II. Wikimedia

He was a veteran of the Second World War, among the first major Hollywood stars to enlist. He flew bombers over Nazi occupied Europe, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross and the French Croix de Guerre for his service. Less well known was his participation as an observer in a B-52 raid in Vietnam in 1966. Following World War II, he returned to acting, and appeared in some of his most acclaimed movies, including It’s A Wonderful Life, which was a minor success when released. It has since become an American Christmas classic. Here is some of the wonderful life of Jimmy Stewart, itself a story of an American classic.

This World War II Veteran Was one of America’s Most Beloved Actors
James Stewart stands on the far right in front of his father’s hardware store in 1930. Wikimedia

1. He was a product of small-town America who graduated from Princeton University

James Stewart was raised in the coal mining town of Indiana, Pennsylvania. He grew up loving music, and learned to play the accordion, when one of his father’s customers paid part of a debt by giving him the instrument. His father owned and operated the J. M. Stewart and Company Hardware Store. The elder Stewart hoped the son would take over the business after the latter complete college, but while attending Princeton the younger Stewart caught the acting bug. He enrolled there in 1928, having become interested in flying, magic, acting, and singing while in prep school. He also grew to a lanky 6’4″ height, with exceptionally long legs.

Stewart majored in architecture and developed a talent in airport design, which led to his being offered a scholarship for graduate school. But by then his interest in acting and performing on the accordion took precedence. Stewart joined the University Players, a stock company which held their summer performances in West Falmouth, on Cape Cod. Another performer with the company Stewart was Henry Fonda, and the two became lifelong friends. After graduation in 1932, Stewart completed the summer stock season and moved to New York to seek Broadway roles. Fonda joined him.

This World War II Veteran Was one of America’s Most Beloved Actors
Henry Fonda, a close friend of Stewart’s his entire adult life, in 1940. Wikimedia

2. Stewart struggled in the theater for the first couple of years

In New York and Boston Stewart landed several small roles, receiving some recognition from critics. To supplement his meager income, he took a job as a stage manager in Boston, from which he was quickly fired. He returned to New York, where other plays for which he was hired ended after just a few performances. In 1934 he auditioned for and won the lead role in a play in which he portrayed a soldier victimized by yellow fever experiments. Positive reviews did not save the play, which folded quickly. Similar roles brought similar results. A talent scout by the name of Bill Grady was impressed by Stewart’s acting and urged his client, Metro Goldwyn Mayer, into signing the young actor.

Stewart’s first appearance on film occurred before he signed the MGM contract, which was a seven-year deal. He appeared in Art Trouble, a comedy short starring Shemp Howard. Stewart’s brief performance was uncredited. Upon arrival in Hollywood, his lanky appearance exaggerated his height, which limited available roles for the unproven actor. His first appearance in a Hollywood film was in 1935’s The Murder Man, which starred Spencer Tracy as a newspaper writer and reporter. His role was ignored by critics, though the film was financially successful. The lack of suitable roles for him at MGM led to his being offered to other studios on loan. Stewart was in danger of becoming a bit player in Hollywood.

This World War II Veteran Was one of America’s Most Beloved Actors
Actress Margaret Sullavan was supportive of Stewart in Hollywood and helped launch his career. Wikimedia

3. Stewart’s first success came in a film made at another studio

While at Princeton Stewart met and befriended actress Margaret Sullavan. In the 1930s Sullavan was a prominent actress on Broadway, and wielded considerable influence in Hollywood, though she preferred to act onstage. She lobbied hard for Stewart to play her leading man in a film she was scheduled to make for Universal Studios. The film, Next Time We Love, was a success with critics and the box office with Stewart drawing mostly favorable reviews. The New York Times welcomed him, “to the roster of Hollywood’s leading men”. MGM took note, and cast him in a movie starring Clark Gable. Though not a leading role, Stewart’s performance again was praised by critics.

In all, Stewart appeared in seven movies filmed in 1936, mostly in smaller roles, though he held the lead role in what was then called a “B” picture. It was a commercial failure, despite its low production cost. His last performance that year was as the murderer in After the Thin Man. The film was the first sequel to the popular The Thin Man, and its success was guaranteed by the onscreen chemistry between stars Myrna Loy and William Powell. Compared to those two, Stewart was still a second-string star, though the popularity of the film brought him exposure to the general public, and mostly favorable reviews from critics.

This World War II Veteran Was one of America’s Most Beloved Actors
Jimmy Stewart in You Can’t Take it With You. Wikimedia

4. Stewart remained a relatively minor star until 1938.

MGM continued to loan Stewart to other studios, and several films made in 1937-38 brought him critical approval, but little in the way of major stardom. That changed when director Frank Capra hired him to appear in a film made by Columbia Pictures, You Can’t Take It With You. The film, in which Stewart played a leading role opposite costar Jean Arthur, was a commercial success and won the Academy Award for Best Picture of the Year in 1938. On film Stewart and Arthur shared comedic chemistry which rivalled that of Loy and Powell, and was noted by critics and audiences.

Despite the success of You Can’t Take It With You, Stewart followed it with three successive commercial failures in 1939. Then Capra approached him again, this time for a role in which he would play a naïve Senator. Jean Arthur was cast as his secretary and assistant in the film. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was a smash hit when it was released, and Stewart’s performance received high praise from critics. He also received his first nomination for the Academy’s Best Actor award, which in 1939 went to Robert Donat for his performance in Goodbye, Mr. Chips.

This World War II Veteran Was one of America’s Most Beloved Actors
A lobby card for the film After the Thin Man. Wikimedia

5. Comedians began imitating his voice and vocal delivery in 1939

Between films Stewart began delivering performances on radio broadcasts in 1939. The success of his films (his next, Destry Rides Again was another hit), and the frequency of his radio appearances made his vocal style well known. It led it to being widely imitated by comedians and other wags. Stewart then resumed the roller-coaster ride of his earlier career, with successful films followed by others poorly received. Despite the frequent flops, his performances were consistently praised. In 1940 he teamed with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story, a role for which he won the Oscar for Best Actor for 1940.

Stewart did not believe he deserved the award, for several reasons. One was that his performance in the film was a supporting role, the lead belonged to Cary Grant. Secondly, he believed his performance in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was superior, and the Academy acknowledged their error the preceding year by gifting him an Oscar. Thirdly, he believed his friend Henry Fonda deserved the award for his role in The Grapes of Wrath, and voted accordingly. He eased his conscience by giving the statue to his father, who displayed it in the hardware store in Indiana, Pennsylvania. Stewart did not want a daily reminder in his house of an award he believed he had not earned.

This World War II Veteran Was one of America’s Most Beloved Actors
Publicity photo for a 1942 radio performance of The Philadelphia Story, one of Stewart’s last before entering the service. Wikimedia

6. Stewart joined the US Army Air Corps nearly a year before Pearl Harbor

James Stewart came from a family which had served in the American military for generations. His ancestors fought in the American Civil War, and his father was a veteran of the American war with Spain, and the American Expeditionary Force of World War One. Stewart eyed the situation in Europe and Asia warily, and in November, 1940 he attempted to enlist in the US Army. The Army found him too thin for their taste. Three months later Stewart tried again, stressing his experience as an amateur pilot, and the many hours he had logged in the air. In February the Army accepted him, and he was enlisted as a private and assigned to the Air Corps, though he was at the time nearly 33 years old.

Because he was over the age limit for Cadet training Stewart relied on his degree from Princeton and his license as a commercial aviation pilot to apply for a commission in the Army Air Corps. On New Year’s Day, 1942, he received his commission as a 2nd lieutenant, United States Army Air Corps. Throughout 1941 Stewart made appearances for the benefit of the Army. He made no additional films, other than those made by the Army for recruiting and training purposes. His contract with MGM was temporarily suspended. In summer 1942 he was ordered to report to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to help train new pilots. Stewart believed that he was destined to spend the war using his celebrity to boost Army Air Corps recruiting, and he balked at the idea.

This World War II Veteran Was one of America’s Most Beloved Actors
James Stewart rose to the rank of Colonel during his service in World War II. Wikimedia

7. Stewart’s character was prominently displayed in his military career

When James Stewart entered the US Army Air Force his salary from MGM was discontinued. He received his Army salary, beginning at $21 per month. From that meager amount he continued to pay his agent 10%, sending $2.10 monthly. At the Academy Awards ceremony in February, 1942, he dressed in his uniform to present Best Actor Gary Cooper his award for his role in Sergeant York. His role for the Army Air Force first had him training pilots. Later he shifted to four engine aircraft, flying bombers training bombardiers using the revolutionary Norden bombsight. After training in the B-17 near Boise, Idaho, Stewart requested combat duty.

In November, 1943, Stewart, then with the rank of captain, led a group of 24 B-24H Liberator bombers to England, where they were assigned to the airfield at Tibenham. A measure of his fame at the time was a sardonic welcome broadcast from Berlin by the British traitor and Nazi propagandist Lord Haw-Haw. His first combat mission was a bombing raid on the German docks at Kiel. He became a popular officer with his men, and developed a reputation for taking care of them in the air and on the ground. By the end of 1943 Stewart commanded the four squadrons of the 445th Bomb Group to which he was assigned.

This World War II Veteran Was one of America’s Most Beloved Actors
Stewart commanded 20 combat missions in the B-24 Liberator over Europe in World War II. Wikimedia

8. Stewart developed the reputation of being a pilot blessed with luck

On January 7, 1944, Stewart, by then a major, was leading his group back to England after a bombing mission over Germany when another group began to veer off course. When the errant group’s leader ignored Stewart’s warning, he chose to lead his group to follow them, giving them the added protection of his guns. Over 60 Luftwaffe fighters attacked the two groups. Several bombers were lost, including that of the leader of the errant group. Stewart’s Liberator was in the thick of the fighting, but arrived safely in England. His leadership undoubtedly saved the lives of several airmen in the leading group, which otherwise would have faced the fighter onslaught alone.

On another mission in late February, Stewart’s Liberator was hit by German flak, severely damaging the aircraft. Stewart managed to fly the crippled bomber home, but upon landing the damaged fuselage broke in two. All members of his crew were uninjured. After inspecting the wreckage of his airplane Stewart mused, “somebody sure could get hurt in one of those damned things”. Stewart flew 20 bombing missions in Liberators before transferring to the 453rd Bomb Group based in Buckenham, where he was assigned as the operations officer. Though a staff position, he continued to fly as a co-pilot on several more missions in the group’s lead aircraft. The 453rd flew B-17s.

This World War II Veteran Was one of America’s Most Beloved Actors
Jimmy Stewart was well-regarded as a leader and officer by his men and his superiors. Wikimedia

9. Stewart was regarded as a friendly though thoroughly professional officer

On one occasion, Major Stewart was informed that a group of enlisted men had an illegal keg of beer in the barracks, hidden under a blanket. Stewart entered the barracks, uncovered the keg, and drew himself a beer. As he drank it, he addressed the men, saying “Now, now, now it’s been reported that there is a keg of beer somewhere where it’s not supposed to be”. After reminding the men of the seriousness of violating the regulations, he expressed confidence that they would do the right thing if the keg was found. He then finished his beer and left. Nothing else was said about the incident.

On other occasions Stewart was required to discipline the men for infractions, including leaving base without permission, fighting, and other incidents common to military life. He was considered to be fair, even by those men he was forced to fine or reduce in rank. He delivered many of the briefings which preceded missions, which the men found entertaining, even though they knew for many of them it would be their last. One of the men who remarked upon Stewart’s abilities was Walter Matthau, then a radioman with the 453rd Bomb Group. Matthau said Stewart was “marvelous” delivering the briefings.

This World War II Veteran Was one of America’s Most Beloved Actors
Stewart remained in the Air Force Reserve after the war, achieving general’s rank before he retired. Wikimedia

10. Stewart remained in the Air Force Reserve until 1968

In April 1945 Stewart received his promotion to full colonel, assigned as the Chief of Staff for 2nd Air Division, a non-flying position. The war in Europe ended the following month. In September he returned to the United States, traveling on the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth, which had been converted to a troopship during the war. He was one of the millions returned to America in Operation Magic Carpet. To reporters and friends he downplayed his military service, and refused to attend formal events welcoming him home. To one he commented that thousands of men “did far more meaningful things”. He was transferred, at his request, to the Air Force Reserve.

When Stewart returned to Hollywood he had a section added to his contract which forbade the studio from referring to his military service in connection with any of his movies. He seldom spoke of it himself. He allowed Life Magazine to photograph his return to his family home in Indiana, Pennsylvania, but in Hollywood he ignored requests for interviews and welcome home parties. Much later, in-semiretirement, Stewart referred to World War II and his service therein as the greatest experience of his life. Today, Stewart’s bomber jacket is on display in the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio.

This World War II Veteran Was one of America’s Most Beloved Actors
The role of George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life was Stewart’s personal favorite. Wikimedia

11. Stewart returned to films in 1946, with one of his most beloved roles

Stewart’s agent left the business during the Second World War, selling his contracts to the Music Corporation of America (MCA). The actor briefly considered remaining in Indiana running the hardware store before signing with MCA, leaving MGM behind. During Stewart’s absence from Hollywood a Christmas picture, based on the short story The Greatest Gift, was developed with Cary Grant in mind for the lead role. Ultimately the project was dropped, and Grant made another Christmas film instead, The Bishop’s Wife. Frank Capra, who had spent the war making training films, acquired the shelved project from RKO Studios.

Capra had the script rewritten, significantly altering the story from the original. The scriptwriting was done by several writers, and the development was slow and difficult. Ego clashes were frequent and Capra was difficult to please. When Capra read the finalized version of the script, he immediately considered it perfect for his friend, Jimmy Stewart. Stewart’s new agent at MCA, Lew Wasserman, accepted the role without consulting the actor, knowing Stewart would welcome the chance to work with Capra again. The script was about a small-town businessman named George Bailey and his encounter with an angel on Christmas Eve.

This World War II Veteran Was one of America’s Most Beloved Actors
Though it became a classic, It’s a Wonderful Life was only a moderate success in its first release. Wikimedia

12. It’s a Wonderful Life was Jimmy Stewart’s comeback vehicle

James Stewart was more than five years removed from a film set when he reported for work on It’s a Wonderful Life. The entire movie was filmed at RKO Studios and the movie ranch owned by the studio in Encino, with the exception of two scenes. The Martini home was separate. Also the floor opening over the swimming pool was and is at Beverly Hills High School. Capra also added the part of the pet raven, since the same bird had appeared in You Can’t Take It With You, and each of Capra’s Hollywood films since. He considered it a good luck token.

Stewart’s acting in the film, he later said, was influenced by his experiences in the Second World War. He didn’t explain how. When the film was released it was only moderately praised by critics, with good reviews for most of the actors. Stewart was nominated for 1947’s Best Actor award, which he lost to Frederic March (The Best Years of Our Lives). For the next 30 years the film was all but forgotten. Since 1976 It’s A Wonderful Life has been a part of the holiday season in the United States, thanks to television, and it garnered widespread praise as well as criticism. Stewart later named the film as his personal favorite movie in which he appeared.

This World War II Veteran Was one of America’s Most Beloved Actors
Stewart found working with Hitchock stressful, but made several films with the director. Wikimedia

13. Stewart entertained doubts over his future in Hollywood in 1947

Following the box office performance of It’s A Wonderful Life, which lost over a half million dollars, Capra’s company went bankrupt. Stewart, dubious about his abilities on film, returned to radio. In July 1947 he was recruited to fill in the lead role of Elwood P. Dowd in the Broadway production of Harvey. The play was a hit from its opening in 1944, and Stewart’s appearance was to allow the star time off for the summer. He received good reviews, and when the lead actor, Frank Fay, returned in August, Stewart agreed to fill the role again the following summer.

Stewart’s only film in 1947 failed to find an audience, though he remained in demand in Hollywood. The following year he made four feature films. One of them was the first of a collaboration with director Alfred Hitchcock. It was filmed on a single set, with continuous long takes averaging just under ten minutes. Ten minutes was the length of film in a single canister. The actors had to be flawless with dialogue and movement. Stewart found the process stressful. The movie, Rope, did not perform well at the box office, and critics found Stewart was miscast. Though two of his 1948 films were successful, the other two were not, adding to his personal doubts.

This World War II Veteran Was one of America’s Most Beloved Actors
Stewart created a niche for himself in the western genre during the 1950s. Wikimedia

14. Stewart moved to the western genre and found success

In 1949 Stewart starred in The Stratton Story, based on the life of former Major League pitcher Monty Stratton. Stratton lost his leg in a hunting accident, and wearing a wooden leg later made a comeback with a minor league team. It was for Stewart his biggest success since returning from the war. Stewart than learned that a film version of Harvey was in the works, and he lobbied for the role he had played successfully on Broadway. It was offered conditionally. Stewart was first required to appear in a western, Winchester ’73, a film he initially did not want to do. Lew Wasserman used his client’s hesitation to create an innovate deal.

The studio, Universal, agreed to a contract which gave the actor a percentage of the profits from the film, rather than a salary. It also gave Stewart the right to select the director and approval of the cast. Stewart selected Anthony Mann to direct, and the cast included Rock Hudson, Shelley Winters, and Tony Curtis. The film was an enormous financial success for the time, earning Stewart $60,000, far more than his regular salary at the time. It also garnered high praise with the critics, and Stewart went on to mine the lucrative genre of western films in the 1950s. He also received the lead role in Harvey.

This World War II Veteran Was one of America’s Most Beloved Actors
A publicity photo of Stewart from the 1950s. Wikimedia

15. Stewart demonstrated his ability is several film genres in the 1950s

During the 1950s Jimmy Stewart emerged as a major star in the popular American film genre of westerns. He made several movies in other genres as well, including Harvey. The latter was not as popular on release as it later became. As with Winchester ’73, Stewart took part of the profits rather than a salary, and earned about $200,000 from the film, though he later disparaged his own acting. “I played him a little too dreamily, a little too cute – cute”, he said. The film made a profit, but it did not become popular until many years later, when television made it a classic.

In 1954 he again worked with Alfred Hitchcock in Rear Window. The role required Stewart to remain in a body cast, confined for the most part to a wheelchair as he unraveled a murder mystery. Rear Window was the biggest film of 1954 in terms of box office earnings, topping some impressive competition. Look Magazine’s annual list of the most popular Hollywood stars for 1955 placed Jimmy Stewart at the top, overtaking John Wayne. That same year, Stewart appeared in the title role in The Glenn Miller Story, another popular success which brought critical praise as well. It also boosted the record sales of the late band leader ten years after his death.

This World War II Veteran Was one of America’s Most Beloved Actors
Glenn Miller’s recordings sales were boosted a decade after his death when Stewart portrayed him on film. Wikimedia

16. Hollywood and Stewart supported the US Air Force and its role in the Cold War

In the 1950s the US Air Force and the US Navy competed for roles in delivering the atomic bomb to targets overseas. The Navy developed the Polaris missile system, the Air Force the land-based missiles and bombs delivered by aircraft. Strategic Air Command was a film made by Jimmy Stewart. In real life, Stewart remained an Air Force Reserve Colonel, and during his required periods of service he was assigned to the Strategic Air Command. Through Stewart’s own experience, and the full participation of the US Air Force, the film depicted the life of Air Force pilots and administrators during the height of the 1950s red scare.

Although it was one of Stewart’s favorite productions due to his personal closeness to the subject matter, the film left most critics unimpressed. The public was more kind, finding the innovative filming of aerial scenes impressive. The film, made in part to support the steadily rising Air Force budgets and the corresponding higher taxes they required, was the sixth-highest grossing picture of the year. Film critic Bosley Crowther wrote that the plot of the film was inspired by World War II and Korean War veteran Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox. The assertion was denied by nearly all involved in the film, including Stewart. It inspired two additional films depicting the Air Force’s Strategic Air Command in a highly favorable manner, neither of which included Stewart.

This World War II Veteran Was one of America’s Most Beloved Actors
The Spirit of St. Louis lost money, mostly because of the cost overruns incurred in production. Wikimedia

17. Stewart enjoyed portraying American heroes on film, real and fictional

In 1957 James Stewart was cast in the film, The Spirit of St. Louis. It was an opportunity for Stewart to portray his personal childhood hero, Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh’s 1927 solo flight from New York to Paris was what inspired Stewart’s lifelong love of flying and airplanes. Stewart was 47 years of age when he took the role; Lindbergh was 25 at the time of his epic flight. Special techniques were used to make Stewart appear younger, including a blond hairpiece, but the age difference was obvious in the film when references to the pilot’s age were made. As was by then his habit, Stewart waived a salary in favor of collecting a percentage of the profits.

In the end there weren’t any. The film was enormously expensive for the time, even at its original budget. By the time production was complete it had cost more than twice its original budget. It set a record for its opening at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, but attendance fell upon general release. Critics greeted the film with mostly yawns. As one critic pointed out, attempting to build suspense during the long flight sequence was self-defeating. The whole world new that Lindbergh had made it. The closing sequences at Paris showing his reception and his tickertape parade in New York were footage from the real events of 1927, only thirty years earlier.

This World War II Veteran Was one of America’s Most Beloved Actors
The Stewart family in the 1950s. The taller of the two boys, Ronald, was killed serving in Vietnam. Wikimedia

18. Stewart became one of Hollywood’s highest paid actors in the 1950s

Through the decade of the ‘50s, Jimmy Stewart regularly appeared on lists of Hollywood’s most highly paid actors. He was in the top ten every year of the decade except 1951, and in 1955 he was the highest earning Hollywood actor. His acceptance of residuals in lieu of salary brought him financial independence. In 1949 he purchased a Beverly Hills house, which he kept as his primary residence until his death. He and his wife Gloria raised four children there. Two were sons from Gloria’s previous marriage (whom he adopted) and together they had twin daughters. His friend Henry Fonda described the house being “as comfortable as Jimmy, with a splash of style thrown in by Gloria.

Stewart enjoyed building model airplanes, a hobby he took up in the early days in New York, and which he shared with Henry Fonda. Both men also enjoyed designing, building, and flying kites. They played golf together, and both avoided the bright lights and publicity of the Hollywood glamor scene, in its heyday during the 1950s. Actor Gary Cooper was also a close friend. In 1961, Cooper was given an Honorary Academy Award, which was accepted by Stewart on his friend’s behalf. Stewart delivered a speech tinged with emotion, which alerted the public Cooper’s illness was serious. Gary Cooper died of cancer less than one month later, at the age of 59.

This World War II Veteran Was one of America’s Most Beloved Actors
James Stewart in a publicity photo from 1959. Wikimedia

19. Stewart was a major philanthropist during his lifetime

Besides the money made during his film career, Stewart invested wisely over the years, becoming a millionaire many times over. He invested in oil wells, real estate, a pilot-training facility, and a fledgling airline. The airline started as a charter service known as Southwest Airways, became a scheduled service after World War II, and was eventually acquired by Howard Hughes. Stewart also served on corporate boards for major corporations. A former Boy Scout, Stewart took an active role supporting scouting, including as an adult scout leader. He made commercials supportive of scouting in the 1970s and 1980s, though he was never an Eagle scout as is sometimes claimed.

His philanthropy included the creation of the Jimmy Stewart Relay Marathon Race in 1982. The race was created to raise money for St. John’s Health Center’s Family Health and Development Center, and raised millions of dollars since its inception. Stewart also donated money to preserve or maintain landmarks in his hometown of Indiana, Pennsylvania. Most of his and Gloria’s charity was given privately, in keeping with the manner in which he guarded his family and personal life. He also, later in life, became intensely interested in wildlife conservation and education of the public through more humanely run zoos.

This World War II Veteran Was one of America’s Most Beloved Actors
Stewart with actress Chanin Hale in the short-lived sitcom, The Jimmy Stewart Show. Wikimedia

20. Stewart’s acting career continued into the 1970s

In 1962 Jimmy Stewart appeared for the first time in a film which also included John Wayne, How the West Was Won. They were both part of a huge ensemble cast and had no scenes together. The next year they worked together for the first time in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a western shot in black and white. In 1965 Stewart played a major role in the antiwar film Shenandoah, though in real life Stewart supported America’s then expanding presence in Vietnam. He made several other westerns and family friendly films during the 1960s, and in 1970 he performed in a revival of Harvey on Broadway, which ran for three months.

In 1971 he starred in a regrettable sitcom on NBC called The Jimmy Stewart Show. He expressed relief when it was cancelled after just one season. Another television series, a mystery program named Hawkins, featured Stewart in the title role, and was also cancelled after one season. He performed Harvey on television, and returned it to the stage in London in 1975. He was also a frequent guest on variety shows and late-night talk shows during the 1970s. In 1976 he again teamed with John Wayne in The Shootist, playing a doctor who informed Wayne’s character he has terminal cancer. During the scene with Wayne, numerous takes and retakes were required, a problem noted by Wayne.

This World War II Veteran Was one of America’s Most Beloved Actors
Stewart appeared again with John Wayne in Wayne’s last picture, The Shootist. Wikimedia

21. Stewart went into semi-retirement following The Shootist

While filming the scene in which Stewart, portraying a doctor, informed Wayne’s character that he had cancer, so many takes were required that John Wayne joked with the director. “If you want the scene done better, you’d better get yourself a couple of better actors”, he said. Stewart repeatedly blew his lines, which Wayne later said privately was because he couldn’t hear the cues. Stewart confirmed he had a worsening hearing impairment, and often couldn’t follow the dialogue as it was prepared from the script as a result. He continued to act, relegating himself to supporting roles, and turned down the role eventually played by Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond.

John Wayne died in 1979, Henry Fonda in 1982. Stewart’s only public comment on Fonda’s death was “I lost my best friend”. Stewart continued to work periodically in film and television, including in commercials for Campbell’s Soup. He made frequent visits to the White House during the Reagan presidency, having actively campaigned for the former actor in California. His politics and Reagan’s were similar, despite Stewart’s long friendship with the liberal Henry Fonda. He also wrote poetry, which he sometimes recited or read during appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

This World War II Veteran Was one of America’s Most Beloved Actors
The re-release of several of Hitchcock’s films helped introduce James Stewart to a new generation of fans. Wikimedia

22. In the 1980s Stewarts ebbing career was widely recognized and awarded

Annual presentations of It’s a Wonderful Life kept Jimmy Stewart known as his own generation began to leave the scene. It was supported by the re-release of many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, and Vertigo, which had performed poorly when first released (which Hitchcock blamed on Stewart) became an accepted classic. James Stewart received numerous awards for his long career, including an American Film Institute Award in 1980, and Kennedy Center Honors in 1983. Cary Grant presented him with an honorary Oscar in 1985. He had starred with Grant when he won the Best Actor Award for The Philadelphia Story, 45 years earlier.

President Reagan presented Stewart with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1985, the highest civilian honor in the United States. The actor received numerous other awards and honors throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, in celebration of his films and career. He was also honored for his military service, his charitable contributions, and his civic activities. In 1988 he played one more role in films, though not by appearing in one. Stewart appeared to defend much of his own body of work and those of his fellow actors from the days of black and white films dominating the industry. He was joined by several colleagues which included his former costar Katharine Hepburn before a Congressional committee.

This World War II Veteran Was one of America’s Most Beloved Actors
Stewart and Hepburn strenuously objected to the colorization of films like The Philadelphia Story. Wikimedia

23. Stewart took on Ted Turner and others before Congress

During the 1980s several studios and laboratories began the practice of colorizing black and white films. It was immediately controversial. Cary Grant was enthusiastic about the results on some of his films, less so with others. Ted Turner, who owned many classic films through his Turner Entertainment Media supported the colorization. The noted film critics Siskel and Ebert called the process “vandalism”. Frank Capra initially supported colorizing several of his films, including It’s A Wonderful Life and Meet John Doe. James Stewart became a vocal opponent of the process, an argument to which Capra came to agree when he learned he would have no artistic control over the results.

Stewart appeared before a Congressional committee debating the issue in 1988. With him were Katharine Hepburn, Burt Lancaster, Ginger Rogers and several other entertainers whose films could be subjected to colorization. Stewart informed the committee that changing the existing films was wrong, since it was being done purely for profit. Colorized films would replace the existing black and white films in broadcasts and video releases, profiting the owners of the newer color prints, “It’s morally and artistically wrong and these profiteers should leave our film industry alone”, he said. “All this is done for them to make a buck”, said Lancaster, continuing, “Let them make an honest buck”. In the end Turner Entertainment dropped colorization due to its cost, but only after several movies had been subjected to the process.

This World War II Veteran Was one of America’s Most Beloved Actors
Stewart, seen here in Hitchccok’s Rear Window, withdrew from public view entirely following the death of his wife. Wikimedia

24. James Stewart faded quickly after Gloria died in 1994

Gloria Stewart suffered from lung cancer, and died in February 1994. James Stewart, always a withdrawn and private person, became even more withdrawn. He seldom received what friends remained, including Gregory Peck, and remained at home for the most part. Peck reported that Stewart was not depressed, but that he simply wanted to rest in seclusion. In truth, Stewart seldom left his bedroom during the day. When he did it was for meals or for visits with his children and grandchildren. In winter, 1996, he decided not to replace the battery in the pacemaker he wore to control an irregular heartbeat.

Two months later he was hospitalized for an irregular heartbeat. He returned to his home in Beverly Hills, where he died on July 2, 1997 at the age of 89. He was internationally mourned. President Clinton called him a “national treasure”. During his lifetime he was much more than a celluloid hero. He was a decorated war hero, and civic activist, and a philanthropist of note. Most of all, despite the wealth and fame he achieved, it failed to change him from the honorable and kind gentleman he was raised to be. Charlton Heston called him, “a role model and inspiration”. And his former costar, Kim Novak, said of him” He was not an actor. He was the real thing”.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Jimmy Stewart: A Wonderful Life”. Jonathan Coe. 1994

“James Stewart: A Biography”. 1996

“Hank and Jim: The Fifty-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart”. Scott Eyman. 2017

“The Philadelphia Story review – fun and wit rise like champagne bubbles”. Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian. February 12, 2015

“Brig. General James M. Stewart”. Article, National Museum of the United States Air Force. February 16, 2016. Online

“Stewart, James Maitland”. Article, National Aviation Hall of Fame. Online

“Mr. Stewart Goes to War”. Richard L. Hayes, History Net. Online

“The It’s A Wonderful Life Book”. Jeanine Basinger. 1986

“Jimmy Stewart: The Truth Behind the Legend”. Michael Munn. 2005

“James Stewart”. Biography, Bryce Coleman, Turner Classic Movies Database. Online

“Hollywood Independents” The Postwar Talent Takeover”. Denise Mann. 2008

“Everybody’s Man: A Biography of Jimmy Stewart”. Jhan Robbins. 1985

“Jimmy”. Biography, The Jimmy Stewart Museum. Online

“Strategic Air Command”. Thomas S. Power USAF, Sept. 1, 1960. Online

“Movie Review: The Spirit of St. Louis”. Bosley Crowther, The New York Times. February 22, 1957

“Jimmy Stewart: A Life in Film”. Roy Pickard. 1993

“Jimmy Stewart, Burt Lancaster Speak Out For Artists Rights”. Paul Page, Associated Press. March 15, 1988

“The Muse Within Jimmy Stewart”. Beth Ann Krier, Los Angeles Times. September 10, 1989

“Jimmy Stewart, Legendary Actor, Dies at 89”. Leonard Klady, Variety. July 3, 1997. Online

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