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 and 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.
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 in 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.
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.
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 then 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 innovative 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 from critics, and Stewart went on to mine the lucrative genre of western films in the 1950s. He also received the lead role in Harvey.
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.
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, and 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.
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 knew that Lindbergh had made it. The closing sequences at Paris showing his reception and his ticker-tape parade in New York were footage from the real events of 1927, only thirty years earlier.
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 as 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.
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 in 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.
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 parts 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 canceled after just one season. Another television series, a mystery program named Hawkins, featured Stewart in the title role and was also canceled 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.
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 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.
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 including his former costar Katharine Hepburn before a Congressional committee.
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 of 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.
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 the winter of 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”.
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