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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