James Stewart may best known to the young people of today for his role as George Bailey in the classic 1946 Frank Capra film It's a Wonderful Life, but his ambling stride, sincere, deliberate way of talking, and quiet brand of artistic genius have woven him into the fabric of Americana.
Like George Bailey; like Mr. Smith, who goes to Washington in another famous Capra film; like the son in You Can't Take It with You; like Monty Stratton from The Stratton Story; and like many of the other memorable characters he brought to life on film, Stewart was born in a small town. The town was Indiana, in the hills of western Pennsylvania. The Stewart family hardware store on Philadelphia Street, established by the actor's grandfather and great uncle in 1853, has been demolished for urban renewal, but it was run by Stewart's father, Alex, until the elder Stewart was 88. He was very proud of his son's accomplishments and kept pictures and other memorabilia of his career on display at the store.
The night his son won the Academy Award as best actor of 1940 for his role as the reporter in The Philadelphia Story, Alex called him at 4 a.m. "I hear you won some kind of award," Alex is quoted as having said. "What is it, a plaque or something? Well, anyway, you better bring it back here and we'll put it in the window of the store." It stayed there for 25 years.
After a hometown elementary education, he went on to Mercersburg (PA) Academy, where he played baseball and football, excelled in track, became interested in aviation and radio engineering, sang in the glee club, played accordion, and, during summers, poured concrete with a road gang and hauled brick for a construction company. It was at Princeton University--where he was studying toward a B.S. degree in architecture, which he received in 1932--that Stewart became interested in performing.
Stewart became involved in the university's Triangle Club shows though Josh Logan, later a famed Broadway director, who was a year ahead of him. Logan was instrumental in forming the University Players in Falmouth, MA, and following Stewart's graduation from college, Logan invited him to join the company for the summer.
Stewart played a few small roles with the University Players, but he didn't get his break until Goodbye Again had its pre-Broadway tryout in Falmouth. Stewart won a minor role as a chauffeur, but managed to put so much humor into his two lines in three minutes on stage that he impressed visiting Broadway critics. As a result, he played the supporting role of Constable Gano in the unsuccessful play Carry Nation, in which he made his Broadway debut in October 1932. He again played the chauffeur in Goodbye Again when it arrived on Broadway on December 28 of that year. His first substantial Broadway role, however, was that of Sgt. O' Hara, the idealistic soldier in Yellow Jack in 1934, which won more praise for Stewart than for the play.
It was while Stewart was playing a juvenile lead in a Broadway play, Journey by Night, that a talent scout from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer saw him and arranged a photo session. As a result of the photo session, Stewart got into Hollywood with a contract with MGM.
He arrived in Hollywood by train during the summer of 1935, set up bachelor quarters with a young actor named Henry Fonda (with whom Stewart had roomed in New York), and went to work in the creative atmosphere he was always to love best--in front of the camera in the "big studio."
His first role was that of a police officer named Shorty in a vehicle called Murder Man. During his first five Hollywood years, he made 24 movies, including Next Time We Love (1936), Seventh Heaven (1937), the Oscar-winning You Can't Take it with You (1938), and Destry Rides Again (1939).
One of his most memorable and important roles came in 1939 with Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which he played the idealistic young senator who fights political corruption with the same sincerity and hard core of courage that have always seemed to be a part of the man. It earned him a New York Film Critics Award and his first Oscar nomination. The following year, he won the Oscar for The Philadelphia Story.
By then, World War II was raging. Stewart tried to enlist but was rejected by the Army because he was underweight. He tackled that challenge by eating fattening foods and passing the weight test by one ounce. He was reported to have been making a salary of $300 a week as an actor before he went into the Army in March 1941 as a private at $21 per month.
Although he was nearly 33, which was considered old for a combat flyer, he obtained an assignment to the Army Air Forces and eventually won an appointment to flight school. He resented any preferential treatment and was vocal in expressing his feelings. He won his wings in August 1942 and instructed bombardier cadets until November 1943, when he went to Europe as the commander of an Eighth Air Force bomber squadron.
Again he became a star--this time in the sky. He flew 25 missions over enemy territory, some of them as commander of a bomber wing. He returned to the United States in September 1945 with the rank of colonel, and was decorated with the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross with oak leaf cluster. Still active in the Air Force Reserve, he attained the rank of brigadier general in July 1959.
It's a Wonderful Life, in 1946, was the first film in five years for Stewart, its star, and for Frank Capra, its creator, producer, and director. It remains their favorite motion picture.
"Frank called me while I was wondering what I was going to do after the war, and he told me he had an idea for a picture," recalls Stewart. "He said, 'This story starts in heaven. You're going to contemplate killing yourself by jumping off a bridge. Then this angel named Clarence comes down to save you, only he can't swim so you save him.' It sounded awful, but I told Frank that if he wanted to do it, I was his man."
The film is Stewart's favorite because, he explains, "It's what a true motion picture should be. It takes a tiny but very important idea--in this case, the idea that you're not born to be a failure--and developed it into a whole movie." For his performance, Stewart was again nominated for an Academy Award.
Numerous film roles followed. Among them were a hard-boiled reporter in Northside 777 (1948); Monty Stratton, the Chicago White Sox pitcher who lost his leg in a hunting accident, in The Stratton Story (1949); and Elwood P. Dowd, the gently amusing alcoholic with the invisible six-foot rabbit companion in the motion picture version of Harvey (1950).
Stewart took on another important role when he married Gloria Hatrick McLean on Aug. 9, 1949, in the Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church. They had four children: two boys, Ronald (killed in Vietnam when he was 24) and Michael, by Mrs. Stewart's previous marriage, and twin girls, Judy and Kelly.
During the 1950s Stewart starred in numerous films, including Broken Arrow (1950), The Glenn Miller Story (1954), Strategic Air Command (1955), The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), and Anatomy of a Murder (1959), for which he won another New York Film Critics Award and Oscar nomination. Also during this period he had the lead in three Alfred Hitchcock films: Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Vertigo.
In addition to the television presentation of "Harvey," Stewart, who made his television debut in "The Windmill" on General Electric Theater April 24, 1955, has appeared in a number of television productions, including his own series, "The Jimmy Stewart Show," in the early 1970s; "Hawkins on Murder" (1974); "Krugger's Christmas," in 1981; and "Right of Way."
Among Stewart's numerous additional awards have been the American Film Institute's prestigious Life Achievement Award in 1980 and the Screen Actors Guild Award for "outstanding Achievement in fostering the finest ideals of the acting profession."