James Stewart Biography

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Birth Name: James Stewart
Born: 05/20/1908
Birth Place: Indiana, Pennsylvania, USA
Death Place: Beverly Hills, California, USA
Died: 07/02/1997

James Maitland Stewart was born on May 20, 1908 in Indiana, PA. He was the eldest child and only son born to Elizabeth Ruth Jackson and Alexander Stewart, who ran a successful hardware store in the town for more than 50 years. Growing up in Indiana, "Jimmy," as he was known, excelled in both academic and extracurricular activities such as football, track, choir, glee club and as the editor of the school's yearbook. Instilled with a strong work ethic from his parents, Stewart earned money over the summers with work in construction, and later, as a magician's assistant. The young man's love of aircraft had initially led him to consider pursuing aviation in the United States Naval Academy. His father, however, had other plans, and insisted that his son attend his alma mater, Princeton University. There, Stewart once again distinguished himself in his architecture major, so much so, that he was awarded a scholarship for graduate studies in the program. Always fond of performing and the arts, Stewart had also joined Princeton's Triangle Club, the school's touring theater troupe. As fate would have it, by the time he graduated with his degree in architecture in 1932, America was in the depths of the Great Depression and Stewart was doubtful as to how many opportunities his chosen field would provide. When former classmate and Triangle Club member Joshua Logan invited Stewart to join him at the University Players, a collegiate summer stock company in the Cape Cod area of Massachusetts, Stewart gamely said yes.

During the summer of 1932, Stewart learned the ropes of the theater business, doing everything from building and designing sets, providing musical entertainment on his accordion, and picking up bit parts in several productions. Also at University Players at the time were future stars Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan - whose brief marriage was coming to an end in 1932. As roommates that summer, Stewart and Fonda - despite having polar opposite political views (Stewart being a staunch Republican and Fonda a Democrat) - became life long friends, as well as professional contemporaries. When a Broadway mounting of the play "Carry Nation" took the company to New York at the end of the season, both Stewart and Fonda went with them, once again as roommates. As small as his role had been in the production, it was enough to garner the young actor attention, which led to another minor role in the Broadway comedy "Goodbye Again." Proving the old axiom that there are no small parts, only small actors, Stewart's brief, two-line appearance as a chauffeur brought the house down and brought him to the attention of New York critics. Still, despite this early, minor success, the Depression remained and times were tough for Stewart over the next few years. Eventually, favorable notices in Broadway productions like 1934's "Yellow Jack" and "Divided by Three" garnered Stewart a screen test with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Fonda had already made the transition a year earlier, and in the spring of 1935, Stewart followed his friend to Hollywood after signing on as a contract player for MGM.

Stewart began his lengthy tenure at the MGM "factory" with a small part opposite Spencer Tracy in the feature film "The Murder Man" (1935). Although the crime-drama was not well-received, Stewart's work impressed the veteran actor Tracy, who after reportedly advising the nervous young thespian to "forget the camera," could only marvel at Stewart's natural ability. A string of supporting roles followed, including one starring Margaret Sullavan, his old friend from the University Players, who lobbied extensively to have Stewart cast opposite her in the melodrama "Next Time We Love" (1936). As was the custom at MGM at the time, all its stars were expected to be in at least one musical, and Stewart, despite his questionable singing ability, was no exception. Alongside Eleanor Powell, he bravely warbled the opening rendition of Cole Porter's "Easy to Love" for the musical extravaganza "Born to Dance" (1936), endearing himself to audiences in the process. A turning point came in 1936 when Stewart acquired Leland Hayward - who would later marry Sullavan - as his agent. In Hayward's view, Stewart's full, as yet untapped, potential could be best achieved by loaning the MGM actor out to other studios. For RKO, Stewart worked with then-girlfriend Ginger Rogers in director George Stevens' romantic-comedy "Vivacious Lady" (1938). At the height of his career, director Frank Capra hand-picked Stewart to co-star in the smash hit "You Can't Take it With You" (1938) for Columbia Pictures and one year later, producer David O. Selznick placed him in the drama "Made For Each Other" (1939), opposite comedienne Carole Lombard in a rare dramatic role.

Capra was so impressed by Stewart's performance in his previous film that he cast him as the titular lead character in the political drama "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939), once again for Columbia. The story about one idealistic young man standing up to corruption in Washington, D.C. was a perfect vehicle for Stewart, who exuded a sort of home-spun nobility. Although highly controversial upon its release, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" was an undeniable box office success, considered one of Capra's very best efforts, and the film that officially made Stewart a movie star. That same year, he appeared in his first Western, opposite Marlene Dietrich - another of his early off-screen paramours - for Universal Picture's remake "Destry Rides Again" (1939). Back at MGM, Stewart and gal pal Sullavan co-starred in a pair of revered films - the Ernst Lubitsch-directed romantic-comedy "The Shop Around the Corner" (1940) and the haunting anti-Nazi drama "The Mortal Storm" (1940). The biggest surprise in Hollywood that year also prominently featured Stewart, in addition to stars Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Directed by George Cukor, "The Philadelphia Story" (1940) was a screwball comedy of the highest order, favored by critics and embraced by audiences. The film not only saved the floundering career of Hepburn - who, two years earlier had been dubbed "box office poison" - but won Stewart his first and only Best Actor Academy Award for his role as the reporter-with-a-heart, Macaulay "Mike" Connor.

With the outbreak of hostilities in Europe, Stewart became one of the first high-profile Hollywood stars to don a uniform. First drafted, then turned away, due to his inability to meet the U.S. Army's weight requirement, the determined actor put on extra pounds and volunteered for service. In the wake of Pearl Harbor and mere days after accepting his Oscar for "Philadelphia Story," Stewart was inducted into the Army Air Forces as a private in 1941. A life-long aviation enthusiast, he had already logged hundreds of hours as a civilian pilot, thus allowing the 33-year-old to enter flight training. After earning his wings and spending time as a flight instructor stateside, Captain Stewart at last finagled his way to Europe as part of a B-24 bomber squadron in 1943. Having led no fewer than 20 bombing missions over Nazi Germany, Stewart completed his service in England as wing operations officer and chief of staff for the 2nd Combat Bomb Wing. By the time of his discharge in 1945, he had earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Air Medals and attained the rank of colonel. Even after his return to Hollywood, Stewart diligently retained his status as a reservist, and in 1959 was promoted to the rank of brigadier general by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1966, 22 years after flying combat missions over Germany, Stewart flew on a B-52 bombing mission over Vietnam as an observer, before retiring completely in 1968.

One of Stewart's first orders of business upon returning to Hollywood was to decline to renew his contract with MGM. As one of the film industry's first independent contractors, he was free to pick and choose his roles, scripts and even directors. With his first motion picture since the war, Stewart delivered what would become his best-known performance, as well as his personal favorite - that of George Bailey in Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946). A uniquely American fable about a man (Stewart) brought back from the brink of suicide by a guardian angel (Henry Travers) who shows him just how profoundly his life has affected those around him, the film was pure Capra. Stewart's captivating work in the movie earned him yet another Academy Award nomination and even prompted President Harry S. Truman to comment, "If Bess and I had a son, we'd want him to be just like Jimmy Stewart." In retrospect, "It's a Wonderful Life" met with surprisingly mixed reviews and performed far under expectation at theaters in the year of its release. Only decades later, after repeated airings on television in syndication, would it earn the reputation as a cherished holiday classic.

Stewart sought to revise his sentimental image for a post-war American populace, jaded by memories of the Great Depression and the horrors of World War II. As the decade came to a close, the actor began taking on roles that deliberately cast him against type, often as conflicted anti-heroes. Most notable among these transitional new roles was his performance as a cynical newspaperman in Henry Hathaway's noir drama "Call Northside 777" (1948). It was also a period that began lengthy, fruitful collaborations with two of cinema's most respected directors. He worked for Alfred Hitchcock for the first time in the technologically innovative thriller "Rope" (1948), another film that only achieved its vaunted status long after its initial release. Stewart's inaugural collaboration with director Anthony Mann was in the hugely successful Western tale of revenge "Winchester '73" (1950). The actor's personal life was also undergoing a renovation at the time. Long considered one of Hollywood's most eligible bachelors - past romantic interests included the likes of Ginger Rogers and Norma Shearer - Stewart married former model Gloria Hatrick McLean in 1949. One of filmdom's most successful couples, he remained with Gloria until her death in 1994.

Despite his forays into edgier drama, Stewart's days in sentimental, light-hearted fare were far from over. Another of his most memorable roles was the pleasant, eccentric Elwood P. Dowd - a character he had played to great acclaim on Broadway a few years prior - in the screen adaptation of "Harvey" (1950). Stewart earned his fourth Oscar nomination for his turn as the gentle man whose best friend was a six-foot, invisible talking rabbit. The in-demand actor later reteamed with director Mann for three back-to-back projects, beginning with the gritty Western action-adventure "The Naked Spur" (1953), followed by the brawling oil rig adventure "Thunder Bay" (1953) and the big band biopic "The Glenn Miller Story" (1954), with Stewart in the title role as the revered band leader. He reunited with Hitchcock for the tense, voyeuristic thriller "Rear Window" (1954), considered by film scholars to be one of the director's most accomplished efforts. Two years later, he re-upped with the master for Hitchcock's "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1956), a remake of the director's 1934 suspense film of the same name.

After portraying his childhood hero Charles Lindbergh in the biopic "The Spirit of St. Louis" (1957) for director Billy Wilder, Stewart collaborated with Hitchcock for the fourth and final time in the psychological thriller "Vertigo" (1958). The latter film, which met with mixed to negative reviews from both fans and critics in 1958, would only later become acknowledged as one of Hitchcock's most personal masterworks and ranked as one of the greatest films ever made by several critics groups. Rebounding admirably from the disappointment of "Vertigo," Stewart earned a Best Actor Award from the New York Film Critics Circle for his role as a cunning and determined defense lawyer in the groundbreaking courtroom crime-drama "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959), directed by Otto Preminger. Another hit came opposite screen icon John Wayne for the first time in director John Ford's classic psychological Western "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962). Stewart enjoyed two more film successes that year - the epic "How the West Was Won" (1962) and the family-comedy "Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation" (1962). This marked a turning point in the revered actor's lengthy career, and while Stewart continued to make movies throughout the remainder of the decade, with the exception of efforts like the survival-adventure "The Flight of the Phoenix" (1965), few were particularly memorable.

In 1970, Stewart revived his role in "Harvey" for a Broadway revival opposite Helen Hayes. He also made occasional ventures into the world of television, most notably as star of two short-lived series. Both characters being equally familiar to longtime Stewart fans, he first played a small town college professor on the sitcom "The Jimmy Stewart Show" (NBC, 1971-72), followed by a stint as a countrified investigative attorney on the mystery "Hawkins" (CBS, 1973-74). Later, he saddled up with "The Duke" one more time as the co-star of John Wayne's final film "The Shootist" (1976). Less memorable was a supporting role opposite Robert Mitchum's Philip Marlowe in the misguided remake of "The Big Sleep" (1978) and an appearance in the only musical installment of the canine franchise, "The Magic of Lassie" (1978). Having made a small fortune over the years through shrewd business investments, Stewart settled comfortably into semi-retirement, making periodic appearances on television projects like the septuagenarian drama "Right of Way" (HBO, 1983), co-starring fellow legend Bette Davis.

At the 57th Academy Awards in 1984, Stewart was presented with an Academy Honorary Award for his 50 years of achievement in motion pictures by his longtime friend and former co-star, Cary Grant. In a real world moment that echoed his iconic role in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," in 1988 he and several other Hollywood notables, including Burt Lancaster and Katharine Hepburn, testified before Congress to oppose the colorization of classic films, a controversial innovation spearheaded by media mogul Ted Turner. Stewart also revealed a softer side of himself in his twilight years when he published a book of poetry, simply titled Jimmy Stewart and his Poems in 1989. Two years later, the beloved film star lent his voice to the animated adventure "An American Tail: Fievel Goes West" (1991) - his final film performance. One day after the death of fellow screen legend and "The Big Sleep" co-star Robert Mitchum, Stewart died of a pulmonary embolism at his Beverly Hills home on July 2, 1997. Upon hearing the news of his passing, President Bill Clinton lamented, "America has lost a national treasure today. Jimmy Stewart was a great actor, a gentleman and a patriot." James Stewart was 89 years old.

By Bryce Coleman




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