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Jimmy Stewart Biography: an American Actor

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Jimmy Stewart Biography

James Stewart

U.S. Air Force Photo
Classic movie star, war hero, family man - Jimmy Stewart's biography shows why he is among the best loved American actors of all time. Jimmy Stewart was adored for his earnest, unassuming nature, and remembered for portraying men with strong principles. His own life was no exception.

Jimmy Stewart - All-American Upbringing

James Maitland Stewart (Jimmy Stewart) was born May 20, 1908 in Indiana, Pennsylvania, where his father Alex ran the hardware store his grandfather founded in 1848. His childhood, by all accounts, was happy: as the oldest of three children and the only son, Jimmy idolized his hard-working father.

Self-sufficient and industrious, Jimmy spent hours by himself, building model planes, dreaming of the African safari he would someday take, and writing plays to perform for the neighborhood children (To Hell with the Kaiser, for one, which he wrote while his father was fighting in World War I.)

His mother Elizabeth was an accomplished pianist who passed her musical gift to her children: at prep school, Jimmy played accordion in the orchestra and sang in choir and glee club. Never a slouch, he also participated in football, track and drama club, and was editor of the yearbook.

The Theater Bug Bites:

Jimmy loved aviation, and dreamed of attending the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Alex, however, insisted that his son attend his own alma mater, Princeton. His talent with the accordion won Jimmy a slot in the university’s famed Triangle Club, the nation’s oldest collegiate musical-comedy troupe. He majored in architecture, and his impressive thesis on airport design earned the offer of a graduate scholarship. But the economic uncertainty following the 1929 stock market crash left him doubtful he could land a job as an architect.

Instead, he accepted a summer gig performing with the University Players on Cape Cod. Brought on primarily for his musical skills, Jimmy received a crash course in the theater biz, serving as everything from set designer to stagehand. His acting forays were mainly bit parts, perhaps because the juicy roles went to fellow trouper and soon-to-be-famous actor Henry Fonda. The two hit it off, and began a close, lifelong friendship.

Together, the BFFs set their sights on the Broadway stage, sharing an apartment in New York and acquiring a reputation as playboys. After two years of critical acclaim as a Broadway actor, Jimmy’s performance in Yellow Jack (1934) finally caught the attention of MGM, and he was flown to Hollywood for a screen test.

Jimmy Stewart's Early Film Career:

His first feature film saw Jimmy cast as “Shorty” in the B-movie The Murder Man, starring Spencer Tracy. Jimmy was shocked by his own gangly awkwardness on screen, but critics praised his natural ease and unconventional good looks. He signed with MGM for $350 a week, six days a week, 52 weeks a year. He worked hard and played hard, dating a string of women that included Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth, and Marlene Dietrich, his sultry costar in Destry Rides Again. (Rumor has it Dietrich came on too strong and scared him off before any romance could start.)

Jimmy’s performance in Navy Blue and Gold (1937) captured the eye of Frank Capra, the prolific director who would play a pivotal role in the young actor’s career. Said Capra: “I sensed the character and rock-ribbed honesty of Gary Cooper, plus the breeding and intelligence of an Ivy League idealist.”

After a successful turn in Capra’s You Can’t Take it With You, Jimmy replaced Gary Cooper in Capra’s next picture, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). He earned great reviews, his first Oscar nomination and star status for the iconic, still-beloved character. Jimmy lost the Oscar in 1939 to Robert Donat in Goodbye Mr. Chips, but won the next year for The Philadelphia Story (1940), in what was seen as consolation for losing as Mr. Smith. Jimmy was embarrassed by his win, especially since he beat out Henry Fonda (for The Grapes of Wrath).

Hollywood Hero:

When he was drafted by the Army in 1940, MGM offered to finagle a deferment, but Jimmy considered it his patriotic and familial duty to serve his country. (Both his grandfathers served in the Civil War; his father in WWI.) Dismayed when the Army turned him away for being underweight, he went home, fattened up, and enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1941. A licensed pilot with over 400 hours of flying time, he flew dangerous combat missions in Europe, rising to the rank of Colonel. He remained with the Army Reserves until he reached mandatory retirement age in 1968, ending his military career as a Brigadier General.

Jimmy Stewart, the Family Man:

Back in Hollywood in 1945, Jimmy decided not to renew his MGM contract. He signed with MCA Talent Agency, becoming one of the industry’s first independent actors, a daring move for the times.

In 1949, at age 41, Jimmy met Gloria Hatrick MacLean at a dinner party thrown by Gary Cooper, and bid farewell to bachelorhood. He adopted Gloria’s two sons from a previous marriage, Ronald and Michael; in 1951, the couple had twin daughters, Kelly and Judy.

Chronic Collaborators:

For his post-war comeback film, Jimmy reteamed with Frank Capra for It’s A Wonderful Life. He received his third Oscar nomination for his iconic turn as George Bailey, but reactions to the film were mixed, its unabashed Americanism out of step to a public disenchanted by years of war.

In his first collaboration with famed director Alfred Hitchcock, Rope (1948), Jimmy explored the edgier side of his range, playing a disturbed character of ambiguous sexuality. Perhaps as a counterpoint, he subsequently teamed with Anthony Mann, who directed him in numerous macho-cum-sadistic westerns including Winchester ’73 (effectively negotiating a percentage of back-end profits, a landmark move at the time); and The Man From Laramie (performing physically demanding stunts at age 47.)

Later collaborations with Hitchcock proved more auspicious; Vertigo (1958) is widely regarded as Hitchcock’s masterpiece, and Jimmy’s most nuanced performance.

The Silver Fox:

Though he continued to make films well into the 1970s, Stewart’s later years were also notable for his political activism on behalf of the Republican Party, and his opposition to Ted Turner’s campaign to colorize classic black-and-white films.

He made several appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson to read his own rustic, no-frills poetry. In 1985, he was honored with a lifetime achievement Oscar. Stewart’s health declined rapidly in the years after wife Gloria succumbed to cancer, and he died on July 2, 1997, at the age of 89, of heart failure. His last words were, “I’m going to be with Gloria now.”

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