James Stewart, who was once described as “unusually usual” and who was a star for 60 years due to that Everyman quality, died Wednesday at his Beverly Hills home at the age of 89.
Stewart’s affability, his oft-imitated halting speech pattern, and tall, lanky posture went through three distinct phases in Hollywood. The first was in the ’30s when he rose slowly up the ranks from supporting player to leading man in sophisticated comedies like “Made for Each Other” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” culminating in his best actor Oscar for “The Philadelphia Story” in 1940.
After World War II, he adapted his persona to more mature, troubled characters in such film classics as “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Broken Arrow,” “Vertigo” and “Anatomy of a Murder.”
Finally, he continued to work in the ’60s and after, often in frothy family comedies and in TV, but became less known for his work than his presence; he was an eminence gris, the revered and sometimes indulged (as when he read his own poetry on “The Tonight Show”) spirit of Old Hollywood folksiness.
Stewart was the 1980 recipient of the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award; in saluting his former colleague, director Frank Capra said there are few performers capable of making the craft disappear to the extent that “all that’s left is the person on the screen.” Pointing to Stewart he added, “that tall stringbean … he’s one of them.”
While never a great actor in the classic sense, he was a great screen presence, capable of wrapping his persona around any given role and commanding audience empathy.
Stewart was born in Indiana, Pa., on May 20, 1908, the son of a hardware store owner. After attending Princeton as an architecture major, he was invited by another alumnus, Joshua Logan, to join the Logan University Players — at first to play the accordion, but eventually to take on bit parts with other former schoolmates, including Margaret Sullavan and Henry Fonda, who remained a lifelong friend.
Bit by the acting bug, he moved to New York, where Fonda was one of his roommates. He was steadily employed in small theatrical roles, breaking through in 1934 in “Yellow Jack,” his performance earning assessments such as “simple, sensitive and true,” by the New York World Telegram reviewer Robert Garland.
Future gossip columnist Hedda Hopper saw him in his next play “Divided by Three” and touted him to MGM’s casting department. Under contract, he made his film debut in the 1935 “Murder Man” and made eight films in the next year.
The gangly, at times awkward, actor made his first big impact with the unlikely assignment of introducing Cole Porter’s “Easy to Love” in the 1936 “Born to Dance” opposite Eleanor Powell.
But as was true of many contract players of the day, he had to work outside MGM before his potential was recognized by the studio toppers (who were so wrong about Stewart that they cast him as a villain in “After the Thin Man”).
The actor began to hit his stride in 1938 when he starred in RKO’s “Vivacious Lady” opposite Ginger Rogers and the first of his Capra films, “You Can’t Take it With You” at Columbia.
Full-fledged stardom came the following year in another Col pic, Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (which secured Stewart his first Academy Award nomination) and Universal’s hit Western comedy “Destry Rides Again” with Marlene Dietrich.
In 1940, back at MGM, he starred in the screen version of Philip Barry’s “The Philadelphia Story,” in which he was encircled by the creme de la creme team of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant under the smooth directorial hand of George Cukor. Stewart took home the Oscar for the pic.
His boyish charm and graceful demeanor attracted directors such as Frank Capra, Ernst Lubitsch and George Stevens during that period. Stewart epitomized an ideal vision of middle-American manhood, combining innocence, sincerity and moral integrity, prized virtues that would be swept away by cynicism and disillusionment following the nation’s involvement in the war.
While the U.S. was preparing for the war effort, Stewart and his pal Fonda did a magic act for the USO. When he tried to volunteer for service, he was told he was too thin. He altered his diet and gained weight.
With 400 hours of civilian flying time behind him, he was assigned to the Air Force base at Moffet Field. He rose quickly from mechanic to second lieutenant to lieutenant colonel. After flying bombing missions over Germany from his base in England, Stewart was awarded the Air Foce Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross with Oak Leaf Cluster and the Croix de Guerre. He eventually rose to the Air Force rank of brigadier general.
After flying 25 missions over Germany as commander of the Eighth Air Force bomber squadron, Stewart adapted to the post-war world, reinventing his persona. Instead of re-signing with MGM, he joined Liberty Prods., a brief partnership between Capra and George Stevens.
The 1946 “It’s a Wonderful Life” was the dark side of the Capra vision and Stewart’s years of war experience contributed in a chiaroscuro performance that was so harrowing and real in some sections (although not without some Capra-corn elements) that audiences turned away. Still, Stewart nabbed his third Oscar nom. After the pic’s copyright elapsed, it came to be appreciated on TV as a Christmas classic, and the pic became probably his most acclaimed and well-known effort.
In 1949 he married Gloria Hatrick MacLean; two years later, they had twin daughters Kelly and Judith. When asked what the most important accomplishment of his life was, Stewart said, “marrying my wife. She’s made my life more exciting and interesting and meaningful than I ever thought it could be and she’s kept that up.”
In 1950 he starred in one of his few post-war comedies, “Harvey” (which earned him a fourth Oscar bid) and “Winchester 73.” The latter pic marked the first of Stewart’s string of violent and psychologically complex Westerns and thrillers for, respectively, directors Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock.
The new Westerns were gritty, brutal, unsparing; they showed a Stewart capable of ferocity. “Winchester 73” and Delmer Daves’ “Broken Arrow,” also in 1950, did more than revive Stewart’s career: They made him a rich man.
Under the counsel of his agents Lew Wasserman and Leland Hayward, he opted for a percentage of profits in lieu of salary. Though the tactic had been popular in the silent era, it disappeared under the studio system, and increased the power and earning capability of movie stars and their agents exponentially.
One of his more successful ’50s films, “The Glenn Miller Story,” netted Stewart more than $1 million — about 50% of the movie’s profits.
Stewart also brought luster to Cecil B. DeMille’s best-pic Oscar winner “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Although he had first teamed with Hitchcock in the stilted 1948 “Rope,” Stewart later starred in two of the suspense master’s finest films, 1954’s “Rear Window” and 1958 “Vertigo” as well as a ’56 remake of “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”
By 1955 his star was shining at its brightest, as he was the biggest box office attraction in the U.S. However, one of his personal favorites, Billy Wilder’s 1957 “The Spirit of St. Louis,” was curiously unpopular, but the actor capped the decade by winning the New York Film Critics award for Otto Preminger’s “Anatomy of a Murder,” the 1959 pic that marked his fifth Academy Award nomination.
In the ’60s, studio mogul Jack Warner learned of Ronald Reagan’s presidential aspirations and acutely remarked, “No. Jimmy Stewart for president. Ronald Reagan for best friend.”
Had Stewart decided to enter politics, it is easy to imagine that the life-long conservative Republican would have had no trouble being elected chief executive. Or that it might have been considered a step down from his perch as one of Hollywood’s most likable and popular stars.
Although he continued to star in films until the late 1970s, rarely at a rate of more than two a year, his last great performance was arguably in John Ford’s 1962 classic “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” opposite John Wayne.
After starring in several of Ford’s later films and the Western “Shenandoah” in the mid-’60s, his last starring role was in the 1971 drama “Fool’s Parade,” for which he collected his then standard $250,000 fee and 10% of the gross. When the film failed, he went into semi-retirement, making guest appearances in films and reviving “Harvey” onstage in New York and London.
He starred in “The Jimmy Stewart Show,” an NBC sitcom that ran for one season in 1971. His 1973 vidpic “Hawkins on Murder” served as a pilot to his law drama series, which ran for the 1973-74 season on CBS. He also appeared in other occasional TV longforms, like the 1983 “Right of Way” with Bette Davis and the 1989 “North and South, Book II.” In 1991, he provided a voice for the animated “An American Tail: Fievel Goes West.”
Aside from his five Oscar nominations, in 1985 he was voted an honorary Oscar for the body of his work and the Medal of Freedom from President Reagan.
His wife died Feb. 16, 1994, after 44 years of marriage. Stewart is survived by a son, Michael McLean, and daughters Judy Merrill and Kelly Harcourt.