It was a wonderful life.
James Stewart, movie star, war hero, good citizen and just plain nice guy.
The Hollywood community mourned the death of a legend Wednesday and recalled a man who epitomized the virtues of his craft and the best of human values.
“He was my favorite friend,” said Lew Wasserman who repped him between 1944 and 1962. “It’s very sad for me but I also know that he will live on forever in the films he made.”
Wasserman engineered a now famous and ground-breaking deal for Stewart with Universal in 1950. The actor agreed to waive his salary and share in the profits – if any – on “Harvey” and “Winchester ’73.” While the first film earned the actor an Oscar nomination and an iconographic role, it was a commercial flop. “Winchester,” however, was one of the year’s biggest hits and paved the way for a string of popular westerns roles.
In a career that spanned 56 years, Stewart earned virtually every film award and ranks second all-time to John Wayne in the annual Quigley poll of most popular performers. The decent, hesitant, awkward aspects of some of his screen performances colored the popular perception of him. However, his filmography reveals a much wider range in his canon.
“He was the quintessential American face,” said Charlton Heston, who worked with him in 1952’s “The Greatest Show on Earth.” “He taught me a lot when I was starting out. Jimmy had the best attitude and work habits. He told me that he had always wanted to play a clown and he simply immersed himself in the part right down to creating his own makeup. I also learned a great deal from just watching how he conducted himself in public. He loved the work and respected the people who made him a star. He was a role model and inspiration.”
Andrew McLaglen, who directed four films with Stewart, recalled how he volunteered to return after completion of his filming to do off-camera work with Dean Martin on “Bandolero.” But he floored everyone when he arrived on set in wardrobe to deliver lines out of camera range.
The Stewart oeuvre spanned the laconic but savvy lawman of “Destry Rides Again” to the obsessive, vengeful cowboy of “The Man from Laramie.” He embodied Hollywood’s concept of the American value system, tilting at windmills in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” balancing the scales of justice in “Northside 777” and taking on an entire era of lawlessness in “The FBI Story.”
It was the innate wholesome quality that allowed the actor — and such directors as Capra, Hitchcock and Anthony Mann — to play with the image and create more textured and deeper performances. It’s difficult to imagine another actor providing the tragic underpinnings for George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” as he’s consumed by crippling doubt, or of “Vertigo’s” Scottie Jeffers as he sinks into dementia.
“He was a shy, modest man,” recalled MPAA chairman Jack Valenti. “I remember that he had agreed to say a few words when I received an award at Cannes. I could see he was very uncomfortable and I asked him what was wrong. He said that though he could be a thousand characters on screen, the thing that got him unglued was having to be himself.”
Valenti also recalled trading war stories with Stewart. Both were air force pilots during World War II, with the actor commanding a B-17 bomber squadron. He said Stewart talked about strategy and operations but never himself.
Wasserman remembered Stewart being among the first draft call-ups, but Valenti believed the then-34-year-old performer was an enlistee. The memory factor recalls one of Stewart’s best roles as “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” in which, after telling the truth to some newsmen, one of the scribes tears up his notes and says that it’s better to “print the legend.”
“He was a patriot,” said Wasserman. “I remember he was called back into service for a month back in the 1970s and an Air Force major put me through a two-hour grilling asking about his personal habits. When Jimmy came back, I asked him what on earth was he doing that they need to know such arcane things. Well, they had him piloting (General) Curtis LeMay’s plane for some tour.”
While unquestionably a screen icon and a popular star, Stewart was often typed as a personality performer by critics and not given his full due. The actor said that his trademark stammer resulted from a lifelong difficulty with memorizing scripts. He turned a seeming disability into memorable character traits in such films as “Anatomy of a Murder,” “The Naked Spur,” “Shop Around the Corner,” “Rear Window,” “Shenandoah” and “The Flight of the Phoenix.”
“There’s no question he was happiest when he was working,” said McLaglen. “He was a dedicated actor. He was totally prepared but he appreciated direction and he was game for any suggestion. And he was precise. If we did multiple takes, he remembered every idiosyncrasy in his delivery. Easy-going Jimmy has a very strong backbone. He will never be forgotten.”
Jim Katz, who restored “Vertigo,” said that when the film was reissued in 1984, Stewart thought of it as “an old film,” but the more recent full restoration made it “new” for him again. “He loved to encounter people seeing it for the first time. He loved the work and that will live on always.”
“Vertigo” co-star Kim Novak, who remained in close touch with him issued a statement: “He taught me that it was possible to remain who you are and not be tainted by your environment … He was not an actor, he was the real thing.”