Actor. Born James Maitland Stewart, on May 20, 1908 in Indiana, Pennsylvania, the first of three children to Elizabeth and Alexander Stewart. Alexander, a graduate of Princeton University, ran the prosperous family hardware shop that was founded in 1853. Stewart attended boarding school at the Mercersburg Academy where he was a member of the glee club, the school’s football team, and the dramatics club.
Like his father, Stewart attended Princeton University from 1928 to 1932. He studied architecture while at Princeton, but a classmate coaxed him into joining a fledgling theater group, the University Players. It was in this group that he befriended fellow thespian Henry Fonda. Following graduation, Stewart began acting in Broadway productions. Even though he never had a formal acting lesson, he had already achieved a moderate degree of success when, in 1935, he was offered a contract with MGM Studios. Moving to Hollywood where he roomed with Fonda, by 1936 Stewart had appeared in a slew of pictures, including The Murder Man (1935), Rose Marie (1936), Wife vs. Secretary, Small Town Girl, and After the Thin Man.
Stewart was a lanky 6 feet, 3 inches tall, whose good looks suggested more the gentleman next door than that of a silver screen heartthrob. With his boyish charm and soft-spoken unaffectedness, Stewart often seemed to be playing himself—that is, an everyday man—in many of his roles, a trait that endeared him to audiences and critics alike.
He starred in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You (1938), and he received his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his role in Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). In 1940, he filmed George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story, costarring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Stewart’s comical yet touching performance as a newspaperman caught in a love triangle earned him his first Academy Award. He promptly mailed the Oscar to his family to be displayed in the window of his father’s hardware shop, where the statuette remained for over 25 years.
Meanwhile, World War II raged in Europe, and following his success with The Philadelphia Story, Stewart made history by joining the United States Army—the first Hollywood star to do so. However, he was initially rejected after failing his physical exam (he was 10 pounds underweight). He barely managed to pass the second physical, but, in 1941, prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he was assigned to the U.S. Army Air Corps. With previous flying experience, Stewart served as a flight instructor until November 1943 when he was promoted to commander of a bomber squadron. Stationed in Europe, Stewart flew on over 20 missions and received numerous honors, including the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was promoted to the rank of colonel, and in 1959, he was appointed as a brigadier general in the Air Force Reserve.
During this time, Stewart worked on several films, but it wasn’t until after the war that he returned to making movies full-time. In his first notable project following the war, he starred with Donna Reed in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). He received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance as the heart-of-gold hero who must choose between his worldly ambitions and the familial demands of his small hometown. While the film was at first received without much enthusiasm, it has since become a beloved holiday classic.
Stewart reprised his 1947 Broadway role in Harvey (1950), playing an alcoholic who forges a friendship with an invisible 6 foot rabbit. His performance in the film earned him yet another Best Actor Oscar nomination. For Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959), costarring Lee Remick and Ben Gazzara, Stewart was again nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. He won the New York Film Critics award for his performance in the film.
As his own career manager, Stewart was known to have a good business sense. In the 1950s, after his status as one of Hollywood’s greatest leading men was fully established, Stewart began moving freely from one studio to another and negotiating deals that secured percentages of box office returns rather than a flat salary. Like many of his contemporaries, Stewart chose to work with certain actors and directors on projects. In addition to his three films with Capra, he starred in The Glenn Miller Story and The Far Country (1954), both directed by Anthony Mann. He appeared in director Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948); Rear Window (1954), costarring Grace Kelly; The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956); and Vertigo (1958), costarring Kim Novak. Stewart played roles in an array of film genres, from romantic comedies and war dramas to murder mysteries and Westerns. Among his more successful Westerns were The Naked Spur (1953), The Man from Laramie (1955), and John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962), costarring John Wayne. Other projects he worked on with Ford included How the West Was Won (1962) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964). In 1971, he ventured into television with his self-titled series, The Jimmy Stewart Show.
Stewart received numerous honorary awards, including the Cecil B. DeMille Award in 1965, the Life Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild in 1969, the Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in 1980, and the Honorary Golden Berlin Bear Award in 1982. He was awarded the John F. Kennedy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1983, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award in 1985. Also that year he received an honorary Academy Award for his fifty years of memorable performances in over 80 films.
Stewart was the author of a slightly tongue-in-cheek book of poetry, Jimmy Stewart and His Poems, published in 1989.
He married Gloria Hatrick McLean in August 1949, and together they had twin daughters, July and Kelly. Stewart was stepfather to two sons, Ronald and Michael, from McLean’s previous marriage. Ronald died during combat in the Vietnam War. The Stewarts celebrated 45 years of marriage before Gloria’s death in 1994. Said to be heartbroken by the loss of his wife, Stewart died on July 2, 1997, in Los Angeles, California of a lung embolism. He continues to be remembered as one of the most admired and beloved actors in the history of American cinema.
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