Jimmy Stewart was such an influential film icon that, even if you don’t know his name, you’ve probably seen one of his films.
He acted in everything from inspirational stories such as It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to unsettling thrillers such as Rope and Vertigo. He also starred in westerns, animation, and more.
Jimmy always showed off his ability to express powerful emotions. He continued to treat us to unique performances until age began to take its toll.
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James Maitland Stewart was born on May 20, 1908, in Indiana, Pennsylvania. He went to a local prep school called Mercersburg Academy where he first nurtured his passions for sports, music, and acting. He played football and track, sang and played the accordion, and acted in plays.
Jimmy went to college at Princeton to study architecture but continued to be an actor and musician there. He even earned a part on Broadway in 1932, but theater work became difficult to find during the Great Depression. He went to Hollywood with Henry Fonda in 1934, and the rest is history.
Jimmy Stewart the Pilot
Jimmy learned to fly in 1934. He failed the medical tests twice for being underweight but bulked up and was drafted into the army in 1940 during WWII. Jimmy Stewart started as a private but rose to the rank of brigadier general. He was both the first actor to join the service and the highest-ranking actor in American military history.
Jimmy taught pilots at the Moffett Field in California then completed over 20 combat missions as part of the 703 Bomb Squadron. He also participated in a bombing strike over Vietnam in 1966.
Jimmy retired from duty in 1968 but was permanently changed by his time in the army. He appeared in the 1957 biopic The Spirit of St. Louis about Charles Lindberg.
The army didn’t forget about his contributions to the war effort, either. He was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2009. The Indiana County Jimmy Stewart Airport in western Pennsylvania was named after him.
A Wonderful Career
Jimmy’s screen debut came in the 1934 film Art Trouble. It earned him a short-term contract with MGM. He earned parts in several Frank Capra films such as You Can’t Take it With You in 1938 and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939.
His most memorable role was in the 1946 Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Films like these gave him a likable, everyman persona.
His career and the type of roles he was able to take expanded after the war. He began with Westerns such as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in 1962. Jimmy then acted in biopics such as The Stratton Story in 1949 and The Glenn Miller Story in 1954.
Jimmy Stewart enjoyed playing the lead in the strange comedy Harvey more than almost any other role. He took it on 4 times, including the stage productions in 1940, its revival in 1970, the move in 1950, and a made-for-TV adaptation.
Jimmy also passed on several lucrative and star-making roles.
He refused to join Henry Fonda in the 1981 film On Golden Pond because he objected to the way the father character treated his daughter. He also refused to play Atticus Finch in the 1962 adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird because he found it controversial and the 1976 film Network because he didn’t want to have to use profanity on screen.
One thing that was surprisingly controversial in the days of Old Hollywood was addressing an adult male by their first name. That’s why one of Jimmy Stewart’s most famous films was called “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”. His turn as the lead in the 1939 picture was memorable and inspiring and earned him his first Academy Award nomination.
He almost lost out on it because it was intended to be a sequel to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Gary Cooper would have played the lead, but they chose to cast Jimmy instead when Gary was unavailable.
The 1940s and 50s were the height of his career. This was when he wowed the world with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life, Harvey, Anatomy of a Murderer, and The Philadelphia Story.
These films earned him 5 Academy Award nominations for Best Actor in a Leading Role. He only won an Oscar for the final one. He didn’t feel that he deserved it, suggesting that Henry Fonda should have won for The Grapes of Wrath instead.
Jimmy had trouble believing in his skills during the post-war era, despite the critical acclaim he was getting. It’s a Wonderful Life was a commercial flop, and he took it personally. Fortunately, it caused him to take on different kinds of roles instead of giving up.
Jimmy Stewart became a hard-nosed reporter in the 1948 film Call Northside 777. He also acted in several Hitchock films such as Vertigo and The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Jimmy even took on a few Westerns such as Broken Arrow in 1950, Naked Spur in 1953, The Man From Laramie and The Far Country in 1955 in 1955, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence in 1962, abd The Shootist in 1976,
Jimmy blew the world away on the silver screen, but he didn’t succeed on TV. He starred in a sitcom called The Jimmy Stewart Show in 1971 where he played a college professor named James K. Howard.
Unfortunately, it didn’t do as well as other shows that shared their star’s names such as The Andy Griffith Show or The Carol Burnett Show. It finished its first season in 44th place in the ratings and was canceled after 24 episodes.
Jimmy got another chance at TV in 1973 on the detective drama Hawkins. He played Billy Jim Hawkins. He won a Golden Globe for Best TV Actor in a Drama for his efforts, but the fans weren’t watching him. It placed 37th in the ratings and he walked away, saying he couldn’t keep up with all the lines he had to remember.
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The higher-ups at MGM set Jimmy up with his co-star Margaret Sullavan on the set of the 1940 film The Shop Around the Corner. Jimmy Stewart was shy around women, and they allegedly wanted to prove he wasn’t gay.
Jimmy passed the test and began talking with many of the studio’s most beautiful girls. He and Ginger Rodgers had similar conservative views but no chemistry. He was interested in Ginger Rodgers but turned off by how quickly she wanted to get married.
Jimmy met Norma Shearer in 1937. She was 6 years younger than him but gave him plenty of presents to win him over, including limousine rides and a diamond cigarette case. It wasn’t enough, and he made sure she knew it.
Marlene Dietrich was his co-star in the 1939 film Destry Rides Again. They had a brief fling, but it ended as soon as the shooting did.
Jimmy was turned away at least once. All attempts to get Oliva de Havilland to marry him failed.
He starred in 4 films with Margaret Sullavan and was enamored by her beauty. She was more interested in his best friend Henry who she married in 1931 and divorced months later. She stayed friends with Jimmy and even helped his acting career.
He was even interested in his on-screen wife Donna Reed but didn’t act on it because she was married.
Jimmy met his true love, Gloria McLean, at a dinner party in 1948. They were married in 1949. They had twins Kelly and Judy in 1951 who joined her sons Ronald and Michael to create a happy family.
His daughter Kelly admired their marriage, saying that had a shared sense of humor and respected each other. She said he waited his whole life for the right woman and eventually found her. They married for 45 years until she died of cancer in 1994 at the age of 75.
His Painful Final Years
Jimmy’s final performance was a voice acting role as Wylie Burp in Fievel Goes West. He appeared in a few TV documentaries after that but officially retired from acting after his wife Gloria died.
Jimmy experienced several health problems in his final years. He was wearing a hearing aid and survived skin cancer, but his heart wasn’t strong.
A painful blood clot formed in his legs on June 25, 1997. It was too much for his body to take. A pulmonary embolism lead to a heart attack that caused the clot to dislodge and travel to his lungs.
Jimmy Stewart died on the 2nd of July, 1997, at the age of 89. His last words were “I’m going to be with Gloria now.”
Jimm received nothing but praise after his death.
Ronald Reagan gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1985 and noted his grace and humility. Bill Clinton called him a great actor, a gentleman, and a patriot. Harry Truman said if he had a son, he would have wanted him to be just like Jimmy.
Charlton Heston said he had the quintessential American face. Frank Sinatra said he was uniquely talented.
Jimmy wasn’t only an actor; he was also a poet. He read Beau, a rhyming poem about his dog, on The Tonight Show in 1981 and had the entire place tearing up. His book of poems, published in 1989, has sold over 300,000 copies.
Jimmy remained true to his small-town roots, and his first Academy Award still sat in his father’s hardware store for 25 years. If you’re a massive fan of the actor, you can also visit the Jimmy Stewart Museum. It opened on May 20, 1995, in his hometown of Indiana, Pennsylvania.
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