Just a handful of actors stand out in people’s minds as actual “golden age” Hollywood legends. James Stewart–or Jimmy Stewart, as everyone called him–is one such actor. He stands shoulder to shoulder with silver screen giants like Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Katherine Hepburn, and Marlon Brando. But what makes him such an exceptional performer in people’s minds–even today?
Stewart was known for playing likable, everyman roles, who often faced villains or got out of sticky situations. Millions of fans still tune in to see his movies, resonating with characters like Nick Charles of The Thin Man (one of his early films), Macaulay “Mike” Connor in The Philadelphia Story, and L. B. “Jeff” Jefferies in Hitchcock’s Rear Window–among many others. I mean, who hasn’t sat down to a Christmas Eve in front of the TV watching It’s a Wonderful Life? In 2020, it was declared the greatest Christmas movie of all time.
While Jimmy Stewart’s on-screen persona was wholesome, his real-life was filled with tragedy. Keep watching to find out about the personal difficulties he faced and how he overcame them.
Jimmy Stewart Was Known for Going Off-Script
Despite It’s a Wonderful Life boasting a stellar screenplay–developed by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and director Frank Capra–Jimmy Stewart found ways to add a touch of magic to his performance as George Bailey. Bailey was the quintessential small-town American family man. The movie opens with him depressed and on the verge of suicide. He meets a trainee angel who helps him realize his worth. Remember the scene where Bailey is sitting dejectedly in the bar and starts to cry? That was apparently an utterly off-the-cuff moment by Jimmy Stewart, who got so wrapped up in the role he spontaneously started crying.
Awards Meant Little to Jimmy Stewart
During the Hollywood Golden Age, Jimmy Stewart managed to bag himself a whopping five Academy Award nominations–in the Best Actor and Leading Role categories, of course. This was for movies like It’s a Wonderful Life, Harvey, and Anatomy of Murder. Not to mention he netted an Oscar win for his work in The Philadelphia Story. This was all during his prime working years in the 1940s to the 1960s. Honestly, though, Stewart never thought he deserved any of it. Always the perfectionist, he really thought he could have performed better in all those films. He even hinted that he believed the Oscars to be frivolous.
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Jimmy Stewart Almost Didn’t Appear in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Of all Jimmy Stewart’s roles, few came close to his memorable, powerful performance in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. As we just heard, he even nabbed an Oscar nomination for it. However, it turns out he was initially second fiddle to Gary Cooper for the top spot in the film. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was actually supposed to be a sequel to a movie in the same vein, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town–which, of course, starred Cooper in the lead role. Cooper was unavailable to reprise the lead Mr. role, so Stewart was asked to step in. After watching Stewart perform, the filmmakers quickly realized it was a change for the better.
Jimmy Stewart Supposedly Smuggled a Yeti Finger Out of Nepal
There’s this weird rumor going around that Jimmy Stewart not only found but smuggled a yeti artifact when he was in India. The story goes that in 1957, Tom Slick, an oil mogul from Texas, went on a mission to Nepal to find evidence that Yetis indeed exist. He managed to buy what he thought was some yeti skin and an accompanying finger from some local monks. Slick’s associates managed to get the finger to Calcutta, where it somehow ended up in the possession of Stewart. He was tasked with bringing it back to America, and he and his wife Gloria hid the finger in her luggage. It turns out they weren’t very good smugglers. British customs discovered the finger, and when they tested it, they determined it came from a human rather than a glacier-wandering beast.
Jimmy Stewart Tried TV and Failed
While many actors today transition easily from film to TV and vice versa, the same can’t be said for performers of the mid-20th century. There were movie stars, and there were TV stars, and only the very rare actor crossed the divide. So The Jimmy Stewart Show, which aired on NBC in 1971, turned out to be a pretty groundbreaking affair. Stewart starred as kooky college professor James K. Howard and the script was padded out by multi-award-winning wordsmith Hal Kanter. Despite the pedigree of the show’s production and acting team and all the hype surrounding its debut, The Jimmy Stewart Show was a flop. Stewart tried one more time to enter television in 1973 with the CBS detective drama Hawkins. He won a Golden Globe for his acting, but the public wasn’t keen on this show either. Stewart walked away from television altogether at that point, leaving a canceled show in his wake.
Jimmy Stewart Once Acted Opposite a Giant, Invisible Bunny
Jimmy Stewart was well known for playing serious, emotionally fraught roles. However, he also had a pleasant, even comedic side. In the 1950s, he starred as Elwood P. Dowd in a heartwarming movie called Harvey. The flick was set on the ward of a mental hospital, where Dowd was committed by his sister. While there, he makes friends with an enormous rabbit-like animal that talks. Stewart loved this role so much that he hopped at any opportunity to take it up again. In fact, he first appeared in the Broadway showing of Harvey in the 1940s and again in the 1970s, a role for which he won a coveted Drama Desk Award. Just a couple of years later, he reprised the part once again in a made-for-TV version.
Jimmy Stewart Found It Hard to Win Over the Ladies
Though Margaret Sullivan was dedicated to the stage, she also landed a few film roles. And pretty much every time she appeared on screen, it was opposite Jimmy Stewart. Think movies like The Mortal Storm, The Shopworn Angel, and The Shop Around the Corner. Stewart, it turns out, developed quite the crush on Sullivan, but was too shy to ask her out. Unfortunately for Sullivan, his friend and fellow Hollywood star Henry Fonda was a far bolder man. So much so that he and Sullivan eventually got married! But don’t fret. Stewart went on to date several of Tinsel Town’s most eligible ladies. There were rumors about trysts with Marlene Dietrich and Ginger Rogers, for example, and he definitely dated Loretta Young, Olivia de Haviland, Norma Shearer, and Dorothy Lamour. He eventually settled down at the age of 41, marrying Gloria Hatrick McLean in 1949.
Jimmy Stewart Wrote Heartwarming Poetry
Despite being best known as an actor, Jimmy Stewart had a hidden talent for writing poetry that would make you cry. He was a guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson as many as forty times. Because of this, and due to the fact he was pretty much one of the biggest names in Hollywood at the time, he could pretty much do whatever he wanted on stage. During one of these many appearances, this time in 1981, he decided to read out a poem he’d written earlier. The composition was titled Beau and was about the life and loves of his very own pet pupper of the same name. By the end of it, everyone was in tears–Stewart, Carson, and most audience members. This incident led to the publication of his own poetry collection of sorts. The 33-page volume, published in 1989 and named Jimmy Stewart and His Poems, contained just four actual poems. The rest of the book was filled with anecdotes, quotes, and illustrations by and about Stewart.
Jimmy Stewart Wrapped Up His Career With Campell’s Soup Ads
Jimmy Stewart started to shy away from taking up acting roles in the 1980s. He became extremely picky about what he would appear in. And rightly so! He appeared in the miniseries North & South: Book 2, Love & War, which was set in the Civil War, and in a movie called Mr. Krueger’s Christmas, produced by the Church of Latter-Day Saints. He acted in the Christmas film to cross off a bucket list item. Despite being a practicing Presbyterian, he’d always wanted to play a character that conducted the famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir. He rounded off the decade by doing the voiceovers for a series of family-friendly Campbell’s Soup commercials.
Jimmy Stewart’s Had Serious Health Problems Before He Died
After he finished the recording for An American Tale: Fievel Goes West, Jimmy Stewart pretty much retired from acting. But that didn’t stop from popping up in Hollywood-focused documentaries all through the 1990s. Sadly, his wife Gloria Stewart died in 1994, leading him to retire from public life. By this time, he was already well into his 80s and had been in bad health for some years. He’d overcome skin cancer diagnosis, he couldn’t hear without his hearing aid, and he had heart problems. Then, in 1997, when Stewart was 89 years old, he suffered a heart attack that caused a blood clot in his lung. He passed away not long after. Everyone from President Bill Clinton to Charlton Heston paid tribute to this Hollywood great.
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