skip navigation
James Stewart - 8/25
Remind Me

James Stewart Profile

One of American cinema's most enduring legends, James Stewart had an iconic stature that made him more than mere movie star. Stewart's screen persona seemed to embody American values more humble and real than even consummate movie heroes like John Wayne and Gary Cooper. Onscreen and off, Stewart seemed to reflect the integrity, honesty and charm moviegoers hoped to see in themselves. He was so successful at playing the definitive movie star even he would once reflect, "Sometimes I wonder if I'm doing a Jimmy Stewart imitation myself."

Stewart was born on May 20, 1908 in Indiana, Pennsylvania, where his father owned a hardware store and was one of the most successful businessmen in the town. True to his small-town upbringing, Stewart made his acting debut in a Boy Scout play. He later attended Princeton where he received a degree in architecture, though the Depression foiled his plans to practice architecture. While at Princeton, Stewart's classmate Joshua Logan (who would go on to direct numerous successful Hollywood musicals like Paint Your Wagon, 1969 and South Pacific, 1958) convinced Stewart to try acting.

After graduating Stewart took Logan's advice and performed alongside Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan at the University Players in Falmouth, Massachusetts. Stewart went on to New York and for a time was Fonda's roommate there. In the Thirties he immigrated to Hollywood. He made his film debut in 1935 in The Murder Man at MGM where he became a contract player. But it was alongside Eleanor Powell in Born to Dance (1936) when he bravely plodded through Cole Porter's "Easy to Love" that he first revealed some of the innate charm that would so captivate filmgoers.

Stewart initially seemed like odd leading man material for Hollywood, with his shy, aw shucks country boy manner and lanky 6' 3" body. But those same distinctive features would eventually help Stewart carve out a niche in the business and his mild-mannered, engaging persona made him a hit with audiences. Marking the first in a long collaboration with Americana director Frank Capra, in 1938 Stewart starred in the hit Oscar® winner for Best Picture and Director, You Can't Take It With You. His unique talents were affirmed when he won a Best Actor award one year later from the New York Film Critics for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). In Frank Capra's latter film, Stewart sealed his lifelong association with national values of honesty and courage as the innocent and idealistic Jefferson Smith, an overgrown Boy Ranger who wins a seat in Congress and goes on to expose corruption there.

The following year, Stewart won an Academy Award for The Philadelphia Story (1940) an especially amazing feat considering he was playing second fiddle to Cary Grant. For the next 25 years the Oscar® was displayed in his father's Indiana, Pennsylvania hardware store.

That same year Stewart made one of his most charming films to date, The Shop Around the Corner (1940), an Ernst Lubitsch period comedy set in Budapest starring Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as feuding coworkers who don't realize they're each other's secret pen pal and romantic fantasy. Stewart offered another memorable performance that year, opposite Sullavan once again, in the haunting Frank Borzage melodrama The Mortal Storm.

In addition to his Oscar for The Philadelphia Story, Stewart was also nominated for Academy Awards in Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and Harvey (1950), as Elwood P. Dowd whose companion is a large rabbit. Stewart went on to revive that role on Broadway opposite Helen Hayes in 1970.

Like many stars, Stewart served his country in World War II joining the Air Force a full year before Pearl Harbor was bombed. He was the first Hollywood star to enlist but was almost denied entry because he weighed five pounds less than the required weight. He flew 20 missions over Germany as a bomber pilot and was highly decorated. He entered service as a private and left a full colonel, the highest ranking actor in military history. He later became a brigadier general in the Air Force Reserve.

The first film Stewart made after the war was another Capra tale of small town values, though this time invested with the ennui of the postwar years. It was Stewart's performance as the deeply human and morally conflicted George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life (1946) which only further endeared him to audiences and became a perennial holiday classic.

Stewart's postwar career was thus marked by a greater variety of roles in which he played detectives, legendary men and Western antiheroes, especially in Anthony Mann's films Winchester '73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953) and The Man from Laramie (1955).

Stewart made equally notable contributions to Alfred Hitchcock's oeuvre. His performances in the Hitchcock thrillers Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Vertigo (1958) further demonstrated the actor's versatility in playing sympathetic characters no matter what the genre. Interestingly enough, Hitchcock had initially designated Stewart as his first choice to play Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest (1959).

In the Fifties Stewart also displayed a shrewd business sense when he decided to work for a percentage of his film's profits, an innovative decision for the time. Roles in the box-office hits Rear Window and Vertigo solidified his star status as well as his fortune.

Stewart also made his mark in bio pictures like The Glenn Miller Story (1953) about the famous bandleader and in a drama about pilot Charles Lindbergh The Spirit of St. Louis (1957). In 1959 he appeared in one of the greatest roles of his lifetime. Otto Preminger's tension-laden courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder which earned him his second best actor award from the New York Film Critics.

That same year Stewart appeared in Bell, Book and Candle as a well-heeled publisher to Kim Novak's spell-casting witch. He was again beguiled by Novak's mysterious charms when he played a retired police detective hopelessly entranced by the actress in Hitchcock's masterpiece Vertigo.

But it was most often in Westerns like Mann's that Stewart demonstrated his ability to play darker characters. Perhaps these later performances were made more emotionally compelling because of Stewart's previous portrayal of mostly charming, likable men. Other memorable Western roles came in Stewart's collaboration with definitive sagebrush director John Ford, who cast the actor as a civilized lawyer in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Some of Stewart's last films were also Westerns like Shenandoah (1965) and The Shootist (1976), though he also appeared in numerous television productions, and in family adventures like The Magic of Lassie (1978), alongside Mickey Rooney and Alice Faye, and as the voice of Wylie Burp in An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991).

In 1980 Stewart won the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award and in 1995 the James Stewart Museum was dedicated in Indiana. He died of a heart attack in Beverly Hills on July 2, 1997.

* Films in Bold will Air on TCM in August

by Felicia Feaster