Best know for his roles in It’s A Wonderful Life, Rear Window and The Philadelphia Story.
The Murder Man
Next Time We Love
Small Town Girl
The Gorgeous Hussy
Born to Dance
The Last Gangster
Navy Blue and Gold
Of Human Hearts
Made for Each Other
The Ice Follies of 1939
It’s a Wonderful World
The Mortal Storm
No Time for Comedy
Come Live with Me
Pot o’ Gold
Call Northside 777
On Our Merry Way
You Gotta Stay Happy
No Highway in the Sky
Bend of the River
The Far Country
The Spirit of St. Louis
Bell, Book and Candle
The FBI Story
The Mountain Road
Two Rode Together
Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation
Take Her, She’s Mine
The Flight of the Phoenix
The Rare Breed
The Magic of Lassie
An American Tail: Fievel Goes West
Stewart was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning one in competition for The Philadelphia Story (1940), and received an Academy Lifetime Achievement award in 1985.
James Stewart was born on May 20, 1908, in Indiana, Pennsylvania. He attended Mercersburg Academy prep school, graduating in 1928.
A shy child, Stewart spent much of his after-school time in the basement working on model airplanes, mechanical drawing and chemistry—all with a dream of going into aviation. However, he abandoned visions of being a pilot when his father insisted that instead of the United States Naval Academy he attend Princeton University. Stewart enrolled at Princeton in 1928 as a member of the class of 1932. He excelled at studying architecture, so impressing his professors with his thesis on an airport design that he was awarded a scholarship for graduate studies; but he gradually became attracted to the school’s drama and music clubs.
His acting and accordion talents at Princeton led him to be invited to the University Players, an intercollegiate summer stock company in West Falmouth, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. Stewart performed in bit parts in the Players’ productions in Cape Cod during the summer of 1932, after he graduated.
The troupe had previously included Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan. Stewart and Fonda became close friends over the summer of 1932 when they shared an apartment with Joshua Logan and Myron McCormick. When Stewart came to New York at the end of the summer stock season, which had included the Broadway tryout of Goodbye Again, he shared an apartment with Fonda, who had by then finalized his divorce from Sullavan.
Stewart debuted on Broadway in the brief run of Carry Nation and a few weeks as a chauffeur in the comedy Goodbye Again, in which he had two lines
By 1934, he was given more substantial stage roles, including the modest hit Page Miss Glory and his first dramatic stage role in Sidney Howard’s Yellow Jack, which convinced him to continue his acting career. However, Stewart and Fonda, still roommates, were both struggling. In the fall of 1934, Fonda’s success in The Farmer Takes a Wife took him to Hollywood. Finally, Stewart attracted the interest of MGM scout Bill Grady who saw Stewart on the opening night of Divided by Three, a glittering première with many luminaries in attendance, including Irving Berlin, Moss Hart and Fonda, who had returned to New York for the show. With Fonda’s encouragement, Stewart agreed to take a screen test, after which he signed a contract with MGM in April 1935, as a contract player for up to seven years at $350 a week.
Upon Stewart’s arrival by train in Los Angeles, Fonda greeted him at the station and took him to Fonda’s studio-supplied lodging, next door to Greta Garbo. Stewart’s first job at the studio was as a participant in screen tests with newly arrived starlets. At first, he had trouble being cast in Hollywood films owing to his gangling looks and shy, humble screen presence. Aside from an unbilled appearance in a Shemp Howard comedy short called Art Trouble in 1934, his first film was the poorly received Spencer Tracy vehicle, The Murder Man (1935). Rose Marie (1936), an adaptation of a popular operetta, was more successful. After having mixed success in films, he received his first intensely dramatic role in 1936’s After the Thin Man, and played Jean Harlow‘s character’s frustrated boyfriend in the Clark Gable vehicle Wife vs. Secretary earlier that same year.
On the romantic front, he dated newly divorced Ginger Rogers. The romance soon cooled, however, and by chance Stewart encountered Margaret Sullavan again. Stewart found his footing in Hollywood thanks largely to Sullavan, who campaigned for Stewart to be her leading man in the 1936 romantic comedy Next Time We Love. She rehearsed extensively with him, having a noticeable effect on his confidence. She encouraged Stewart to feel comfortable with his unique mannerisms and boyish charm and use them naturally as his own style. Stewart was enjoying Hollywood life and had no regrets about giving up the stage, as he worked six days a week in the MGM factory. In 1936, he acquired big-time agent Leland Hayward, who would eventually marry Sullavan. Hayward started to chart Stewart’s career, deciding that the best path for him was through loan-outs to other studios.
Stewart began a successful partnership with director Frank Capra in 1938, when he was loaned out to Columbia Pictures to star in You Can’t Take It With You. Capra had been impressed by Stewart’s minor role in Navy Blue and Gold (1937). The director had recently completed several well received films, including It Happened One Night (1934), and was looking for the right actor to suit his needs—other recent actors in Capra’s films such as Clark Gable, Ronald Colman, and Gary Cooper did not quite fit. Not only was Stewart just what he was looking for, but Capra also found Stewart understood that prototype intuitively and required very little directing.
You Can’t Take It With You, starring Capra’s “favorite actress”, comedian Jean Arthur, won the 1938 Best Picture Academy Award. The following year saw Stewart work with Capra and Arthur again in the political comedy-drama Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Stewart replaced intended star Gary Cooper in the film, playing an idealist thrown into the political arena. Upon its October 1939 release, the film garnered critical praise and became a box-office success. Stewart received the first of five Academy Award nominations for Best Actor.
Destry Rides Again, also released in 1939, became Stewart’s first western film, a genre with which he would become identified later in his career. In this western parody, he is a pacifist lawman and Marlene Dietrich is the dancing saloon girl who comes to love him, but does not get him. Off-screen, Dietrich did get her man, but the romance was short-lived. Made for Each Other (1939) had Stewart sharing the screen with Carole Lombard in a melodrama that garnered good reviews for both stars, but did less well with the public. Between movies, Stewart began a radio career and became a distinctive voice on the Lux Radio Theater’s The Screen Guild Theater and other shows.
In 1940 Stewart and Sullavan reunited for two films. The first, the Ernst Lubitsch romantic comedy, The Shop Around the Corner, starred them as co-workers unknowingly involved in a pen-pal romance but who cannot stand each other in real life. It was Stewart’s fifth film of the year and one of the rare ones shot in sequence. The Mortal Storm, directed by Frank Borzage, was one of the first blatantly anti-Nazi films to be produced in Hollywood and featured Sullavan and Stewart as friends and then lovers caught in turmoil upon Hitler’s rise to power, literally hunted down by their own friends.
Stewart also starred with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in George Cukor’s classic The Philadelphia Story (1940). His performance as an intrusive, fast-talking reporter earned him his only Academy Award in a competitive category (Best Actor, 1941); he beat out his good friend Henry Fonda (The Grapes of Wrath). Stewart gave the Oscar statuette to his father, who displayed it for many years in a case inside the front door of his hardware store, alongside other family awards and military medals.
During the months before he began military service, Stewart appeared in a series of screwball comedies with varying levels of success. He followed No Time for Comedy (1940) with Rosalind Russell and Come Live with Me (1941) with Hedy Lamarr with the Judy Garland musical Ziegfeld Girl and the George Marshall romantic comedy Pot o’ Gold, featuring Paulette Goddard. Stewart was drafted in late 1940, a situation that coincided with the lapse in his MGM contract, marking a turning point in Stewart’s career, with 28 movies to his credit at that point.
After the war, Stewart took time off to reassess his career. He was an early investor in Southwest Airways and considered going into the aviation industry if his restarted film career did not prosper. Upon Stewart’s return to Hollywood in fall 1945, he decided not to renew his MGM contract. He signed with the MCA talent agency. His former agent Leland Hayward got out of the talent business in 1944 after selling his A-list of stars, including Stewart, to MCA.
For his first film in five years, Stewart appeared in his third and final Frank Capra production, It’s a Wonderful Life. The role was Stewart’s first since returning from service in World War II, during which he experienced what is now recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Although It’s a Wonderful Life was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Stewart’s third Best Actor nomination, it received mixed reviews and only disappointingly moderate success at the box office. However, in the decades since the film’s release, it grew to define Stewart’s film persona and is widely considered as a sentimental Christmas film classic and, according to the American Film Institute, one of the 100 best American movies ever made.
Magic Town (1947), a comedy film directed by William A. Wellman, starring James Stewart and Jane Wyman, was one of the first films about the then-new science of public opinion polling. It was poorly received. He completed Rope (1948) directed by Alfred Hitchcock and Call Northside 777 (1948), and weathered two box-office disappointments with On Our Merry Way (1948), a comedic musical ensemble in which Stewart and Henry Fonda were paired as two jazz musicians, and You Gotta Stay Happy (1949), for which the posters depicted Stewart being kissed on one cheek by Joan Fontaine and on the other by a chimpanzee. In the documentary film James Stewart: A Wonderful Life (1987), hosted by Johnny Carson, Stewart said that he went back to Westerns in 1950 in part because of the string of flops.
He returned to the stage to star in Mary Coyle Chase’s Harvey, which had opened to nearly universal praise in November 1944, as Elwood P. Dowd, a wealthy eccentric living with his sister and niece, and whose best friend is an invisible rabbit as large as a man. Dowd’s eccentricity, especially the friendship with the rabbit, is ruining the niece’s hopes of finding a husband.
After Harvey, the World War II film Malaya (1949) with Spencer Tracy, and the conventional but highly successful biographical film The Stratton Story in 1949, Stewart’s first pairing with “on-screen wife” June Allyson, his career took another turn. During the 1950s, he expanded into the Western and suspense genres, thanks to collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann.
In Stewart’s collaborations with director Anthony Mann he entered the realm of the western. Stewart’s first appearance in a film directed by Mann came with the 1950 western, Winchester ’73. In choosing Mann (after first choice Fritz Lang declined), Stewart cemented a powerful partnership. The film, which became a box-office hit upon its release, set the pattern for their future collaborations. In it, Stewart is a tough, revengeful sharpshooter, the winner of a prized rifle which is stolen and then passes through many hands, until the showdown between Stewart and his brother (Stephen McNally).
Other Stewart–Mann westerns, such as Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954) and The Man from Laramie (1955), were perennial favorites among young audiences entranced by the American West. Frequently, the films featured Stewart as a troubled cowboy seeking redemption, while facing corrupt cattlemen, ranchers and outlaws—a man who knows violence first hand and struggles to control it. The Stewart–Mann collaborations laid the foundation for many of the westerns of the 1950s and remain popular today for their grittier, more realistic depiction of the classic movie genre. Audiences saw Stewart’s screen persona evolve into a more mature, more ambiguous, and edgier presence.
Stewart and Mann also collaborated on other films outside the western genre. The Glenn Miller Story (1954) was critically acclaimed, garnering Stewart a BAFTA Award nomination, and (together with The Spirit of St. Louis) continued Stewart’s portrayals of ‘American heroes’. Thunder Bay, released the same year, transplanted the plot arc of their western collaborations to a more contemporary setting, with Stewart as a Louisiana oil driller facing corruption. Strategic Air Command, released in 1955, allowed Stewart to use his experiences in the United States Air Force on film.
Stewart’s starring role in Winchester ’73 was also a turning point in Hollywood. Universal Studios, who wanted Stewart to appear in both that film and Harvey, balked at his $200,000 asking price. His agent, Lew Wasserman, brokered an alternate deal, in which Stewart would appear in both films for no pay, in exchange for a percentage of the profits as well as cast and director approval. Stewart ended up earning about $600,000 for Winchester ’73 alone. Hollywood’s other stars quickly capitalized on this new way of doing business, which further undermined the decaying “studio system”.
The second collaboration to define Stewart’s career in the 1950s was with director Alfred Hitchcock. Like Mann, Hitchcock uncovered new depths to Stewart’s acting, showing a protagonist confronting his fears and his repressed desires. Stewart’s first movie with Hitchcock was the technologically innovative 1948 film Rope, shot in long “real time” takes.
The two collaborated for the second of four times on the 1954 hit Rear Window, widely considered one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces. Stewart portrays photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries, loosely based on Life photographer Robert Capa, who projects his fantasies and fears onto the people he observes out his apartment window while on hiatus due to a broken leg.
After starring in Hitchcock’s remake of the director’s earlier production, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), with Doris Day, Stewart starred, with Kim Novak, in what many consider Hitchcock’s most personal film, Vertigo (1958)
Though the film is widely considered a classic today, Vertigo met with very mixed reviews and poor box-office receipts upon its release, and marked the last collaboration between Stewart and Hitchcock. The director reportedly blamed the film’s failure on Stewart looking too old to be Kim Novak’s love interest, and cast Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest (1959), a role Stewart had very much wanted.
In 1960, Stewart was awarded the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor and received his fifth and final Academy Award for Best Actor nomination, for his role in the 1959 Otto Preminger film Anatomy of a Murder. This courtroom drama stars Stewart as Paul Biegler, the lawyer of a hot-tempered soldier (played by Ben Gazzara) who claims temporary insanity after murdering a tavern owner who raped his wife.
How the West Was Won (which Ford co-directed, though without directing Stewart’s scenes) and Cheyenne Autumn were western epics released in 1962 and 1964 respectively. One of only a handful of movies filmed in true Cinerama, shot with three cameras, and exhibited with three simultaneous projectors in theatres, How the West Was Won went on to win three Oscars and reap massive box-office figures. Cheyenne Autumn, in which a white-suited Stewart played Wyatt Earp in a long semi-comedic sequence in the middle of the movie, failed domestically and was quickly forgotten. The historical drama was Ford’s final Western and Stewart’s last feature film with Ford. Stewart’s entertainingly memorable middle sequence is not directly connected with the rest of the film and was often excised from the lengthy film in later theatrical exhibition prints and some television broadcasts.
Stewart transitioned into more family-related films in the 1960s when he signed a multi-movie deal with 20th Century Fox. These included the successful Henry Koster outing Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962), and the less memorable films Take Her, She’s Mine (1963) and Dear Brigitte (1965), which featured French model Brigitte Bardot as the object of Stewart’s son’s mash notes. The Civil War period film Shenandoah (1965) and the western family film The Rare Breed fared better at the box office; the Civil War movie, with strong antiwar and humanitarian themes, was a hit in the South.
As an aviator, Stewart was particularly interested in aviation films and had pushed to appear in several in the 1950s, including No Highway in the Sky (1951), and Strategic Air Command (1955) and The Spirit of St. Louis (1957). He continued in this vein in the 1960s, in a role as a hard-bitten pilot in The Flight of the Phoenix (1965).
After a progression of lesser western films in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Stewart transitioned from cinema to television. Stewart first starred in the NBC comedy The Jimmy Stewart Show, on which he played a college professor. He followed it with the CBS mystery Hawkins, in which he played a small town lawyer investigating cases, similar to his character in Anatomy of a Murder.
Stewart returned to films after an absence of five years with a major supporting role in John Wayne‘s final film, The Shootist (1976) where Stewart played a doctor giving Wayne’s gunfighter a terminal cancer diagnosis. At one point, both Wayne and Stewart were flubbing their lines repeatedly and Stewart turned to director Don Siegel and said, “You’d better get two better actors.” Stewart also appeared in supporting roles in Airport ’77, the 1978 remake of The Big Sleep starring Robert Mitchum as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, and The Magic of Lassie (1978). All three movies received poor reviews, and The Magic of Lassie flopped at the box office.
Following the failure of The Magic of Lassie, Stewart went into semi-retirement from acting. He donated his papers, films, and other records to Brigham Young University’s Harold B. Lee Library in 1983.
He had a noted military career and was a World War II veteran and pilot, who rose to the rank of Brigadier General in the United States Air Force Reserve, becoming the highest-ranking actor in military history.
Stewart was hospitalized after falling in December 1995. In December 1996, he was due to have the battery in his pacemaker changed, but opted not to, preferring to let things happen naturally. In February 1997, he was hospitalized for an irregular heartbeat. On June 25, a thrombosis formed in his right leg, leading to a pulmonary embolism one week later. Surrounded by his children on July 2, 1997, Stewart died at the age of 89 at his home in Beverly Hills, California, with his final words to his family being, “I’m going to be with Gloria (his wife) now.” Over 3,000 mourners, mostly celebrities, attended Stewart’s memorial service, which included a firing of three volleys for his service in the Army Air Forces and the U.S. Air Force. Stewart’s remains are interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.