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In the showbiz world of over-the-top personalities and endless scandal, there was one slightly shy, sensitive man, with a sweet boyish grin, who always stood out among the rest
With his beanpole frame, unruly hair and slow, stammering drawl, James Stewart should surely, on paper, have never made it to the heights of Hollywood fame. Yet, somehow, among the suave Cary Grants and macho Humphrey Bogarts of this world, this gentle, sometimes awkward man managed to become one of our best-loved American actors of all time, earning his place so comfortably within our affections we felt we could all just call him Jimmy.
“I like you because you’re like the boy next door,” wrote one 16-year-old fan to her idol, while the world nodded in agreement when President Truman remarked “If Bess and I had a son, we’d want him to be just like Jimmy Stewart.”
Jimmy found his place in our hearts precisely because of his difference. While big name co-stars filled gossip columns with their antics, he stood rooted to his principled, down-to-earth personality, never flashy and married only once to the love of his life. Even his on-screen characters were generally a version of himself. As he once said of his acting technique, “I am James Stewart, playing James Stewart,” describing himself on a separate occasion as simply “an inarticulate man who tries.”
But that’s most certainly why we loved him. From George Bailey, the small-town banker of the Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, to the wholesome, idealistic lead in Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Jimmy just exuded this homespun nobility that made us feel like he was one of the family.
A studious star in the making
James strolled almost accidentally into the limelight from a most unassuming background. The only son of Elizabeth and Alexander Stewart, who ran a successful hardware store, he spent a happy childhood playing the accordion and sliding down the bannisters of his Indiana home with his sisters. He loved to present magic shows and impromptu plays to his parents in their basement and later took a summer job as a magician’s assistant (his stipulated role was to play the accordion during any ‘awkward’ moments in his friend Bill’s act).
But that was about as far as his acting ambitions ever went in the early days. Instead, a shy, but clever young man, he devoted his attention to working on model airplanes, with the big dream of one day pursuing aviation in the United States Naval Academy. His father, however, had other plans and insisted James attend Princeton University where he studied and excelled at architecture. While there, he began to try out music and drama, going on to join the university’s touring theatre troupe and later making it onto Broadway.
After several shows, James attracted the attention of MGM scout Bill Grady, who asked him to do a screen test, which got him signed as a contract player for the studio for up to seven years. Little did he know he’d go on to be one of the world’s greatest, and best-loved actors.
A proud patriot
In the years that followed, James played everyone from newspapermen to murderers, acting alongside big-name beauties such as Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich and Margaret Sullavan. For his part as the warm-hearted reporter Macaulay Connor in screwball comedy The Philadelphia Story (1940) he even won his first and only Best Actor Academy Award.
But soon the war loomed and James became one of the first high-profile stars to don a uniform. Despite a couple of false starts as a military man – he kept being rejected for being too skinny – in 1941 he joined the Army Air Force, where he led 20 bombing missions over Germany and won a string of decorations. Throughout his life, however, James would refuse to discuss his war experiences or play in films depicting combat as he insisted he was just one of the boys, no more important than any of the other serviceman he’d fought alongside.
Returning from the war, James deliberately started going for roles that cast him against type. He joined forces with Alfred Hitchcock in the thriller Rope, Rear Window and The Man Who Knew Too Much and Anthony Mann who cast him in a series of Westerns, the most famous of which was Winchester 73. Whatever he played he shone; showing he could turn his hand to any role, from a tortured photographer to a compassionate cowboy.
A man of manners
Meanwhile, in his personal life, the 41-year-old bachelor who, aside from a few brief relationships with the likes of Ginger Rogers and Olivia de Havilland, had been holding out for the right woman, finally caught the eye of the beautiful Gloria Hatrick. The pair married in 1949 and would go onto enjoy 45 happy years of marriage until her death in 1994, during which time he adopted her two children from a previous marriage and they had twin daughters of their own. Despite being a heartthrob of the silver screen, James never once strayed from the woman he loved.
The gossip columnists were no doubt exasperated by his decency. On top of his principled private life, James never said a sour word about any of his co-stars, instead encouraging everyone around him to shine. This was best brought to light in 1960 when he was up for the Best Actor Oscar for Anatomy of a Murder. He very much wanted to win but walking into the ceremony he spotted another nominee, Charlton Heston, and the two posed for pictures. After, Heston recalled “Jimmy took my arm and said ‘I hope you win, Chuck, I really mean that.’ I don’t know another actor alive who would’ve said such a thing.”