“If I had my career over again? Maybe I’d say to myself, speed it up a little.” — James Stewart
FOR years now, the highest compliment an actor can be paid is to be called the “new James Stewart.” The tag has been applied to everyone from Tom Hanks to Harrison Ford. But there was only one James Stewart, and he was one of the most loved and admired actors in Hollywood history.
Born in Pennsylvania, the son of a hardware store owner, James Stewart graduated from Princeton with a degree in architecture. He was talked into acting by classmate Josh Logan, the future Broadway producer. He and Logan signed up for summer stock with the University Players in Falmouth, Massachusetts, where he met aspiring thespians Margaret Sullavan and Henry Fonda.
Stewart roomed with Fonda in New York, and worked on Broadway until he headed to Hollywood in 1935. Stewart’s shy, stammering, aw-shucks style soon won him roles in such classic films as You Can’t Take It With You, Destry Rides Again, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. For Washington he won a New York Film Critics best actor award. His status as a cinema star was cemented with Oscar nominations for roles in such films as Capra’s Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life, Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, and Harvey.
Working the percentage
In 1952, Stewart became the first of the “studio actors” to work on a percentage basis, a move that was soon copied by every star in Hollywood. Stewart continued to grow as an actor, tackling complex roles in several Hitchcock films, including Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Vertigo.
In the late fifties and early sixties, Stewart found a home in Westerns. Riding the range as a tougher character than the country bumpkin of his youth. The seventies found him making a comeback on Broadway, where he successfully reprised his on-screen role in Harvey, and on television, where he starred in two series.
James Stewart, Screen Legend
By the eighties, Stewart’s legendary status as an American screen icon had been made official with Life Achievement awards from the American Film Institute, the Kennedy Center, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center; he also received a Special Academy Award and the Medal of Freedom. (Probably somewhere to the right of good pal Ronald Reagan, Stewart was a hawk on Vietnam and a supporter of various conservative causes.)
Although the actor was something of a ladies’ man before he married at the age of forty-one, he was a straight-arrow husband for the next forty-five years (his wife Gloria died in 1994). Stewart died of cardiac arrest in his Beverly Hills home in 1997. He was eighty-nine.