James Stewart, the most versatile of Hollywood stars and an actor who embodied American ideals for half a century, died Wednesday at his home in Beverly Hills. He was 89.
With his much-imitated drawl and slightly stooped 6-foot-3-inch frame, Jimmy Stewart, as friends and fans called him, helped define the nation’s hopes and beliefs before and after a real drama in which he was a real hero, World War II.
From the 1930s to the 1970s, Stewart shaped and was shaped by some of the screen’s great directors. As a young senator in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” he helped sustain the career of Frank Capra in 1939. When both men left military service, they collaborated in 1946 on their most famous movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
In the 1940s and 1950s, Stewart successfully played such real-life heroes as ballplayer Monty Stratton, aviator Charles A. Lindbergh and orchestra leader Glenn Miller. He then took a professional risk. Director Alfred Hitchcock offered him obsessed, even paranoid, roles in “Rope,” “Rear Window” and “Vertigo,” where audiences saw a different Jimmy Stewart from the bemused, shy stammerer of many a romantic comedy.
Stewart also helped invent the “adult Western” in the 1950s and 1960s under the direction of Anthony Mann and John Ford. “The Naked Spur,” “The Man From Laramie” and “Cheyenne Autumn” were darker portraits of cowboy life than previous Hollywood horse operas.
Moviegoers were beguiled by the Jimmy Stewart persona, the same, reliably charming manner with which he dealt with an imaginary 6-foot rabbit in “Harvey” or Kim Novak’s cat in “Bell, Book and Candle.” His versatility accounted for his popularity among directors, including Cecil B. DeMille, Ernst Lubitsch, George Cukor, George Stevens, Billy Wilder and Otto Preminger.
Comedies, Westerns, melodramas: Jimmy Stewart excelled in all types of movies, even musicals. As a sailor, he soft-shoed with Buddy Ebsen and serenaded Eleanor Powell by introducing Cole Porter’s song, “Easy to Love” in “Born to Dance,” one of eight films he made in 1936.
Born in Indiana, Pa., James Maitland Stewart was the descendant of Irish immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania in the 1780s. His hometown in the foothills of the Alleghenies resembled Bedford Falls, where his most famous character, George Bailey, lived his “Wonderful Life.” On his 75th birthday in 1983, the town dedicated a statue to Stewart and in 1995 opened a Jimmy Stewart Museum.
The Stewart family was in the hardware business, and Stewart, like his father, went to Princeton. He majored in architecture, but was drawn to drama. In 1932, he followed his classmate, the director Joshua Logan, and joined the University Players, a summer stock troupe in Falmouth, Mass.
In his first featured role, in “Murder Man” in 1935, Stewart played a reporter, a role he played seven times. He was a sidekick to the star, Spencer Tracy, who advised him offscreen to “forget about the camera,” advice Stewart followed for some 100 movies.
“To overcome disbelief is the most difficult thing to do in films,” said George Stevens, who directed Stewart and Ginger Rogers in “Vivacious Lady” in 1938. “And Jimmy, with this extraordinary earnestness that he has, just walks in and extinguishes disbelief.”
A cog on the MGM production wheel, he was a villain in “Rose Marie” and “After the Thin Man,” a befuddled foil in romantic comedies, even an ice skater in “Ice Follies of 1939,” until Capra cast him as Jefferson Smith, the naive youth leader chosen to be senator by corrupt politicians. Stewart won an Oscar nomination in 1939 for “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” his 20th film.
After his impassioned idealism won praise from critics and audiences, he seemed destined to specialize in serious melodrama. Yet Stewart’s next film was a rousing Western comedy,”Destry Rides Again,” in which he tangled with a feisty saloon singer, Marlene Dietrich. In 1940, Stewart starred in a gentler comedy, Lubitsch’s “The Shop Around the Corner,” with Margaret Sullavan, an old friend from Cape Cod days.
“The Philadelphia Story,” one of the screen’s brightest comedies, cast Stewart as a rival suitor to Katharine Hepburn along with Cary Grant. Stewart, as reporter Mike Connor, won another Oscar nomination. This time he won against formidable competition: Charlie Chaplin, Raymond Massey, Laurence Olivier and his fellow University Player and former roommate in New York, Henry Fonda. Stewart said after accepting his Oscar that he had voted for Fonda, who had starred in “The Grapes of Wrath.”
The Stewart family tradition included military service. His grandfathers had served in the Civil War, his father in World War I, and Stewart’s stepson, Ron, a Marine Corps lieutenant, was killed in Vietnam in 1969.
In World War II, Stewart, then 32, was rejected for the draft because he was underweight. After putting on weight, he enlisted six months later. Having been a civilian pilot before the war, he hoped the Army would assign him to its Air Corps. He got his wish. After 20 combat missions and 2,000 hours of flying, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Croix de Guerre and had risen from private to colonel.
In 1949, Stewart revolutionized Hollywood economics when he refused a flat fee for “Winchester 73,” thus freeing movie stars from studio control and making them millionaires.
He once defined himself as a Presbyterian, a Republican and a conservative. Yet two of his closest friends were liberal Democrats: Fonda and Gary Cooper, who introduced Stewart to his wife, Gloria. They married in 1949 and enjoyed a Hollywood rarity: decades of scandal-free bliss. Gloria Stewart died of cancer in 1994.
Stewart’s popularity in the film industry was such that in the mid-1960s, studio boss Jack Warner said of California politics, “Ronnie Reagan for governor? No, no. Jimmy Stewart for governor, Ronnie Reagan for best friend.”
He played a U.S. Senator twice, once as “Mr. Smith” in 1939 and as Ransom Stoddard in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” in 1962, a Western directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne. In a newspaper interview at the movie’s end, the Stewart character confesses to covering up his own political cowardice and plagiarism.
In December of 1993, the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, Calif., began a two-month festival of his films, calling him “a truly great actor and one of the most universally loved and admired Americans of our century. Indeed it could be argued that far in the future, when our descendants treat ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ with the reverence we now have for classics like Homer’s ‘Odyssey,’ George Bailey may become one of the most familiar representatives of our distant world. Could we hope for a better ambassador?”
Stewart leaves a son, Michael McLean, and two daughters, Judy Merrill and Kelly Harcourt.