James Stewart Biography

PHOTO: James Stewart

This WWII bomber became one of Hitchcock's best known leads and won Oscars for his classic roles. 'It's A Wonderful Life' - certainly for this screen legend.

James Maitland Stewart was born on 20 May 1908 in Indiana to Elizabeth Ruth and Alexander Maitland Stewart, who owned a hardware store. He was the eldest of three children as he had two younger sisters.

He was expected to take over the family business but developed a liking for music when he was given an accordion by a family friend.

Stewart was a shy boy, something he would carry with him into adulthood. He enrolled in Princeton University in 1928 to undertake an architecture degree and quickly signed up to the music and drama clubs.

At university he developed a close friendship with Henry Fonda, which led to Stewart moving to New York to live with his fellow budding actor.

Stewart enjoyed a few bit parts in Broadway plays during the early 1930s until he was invited to take part in a screen test by MGM scout Bill Grady who saw the young actor on the opening night of 'Divided by Three'.

He was urged on by Fonda and agreed to the screen test. Subsequently he was signed up to MGM as a contract player for up to seven years in 1935. His first job at the studio was to appear in screen tests alongside fledging actresses before hitting the big time in 'After the Thin Men' in 1936 after a series of less successful films.

This film saw the actor showcase his acting ability due to a shocking sequence at the end. At this time he embarked on a romance with newly-divorced Ginger Rogers but this soon cooled.

An old university friend - Margaret Sullavan - campaigned for Stewart to play her leading man in the 1936 film 'Next Time We Love'. She also encouraged him to use his unique characteristics and boyish charm in his acting. The same year, Stewart acquired the big-time agent Leland Hayward who would help him develop his career by loaning him out to other film studios.

In 1938, the actor enjoyed a brief love affair with Norma Shearer and starred in Frank Capra's Depression-era film 'You Can't Take It With You', which was nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award that year.

Stewart, who appeared in many of Capra's films, joined up with the director once again in 1939 for the political comedy drama 'Mr Smith Goes to Washington' for which the actor was nominated for the first of his five Best Actor Oscars.

He then served in the US Army Air Forces in World War II, signing up one year before Pearl Harbour, and was heavily decorated. His final mission was a bombing mission over Vietnam that he specifically requested as a close for his military career.

After the war, he was an appropriate choice to play the title role in 'The Glenn Miller Story'. He also played another famous aviator, Charles Lindbergh. In an episode of 'The World at War', he is one of several former airmen interviewed about his World War II flying career.

Stewart spoke in a faltering style, which was sometimes hard on sound men, but came through as sincerity to his audience. His career was built around playing a clean-cut person with good values, and his hesitating acting style gave his characters a natural feel not seen in many movies of his time. His portrayal of the central character in 'It's a Wonderful Life' was a defining moment in his career.

He won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in 1940's 'The Philadelphia Story', which he starred in along with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. In 1980, he was awarded an American Film Institute lifetime achievement award.

At the age of 41, Stewart married his wife Gloria, and was devoted to her until her death. She already had two children from a previous marriage, and they had two children together.

Later in his career, Stewart tried for a slight change of image. Although still the hero, he began to play more challenging parts with a harder edge to them. He starred in four Alfred Hitchcock films: 'Rear Window', 'Rope', 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' and 'Vertigo'. He also starred in many classic westerns, and in 'Anatomy of a Murder', 'Harvey' and 'Mr Smith Goes to Washington'.

After a progression of lesser western films in the late '60s and early '70s, Stewart moved from cinema to television. He first starred in the 'The Jimmy Stewart Show', which featured Stewart as a college professor. He followed it with the CBS mystery 'Hawkins', in which he played a small town lawyer investigating his cases. The series earned him a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Dramatic TV Series.

During this time, Stewart periodically appeared on Johnny Carson's 'The Tonight Show', sharing poems he had written at different times in his life. His poems were later compiled into a short collection titled 'Jimmy Stewart and His Poems' (1989).

Stewart finished the decade with a major 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 fluffing 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' with Robert Mitchum, and 'The Magic of Lassie' (1978).

He died in July 1997 from a pulmonary bloody clot following a long illness from respiratory problems. He had also suffered from Alzheimer's disease.

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