James Stewart life and biography

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James Stewart biography

Date of birth : 1908-05-20
Date of death : 1997-07-02
Birthplace : Indiana, Pennsylvania, United States
Nationality : American
Category : Arts and Entertainment
Last modified : 2010-06-11
Credited as : Actor and tv personality, ,

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James (Maitland) Stewart (b. 20 May 1908 in Indiana, Pennsylvania; d. 2 July 1997 in Beverly Hills, California), was an American actor who remained a durable icon of American film for more than six decades. Despite an on-screen image that grew darker and more complex with time, he came to represent a uniquely American sense of decency and integrity.


Stewart was the oldest child of Alexander Maitland Stewart, who owned a popular hardware store in the town of Indiana, and Elizabeth Ruth ("Bessie") Jackson. His sister Mary Wilson ("Doddie") was born in 1912, and his sister Virginia ("Ginny") in 1914. Stewart was greatly influenced by his father, a strong-willed, deeply religious man who served as a captain in World War I.

Stewart received his elementary education at the Model School in Indiana. After completing the ninth grade, he enrolled in Mercersburg Academy in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, a private boarding school steeped in Presbyterian ritual and tradition. Following his graduation from Mercersburg in June 1928, he enrolled in Princeton University, his father's alma mater, with the intention of becoming an electrical engineer. While there he joined the Triangle Club, Princeton's theater group, which was enormously popular for its productions combining music with irreverent humor.

After graduating from Princeton in 1932 with a B.S. degree in architecture, Stewart began to think seriously of acting as a career. Encouraged by a friend and fellow Princetonian, Joshua Logan, he joined the University Players, a theater group operating out of a movie house in West Falmouth on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. There Stewart was able to play a variety of roles, joining aspiring actors Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan. Eventually he came to Broadway in New York City in a short-lived play called Carry Nation (October 1932), then won a small role in the hit comedy Goodbye Again. Other fleeting appearances in unsuccessful plays led to a sizable role in Sidney Howard's play Yellow Jack (1934) and to a role in a play entitled Divided by Three (1934), in which he came to the attention of film scouts at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Thin, lanky, and not especially handsome, he seemed an unlikely candidate for movie stardom, but after a screen test MGM offered him a seven-year contract.

It was clear from the start that the studio intended to use their new player in largely homespun roles. In his first feature film, The Murder Man (1935, with Spencer Tracy), he appeared as a reporter improbably named "Shorty," then was seen as Jeanette MacDonald's fugitive brother in Rose Marie (1936), as Jean Harlow's working-class boyfriend in Wife vs. Secretary (1936), and as a rustic character in The Gorgeous Hussy (1936). Occasionally he was given an unusual assignment: he sang (in his own voice) and danced in the Cole Porter musical Born to Dance (1936) and even got to play the villain in After the Thin Man (1936).

Gradually, as filmgoers responded to the gawky, drawling young actor, his roles became more prominent. In the drama Of Human Hearts (1938), he played a young frontiersman who becomes a doctor in the Civil War. Many of his MGM roles in the 1930s, however, were perfunctory; he fared best when he was loaned to other studios. At Universal, in Next Time We Love (1936), he played a roving journalist who marries a stage star, played by Margaret Sullavan. At RKO General, Inc. he revealed an agreeable sense of comedy as a naive college professor in Vivacious Lady (1938), and a warm appeal as a young husband burdened with life's problems in Made for Each Other (1939). He also appeared to advantage as the romantic lead in director Frank Capra's film version of the George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart stage comedy You Can't Take It with You (1938).

It was Capra who rewarded Stewart with a star-making role in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Casting the actor as Jefferson Smith, the naive young man who inherits a seat in the U.S. Senate and then is thrown to the Washington, D.C., wolf pack, Capra saw Stewart as the resolute American who triumphs over seemingly insurmountable odds with his innate strength and decency. Smith's climactic filibuster in the Senate chambers helped to win Stewart an Oscar nomination as well as the New York Film Critics Award as the year's best actor.

Stewart's subsequent movies saw his persona now fully in place: the earnest young man whose easygoing air concealed a backbone of steel. He excelled in Destry Rides Again (1939) as a pacifistic deputy sheriff in the Old West, and in The Shop Around the Corner (1940) as a love-struck sales clerk in a Budapest store. In The Mortal Storm (1940), he played a young German whose anti-Nazi sentiments in the early years of fascism result in tragedy for him and his "non-Aryan" sweetheart (Margaret Sullavan). To Stewart's own surprise (and almost everyone else's), he won an Oscar as best actor for his performance as a reporter who falls for haughty society girl Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story (1940).

In March 1941 Stewart became the first prominent Hollywood actor to be drafted into the U.S. Army. Five days after his induction, he was assigned to air force school, where he became a fully qualified B-17 bomber pilot. For a while he served as a flying instructor and squadron officer. Starting in November 1943 he participated in twenty-five missions over Germany, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross with oak leaf cluster and the Croix de Guerre with palm. He rose to the rank of full colonel, eventually becoming a brigadier general in the Air Force Reserve in 1959. He retired in 1968.

Returning to the United States after more than four years abroad, Stewart resumed his film career with Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946). It was a warmly human parable about a man (Stewart) at the end of his tether who learns what would have happened to his town and his family if he had never been born. Although the film won several Oscar nominations (including one for Stewart as best actor), it was not well received by the critics. However, after repeated showings on television over the years, it became a holiday staple and an annual ritual for many viewers.

For a while Stewart's movies were either mediocre (Magic Town, 1947) or merely competent (Call Northside 777, 1948), and one, Rope (1948), was an anomaly in his career. Alfred Hitchcock's first film in color, it was the director's attempt at an experiment. A grisly tale of two young men who commit a murder only for "thrills," the movie was filmed in an unbroken time span of sustained, continuous action. Stewart was miscast as the killers' ex-teacher, who uncovers the crime.

By the 1950s the actor was in his forties and no longer able to sustain the image of the boyish, fumbling young man of earlier years. Also, he was no longer one of Hollywood's most eligible bachelors: on 9 August 1949 he married Gloria Hatrick McLean, a socialite with two sons from her previous marriage, and in 1951 they had twin daughters. As a mature actor he was ready and willing to take on roles that required greater depth. In The Stratton Story (1949), he played real-life baseball pitcher Monty Stratton, who lost his leg in a hunting accident. The following year he appeared in the film version of Mary Chase's play Harvey (1950) as the amiable alcoholic Elwood P. Dowd, whose constant companion is a tall, imaginary rabbit named Harvey. Stewart was nominated as best actor for his engaging performance.

In the 1950s, in addition to perfunctory appearances in such movies as No Highway in the Sky (1951) and The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), Stewart devoted much of his film career to westerns that projected a tougher, grittier image. There were now hints of anger, bitterness, and regret imbedded in the usual easygoing Stewart persona. Such movies as The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1955), and The Man from Laramie (1955), all directed by Anthony Mann, revealed a more seasoned actor, with a face lined by life experiences. He could still play contemporary figures with conviction--the popular band leader Glenn Miller in The Glenn Miller Story (1954), the famed pilot Charles A. Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), or a shrewd lawyer in Anatomy of a Murder (1958), a performance for which he won the New York Film Critics Award as best actor. Yet the echoes of Jefferson Smith and Tom Destry were largely gone forever.

This more mature actor emerged most fully in the trio of films he made in the 1950s with Alfred Hitchcock. In at least two of the three films, he played characters whose motives are suspect and whose actions have fatal or near fatal consequences. Rear Window (1954) cast him as a photographer, confined to a wheelchair because of a broken leg, whose spying on his neighbors leads to the uncovering of a murder and, incidentally, to the near killing of his fiancée (Grace Kelly). The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), a remake of the director's 1934 movie, cast Stewart as a doctor trying desperately to rescue his kidnapped young son. In Vertigo (1958), Stewart gave one of his most intense performances as a man whose obsession with a dead woman ends in tragedy.

Still active in the 1960s, Stewart continued to make lighthearted (and sometimes light-headed) comedies such as Take Her, She's Mine (1963) and Dear Brigitte (1965), but many of his films during this period were westerns that were increasingly dark, gritty, and psychologically motivated. Stewart's characters were often far from heroic: in Two Rode Together (1961), he played a frankly mercenary sheriff assigned to bring in a group of people kidnapped years before by Indians, and in John Ford's gloomy The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), he was a man whose legendary fame in Western annals was built on a lie. Stewart's characters in Firecreek (1968) and Bandolero! (1968) also involved him with moral dilemmas that would have confounded his previous character Tom Destry. In November 1968 Stewart was honored by the Screen Actors Guild for "outstanding achievement in fostering the finest ideals of the acting profession."

Although he was no longer in great demand, Stewart continued to act into the 1970s. He appeared in such films as The Cheyenne Social Club (1970) and Fools' Parade (1971), and he took small but incisive roles in The Shootist (1976), Airport '77 (1977), and The Big Sleep (1978). By the end of his career he had made eighty-one films. Stewart also tried his hand at television, first with The Jimmy Stewart Show (1971), as an absentminded professor, then with Hawkins (1973), as a private detective. Neither show was very successful. In February 1970 he returned to the stage to star in a new production of Harvey, opposite Helen Hayes as his sister. They repeated their roles for NBC's "Hallmark Hall of Fame" in March 1972, and in 1974 he again played Elwood P. Dowd in a London revival.

In the 1980s Stewart received many honors. In March 1980 he was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Film Institute, and in December 1983 he became a Kennedy Center honoree. In March 1985 he received an honorary Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and several months later he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, by President Reagan. His final on-screen role was as the southern attorney Miles Colbert in the television miniseries North and South: Book II (1986), while his final part was as the voice of the famous gunfighter and hound dog Wylie Burp in the animated film An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991).

Stewart died of a blood clot on the lung on 2 July 1997 at the age of eighty-nine; his wife Gloria had died of lung cancer in February 1994. In 1987 Stewart said, "I'd like to be remembered as someone who worked hard for what happened, and who had certain values that he believed in. Love of family, love of community, love of country, love of God." Despite changing fashions and attitudes, he held fast to these values with dignity and pride.

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