By all accounts, Jimmy Stewart was as likable in real life as the many nice-guy characters he played in the movies.
James Stewart (1908 – 1997) made his mark playing nice guys in movies such as “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” By all accounts, he was as likable in real life as the characters he played, a a refreshingly regular guy in his daily life (unlike some celebrities). As President Harry Truman once said, “If Bess and I had a son we’d want him to be just like Jimmy Stewart.” We’re remembering the iconic actor by sharing a few of our favorite anecdotes from his personal life and, of course, watching a few of our favorite James Stewart films.
James Maitland Stewart grew up in small-town Pennsylvania, the son of a hardware store owner. Throughout his career, his father often urged him to leave Hollywood and come back to Pennsylvania to settle down and lead a quiet, respectable life. When Stewart won his only Academy Award — in 1941, for “The Philadelphia Story” — he sent it home to his dad. To his credit, Stewart’s father displayed the Oscar prominently at his store.
Stewart was good friends with Henry Fonda, despite their very different politics (Stewart was a staunch Republican, Fonda a devoted Democrat). For a time, they shared an apartment. In later years, their children remembered that one of their favorite pastimes was to build and paint model airplanes together.
Stewart and his wife Gloria owned a dog, Beau, whom the family loved very much. When Stewart was on location in Arizona, Beau became very ill, and the vet called to say he needed to be put to sleep. Stewart replied, “Keep him alive and I’ll be there.” He took an immediate leave of absence from the film, rushed home, and got to spend a few days with Beau before he said goodbye. Later, remembering petting his beloved dog’s head at night, Stewart wrote a poem about Beau — one of many poems he wrote in his life. When he read “Beau” on “The Tonight Show,” both Stewart and Johnny Carson were moved to tears.
Stewart put his successful film career on hold to serve in World War II. He was drafted, but was then rejected because he fell five pounds short of the minimum weight requirement. But Stewart was eager to serve, and he bulked up in the gym until he was fit enough. A skilled pilot before he joined up, he served with distinction, earning medal after medal and rising from private to colonel in just four years. He remained in the U.S. Air Force Reserve for many years after the war, eventually gaining the rank of Major General.
When Stewart returned to the U.S. after World War II was over, he had some understandable trepidation about going back to his old job. He considered an aviation career as a backup. But after taking some time to reassess his career, he accepted his first role in five years — playing George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Though the film received mixed reviews on its release, movie history shows that Stewart’s decision to return to Hollywood — while continuing to serve his country in the Reserves — was a good one.