James Maitland Stewart was born to Scots-Irish parents in Indiana, Pennsylvania on May 20, 1909. His father ran a hardware store, and when he won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1941 for “The Philadelphia Story”, the Oscar was kept in the window of the store ironically located on Philadelphia Street in Indiana, Pennsylvania. Even though the word “Philadelphia” was misspelled, the trophy remained in the window for twenty-five years.
This brilliant star of stage and screen never took an acting lesson in his life. He personally felt that people could learn more when actually working than studying the craft. Highly educated, he graduated in 1932 from Princeton University with a degree in architecture. But the acting bug bit after graduation when fellow classmate, Josh Logan, convinced him to join the newly formed University Players. Some of the members included Margaret Sullivan and Henry Fonda with whom he would maintain a life-long friendship. He went to Hollywood in 1935 as the ideal incarnation of the American Everyman.
James Stewart was the first Hollywood star to enter the armed services for World War II, joining in 1940, the year before Pearl Harbor. Although he was five pounds less than the required minimum weight of 148 pounds, he talked the recruitment officer into admitting him. He eventually became a Colonel and earned the Air Medal, The Distinguished Flying Cross, the Croix de Guerre and seven Battle Stars. In 1959, serving in the Air Force Reserve, James Stewart became a Brigadier General, making him the highest-ranking entertainer in the US Military.
In 1949 he married Gloria Hatrick McLean, who had two children from a previous marriage (one of whom would die in Vietnam) and he and Gloria had twin daughters, Judy and Kelly. He remained faithful to his wife, which for a Hollywood leading man was unusual.
In the 1950s, he negotiated for a percentage of the profits of his films and became wealthy. He remained active in his career throughout the seventies and even through the 80s and early 90s. He is as much a cultural icon as any American actor, and his persona lives in the patriotic spirit embodied in all of us.
Of all the movies he ever made, his role as George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” made in 1946 and directed by Frank Capra, was his personal favorite.
What is YOUR favorite James Stewart film? Please share.