published 03/07/1997 at 19:15 PM
Actor - Born James Maitland Stewart on May 20, 1908 in Indiana, PA - Died July 2, 1997 in Beverly Hills, CA
James Stewart was a tall, gangling and seemingly diffident everyman of American motion pictures who prevailed in a fickle industry primarily by being himself.
Stewart was the star of such films as "It's a Wonderful Life," "The Philadelphia Story," "Harvey," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Rear Window," "The Spirit of St. Louis" and many other enduring examples of film history.
He was nominated for Academy Awards in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "It's a Wonderful Life," "Harvey" and "Anatomy of a Murder," and won the Oscar for his work in "The Philadelphia Story." He received an honorary Oscar — presented by Cary Grant — in 1984 for his half-century in films. The American Film Institute also gave him its Life Achievement Award in 1980.
Naturalness and believability were the hallmarks of Stewart's character, whether on screen portraying a country banker fighting the philistines for control of his hometown, or in real life leading an Air Force bomber wing to Berlin through heavy anti-aircraft fire.
He brought a sense of realism to the role of the wayward brother in "Rose Marie," and real power and sympathy to the stellar role of the reporter-husband of old friend Margaret Sullavan in "Next Time We Love."
MGM moved him from "Next Time" right into "Wife Versus Secretary" with Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow.
He followed with "Small Town Girl," "Speed," "The Gorgeous Hussy," "Born to Dance," "After the Thin Man," "Seventh Heaven," "The Last Gangster," "Navy Blue and Gold" and "Of Human Hearts," none of which was especially memorable — at least for Stewart — but "all of them worth doing."
One big test was "You Can't Take It With You" at Columbia, Frank Capra's translation of the stage hit to film, in which Stewart received equal billing with Lionel Barrymore and Jean Arthur. It marked his first professional association with Capra, and led a year later to the lead in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."
Stewart also served as a pilot in World War II. He remained in the Air Force Reserve after the war, and climaxed this second career with a promotion to the rank of brigadier general. He retired in 1968.
When Stewart died in 1997 his former costar and friend Charlton Heston called him a role model, not only in acting but also in how to behave as a celebrity on the set and in public.
"He had much greater range as an actor than he was credited for," Heston said. "He could be the playboy or the photographer, the congressman or the cowboy. He became, along with his good friend Gary Cooper, the quintessential American male. If American men couldn't quite see they were like him, they all wanted to be."
— Los Angeles Times July 3, 1997