James Maitland Stewart was born on 20 May 1908 in Indiana, Pennsylvania. Educated at a local prep school, Mercersburg Academy, he was a keen athlete (football and track), musician (singing and accordion playing) and sometime actor. After graduation engagements with the University Players took him around the US North East, including a run on Broadway in 1932. Work dried up as the Great Depression deepened and it wasn’t until 1934, when he followed his friend Henry Fonda to Hollywood, that things began to pick up.
After his first screen appearance in Art Trouble (1934), he worked for a time for MGM as a contract player. Slowly he began making a name for himself in increasingly high-profile roles throughout the rest of the 1930s. His famous collaborations with Frank Capra, in You Can’t Take It with You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and, after World War II, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) helped to launch his career as a star and to establish his screen persona as the likable everyman.
Having learned to fly in 1938, he was the first movie star to enter the service for World War II, joining a year before Pearl Harbor was bombed. Initially refused entry into the Air Force because he weighed 5 pounds less than the required 148 pounds, he talked the recruitment officer into ignoring the test. During the course of World War II he rose to the rank of Colonel, first as an instructor at home in the US, and later on combat missions in Europe.
He eventually became a colonel (active duty) and then a brigadier general in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, the French Croix de Guerre, and other decorations. He served in the Air Force Reserve before retiring as a brigadier general.
His acting career took off after the war. During the course of his long professional life he had roles in some of Hollywood’s best remembered films, starring in a string of Westerns (bringing his “everyman” qualities to movies like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)), biopics (The Stratton Story (1949), The Glenn Miller Story (1954) and The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), for instance) thrillers (most notably his frequent collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock) and even some screwball comedies.
Upon accepting his Honorary Oscar in 1985, he stated, “This was the greatest award I received, to know that, after all these years, I haven’t been forgotten.” The audience gave him a ten-minute standing ovation, making the show run long. Steven Spielberg, who was in attendance, said that he was humbled to even be in the same room as Jimmy, because he respected him so much.
He continued to work into the 1990s and died at the age of 89 in 1997. His remains are interred at the Forest Lawn Cemetary, Glendale, California, in the Wee Kirk O’the Heathers Churchyard. Over 3,000 people, mostly Hollywood celebrities, attended his funeral to pay their respects.
Inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in 1972. Recipient of Kennedy Center Honors in 1983. Ranked #10 in Empire (UK) magazine’s “The Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time” list. [October 1997]. James was named Best Classic Actor of the 20th Century in an Entertainment Weekly on-line poll. [September 1999]
Three of his films are on the American Film Institute’s 100 Most Inspiring Movies of All Time, two of which are in the top five. These are: The Spirit of St. Louis (1957) at #69, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) at #5, and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) at #1.
1916 – Patricia Ellis (Leftwich) (actress: Three on a Match, Back Door to Heaven, The Case of the Lucky Legs, Postal Inspector; died Mar 26, 1970)
1919 – “Lonesome” George Gobel (Emmy Award winning personality , comedian: “Well I’ll be a dirty bird.”: The George Gobel Show, The Eddie Fisher Show, Hollywood Squares; actor: Better Late than Never, The Fantastic World of D.C. Collins, Harper Valley P.T.A.; died Feb 24, 1991)
1923 – Edith Fellows (actress: The Grace Kelly Story, In the Mood)
1927 – David Hedison (Ara David Heditsian) (actor: Licence to Kill, Live and Let Die)
1930 – James McEachin (actor: The Dead Don’t Die, Double Exposure)
1933 – Constance Towers (actress: Naked Kiss, On Wings of Eagles)
1959 – Bronson Pinchot (actor: Courage Under Fire, Beverly Hills Cop series, The Flamingo Kid, Risky Business, Perfect Strangers, Sara, Stephen King’s The Langoliers)
1960 – Tony Goldwyn (actor: The Boys Next Door, Truman, Pocahontas: The Legend, Nixon, The Pelican Brief, Ghost, Gaby: A True Story)