Jimmy Stewart – No Ordinary Hero

(It’s really great having a guest blogger like my wife Kimi. Not only does she own my heart, but she also shares my admiration for Jimmy Stewart, the subject of her post for today.)

"Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?" ~ Clarence the Angel to George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life

As I sit down to write about Jimmy Stewart, I know that my deep love for Jimmy and his work is likely to color the tone of this post. I’m sure this won’t be a problem though, because I’ve never met anyone who didn’t love Jimmy Stewart.

James Maitland Stewart was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania, on this date in 1908. Blessed with a happy childhood and solid upbringing, he was a high achiever from a young age.

As a youth, he performed in plays with his sisters for neighborhood children, but always said acting was only for fun. 

At his father’s urging, he attended Princeton University where he excelled in architecture. He so impressed his professors with his thesis on an airport design that he was awarded a scholarship for graduate studies.

When the stock market crash of 1929 made architectural jobs scarce, he accepted a friend’s offer to join a summer stock acting troupe on Cape Cod. While there, he met another a soon-to-be-famous actor named Henry Fonda. They would remain close friends until Fonda’s death in 1982.

(Even after Stewart and Fonda became two of the biggest stars in Hollywood, their children would remember them silently painting model airplanes together.)

A stint on Broadway caught the attention of Hollywood scouts who brought Stewart to the West Coast. He appeared in over 30 motion pictures before his 1939 breakout performance opposite Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again.

An Academy Award nomination that same year for his performance in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington elevated him to true star status.

He would win the Oscar for his performance in The Philadelphia Story the following year. He sent the statuette to his father – who would  proudly display it in the front window of his hardware store for the next 25 years – with a note that said, “It belongs to us both.”

At the outbreak of WWII, Stewart longed to serve his country, but at 6’ 3” and 138 pounds, was turned down by the Air Force for being underweight. Still determined, he reportedly went home and ate everything he could find before testing with the Army Air Corps, where he made the weight requirement without an ounce to spare.

Stewart’s war record included 20 dangerous combat missions as a command pilot, wing commander, and squadron commander.  He was awarded three medals and was honored by Life magazine with a cover photo (below).

Jimmy Stewart was the real deal.

He retired from the service in 1959 with the rank of Brigadier General. (Walter Matthau was a sergeant in his unit.)

In 1949, he married Gloria Hattrick McLean, who he met at the home of Gary Cooper. Their family would eventually include four children – twin girls, and two sons from McLean’s previous marriage. The Stewarts remained happily married until Gloria’s death in February, 1994.

Although he resided in Los Angeles for the remainder of his life, Stewart never lost his love for his hometown. On his 75th birthday, he was in attendance when his statue was placed in the town square.  (I imagine this is what the town of Bedford Falls might have done for George Bailey.)

Like his beloved character George Bailey, Jimmy Stewart touched many lives.

His nickname was “The Ordinary Hero,” but I think it’s clear … there was nothing ordinary about him.

About deadwrite

Freelance writer, film historian, taphophile View all posts by deadwrite

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