There’s never been another movie star quite like Jimmy Stewart.
Throughout his lengthy career, and even now, decades after his last film and passing, the world still affectionately refers to Jimmy by his nickname. It’s natural; as if Jim himself told us to skip the formalities.
Jimmy Stewart was as genuinely kind off screen as he appeared to be in his most lovable film roles.
But don’t let that nice guy image fool you.
He could play complicated characters with the best of them. Jimmy Stewart was one of the most versatile actors of his generation, and his understated acting style stands the test of time.
Jim was no pushover off screen either. His kind heart was accompanied by a strong sense of right and wrong, and an iron will that made him stand by what he believed in. As Jim’s friend, television producer Hal Kanter, put it:
“Don’t mess with him.”
Jim appreciated his great success in a profession he loved. But acting wasn’t his life.
If you asked Jimmy Stewart what held the most meaning in his life, he’d tell you family, friends, and serving his country as a bomber pilot in WWII.
He may even mention the accordion.
As I spotlight Jimmy Stewart over the coming months, here are a few things about this exceptional man you didn’t know:
He Was Smart
James Maitland Stewart was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania on May 20, 1908. Jimmy and his two younger sisters learned an early appreciation for music and culture from their mother, Elizabeth. From his father Alex, owner of the local hardware store, Jim learned to plan for a practical future: Alex fully expected his son to take over the family business one day.
Young Jimmy possessed a natural talent for mechanical drawing and engineering. With all the tools and supplies of the hardware store at his fingertips, Jim spent his free time tinkering away in the family basement, building model airplanes and scaled replicas of such historic structures as the Eiffel Tower and the Woolworth Building.
The entrepreneurial Jim also constructed crystal radios, which he then sold as a side business. As best friend Henry Fonda confirmed [aff. link]:
“Jim was no slouch. He had a talent for technical things. Never was much good academically, but he could make things. He told me that when he was twelve, he made a crystal radio. He said he did it with oatmeal boxes and wires. I didn’t believe him, so he made one—and the damn thing WORKED!”
Jimmy Stewart Wasn’t Always So Skinny
Jimmy Stewart was known for his tall, extremely slender frame.
But he wasn’t always so skinny.
Keeping weight on was a struggle for Jim the majority of his life, due to his high metabolism, nervous stomach, and distaste for large meals and over-eating. But in his early years, Jimmy Stewart was a chubby, healthy kid, inspiring Alex to nickname his son “Jimbo.” As Jimmy put it [aff. link]:
“It’s kinda hard to believe, but when I was a baby I was a good round shape. I was eight pounds when I was born but…somewhere on the way…through the years…I got kinda thin!”
According to Jim, it wasn’t until age thirteen that he acquired his trademark slender frame:
“suddenly I shot up…and at the same time I got thinner. My folks were a little concerned if only because they had to keep buying me new suits…
Both my dad and grandfather were tall, so my height was no great surprise. But no one in our family was so thin. Mom got very worried about that and she made me eat huge portions of oatmeal every morning. It didn’t make me put on any weight…but it did make me hate oatmeal so much I haven’t eaten it since.”
For all about Jim’s favorite foods, and the story behind Chasen’s, his favorite restaurant, read my article and Jimmy Stewart inspired Vegan Chili Recipe here.
Jimmy Stewart Was Religious
Jimmy Stewart was raised in a devout Presbyterian home, where father Alex in particular encouraged his son to “put your faith in god.” As Jim later said of his upbringing [aff. link]:
“It wasn’t just a one-day-a-week religion. At mealtimes we’d hold hands and give thanks for the food we had. Sunday evenings we’d sing hymns at home. As children my sisters and I didn’t have religion force-fed to us. It was just part of family life.”
According to Jim’s wife Gloria, it was this early importance placed on religion that made him “a decent, honorable and patriotic human being.”
Jim’s religious upbringing also taught him the importance of faith.
As a boy praying for his father to return home safely from WWI, as a young man in combat during WWII, or as a father mourning the death of his stepson in Vietnam, Jimmy Stewart relied on faith to help him through life’s most challenging situations:
“It’s incredible just how strong a simple faith in God can be. It isn’t that God is actually going to protect [you]…because you have faith. It’s simply that having faith takes away your fear. I know that’s true from the terrible experience of losing my son in Vietnam. God just can’t be there to protect every good soldier. It just doesn’t work that way. You can only hope to do the best you can in this life…and trust there’s something better waiting for all of us. And I guess that’s what true faith is.”
He Went to Princeton
Jimmy’s father Alex was adamant that his son go to Princeton. A former student of the prestigious university himself, Alex expected Jim to graduate from Princeton, then come back home and take over the hardware store. Though not much of a student, Jimmy was accepted to Princeton’s class of 1932, and made the honor roll his junior year.
Jimmy graduated with a degree in electrical engineering and unofficially minored in mechanical drawing. The minor helped Jim earn a scholarship to Princeton’s architecture graduate program.
Jim planned to continue his university studies in the architecture program. But those plans were permanently altered when an opportunity arose for him to pursue another interest from his undergraduate years: acting.
Jimmy Stewart Played the Accordion
Jimmy Stewart’s segue into acting was the accordion.
Yes, you read that right.
Jim’s practically lifelong affection for the instrument began as a young boy, when his father Alex accepted a highly unusual form of payment from a customer at the hardware store. The customer, a circus performer, didn’t have any money. But he did have an accordion. As Jimmy remembered:
“There was one fella who played the accordion, and when he couldn’t pay his bill, he gave Dad the accordion…and Dad gave it to me and said, ‘Here, son, learn to play the accordion.’ I knew how to play the piano a little, so I could pick out the keys, and then it was a case of figuring out how the squeeze the thing. It took a long time, but I taught myself to play the accordion…and I really came to love playing that instrument. Still do.”
Jimmy Stewart and His Accordion
As a boy, Jimmy had always been shy around girls. But at Princeton, Jim found that his accordion provided a great way to meet girls.
Who would have thought.
Jim’s niche accordion skill was also desirable to Princeton’s musical dramatic society, the Triangle Club.
Future film and stage director Josh Logan, an upper classman during Jimmy’s years at Princeton, was president of the Triangle Club. When Jim auditioned for a role in the club’s latest production, Logan took note of his natural charm.
Jimmy got the part, and played the accordion as a specialty number in the show. Logan was further impressed by Jim’s stage presence in the production, and eventually asked [aff. link]:
“…if he ever thought of becoming an actor. ‘Good God, no. I’m going to be an architect.’ He [Jimmy] walked away as if I had slandered him.”
Despite his confidence that acting would never be his career, Jim became a regular in the Triangle Club productions during his years at Princeton. After graduating from the university in 1932, Jimmy accepted an offer from Logan to join his new Cape Cod theater group, the University Players.
And he brought his accordion.
Jim believed his time with the Players was nothing more than a fun summer diversion before he headed back to Princeton’s architecture graduate program in the fall.
But as it turned out, that summer marked the start of Jimmy Stewart’s acting career.
Jimmy Stewart Was Best Friends with Henry Fonda
During that summer with the University Players, Jimmy barely missed meeting the man who would soon become his best friend for life, Henry Fonda. Indeed, it was Fonda’s departure from the University Players—after the end of his tempestuous, two-month marriage to the group’s leading lady, Margaret Sullavan—that opened up a spot for Jim, who Josh Logan hired as a replacement.
After his summer with the University Players, Jimmy found, in his own words, that:
“Acting was [like] getting bit by a malaria mosquito.”
In other words, he was hooked.
Jim put his architecture studies on hold, and took advantage of a unique opportunity to reprise on Broadway a bit role he’d done with the Players. It wasn’t a lucrative starring role, but it was a promising start to an acting career.
Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda
It was as a struggling actors in New York City that Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda became best friends.
Jim, Fonda, Josh Logan, and another pal took a small, cold-water flat on West Sixty-third Street, and pooled their resources to just barely make the rent each month. The mildewy flat, which Fonda comically christened “Casa Gangrene,” was located a few floors below a whorehouse, and just a block or two away from where famous gangster Legs Diamond used to live.
But the boys had a blast. Beer parties—complete with Fonda’s skilled cooking of hobo sandwiches and Swedish meatballs, occasional run-ins with the mob, Jim playing the accordion in Times Square while Hank sang to earn the always needed rent money, and building model airplanes together between jobs, all formed the foundation of the extraordinary Fonda/Stewart friendship. It was a foundation so strong, not even their divergent politics could tear Hank and Jim apart. The pair remained lifelong friends, so close that words were often unnecessary when Hank and Jim were together.
Jimmy Stewart Was An Unconventional Leading Man
MGM talent scout Bill Grady caught one of Jimmy Stewart’s early performances with the Triangle Club. Always on the lookout for new talent to bring back to Hollywood, Grady believed that Jim had the star quality he was looking for.
As Grady recounted:
“They [the performers] were a motley group, and like all amateurs, accentuated their ridiculous appearance with excessive mugging and gestures. All but the skinny guy on the end. He was six-foot-four, towering over all the others, and looked uncomfortable as hell. While the others hammed it up, the thin one played it straight and was a standout. Later in the show the thin one did a specialty, singing a song to his own accompaniment on an accordion…”
Grady introduced himself to Jimmy after the show. But his initial feeling that “the thin one” could make it as Hollywood star was quickly dashed.
Grady found Jimmy’s winning personality charming, but was confused by his appearance: Jim’s looks were too unconventional for a leading man, and yet he didn’t look like a character actor either. Grady decided that Jimmy Stewart would be “of no particular interest” to MGM.
A Second Look
Later, Grady caught another performance of Jim’s, this time on Broadway. It was a small role, but Jimmy’s presence and line delivery nearly stole the show. Now Grady couldn’t resist touting the virtues of the thin one to Louis B. Mayer. Jimmy Stewart was offered a contract with MGM.
Jim was initially reluctant to sign with the studio. But Hank Fonda, recently moved to Hollywood himself after signing with Fox, convinced Jimmy to go for it.
Movie stardom was a long, uphill climb for Jimmy Stewart. Louis B. Mayer had absolutely no idea what to do with his new contract player, and fixated on his weight, believing that if Jim could just put on a few pounds, he’d be leading man material. But despite a rigorous workout program with the studio’s personal trainer, and a Mayer-mandated high-fat diet of milkshakes, pasta, and a special concoction of egg nog and brandy, Jim just couldn’t manage to put on the weight.
Ultimately, it was through loan out deals to other studios—such as Columbia Pictures for the 1939 classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, that Jimmy proved himself a talented and popular leading man.
He Was Versatile
Jimmy Stewart was one of the most versatile actors of his generation. Throughout his career, Jim played just about every character imaginable: a murderer (After The Thin Man); a dancing sailor (Born to Dance); an idealistic young senator (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington); a worried father (The Man Who Knew Too Much); a slew of gunslinging Western Heroes (Winchester ’73); an injured photographer-turned amateur sleuth (Rear Window); and a psychologically trouble detective (Vertigo).
Despite this wide range of characters, Jimmy’s versatility is often overlooked. He made it look so easy, it’s often assumed that Jim always just played some version of himself. But this is far from true.
Co-star Thomas Mitchell called Jimmy Stewart “the most naturally giften actor” he even worked with. But Jim’s natural gifts are apparent on screen only because he worked at them. Jimmy poured hours of dedicated study into each character he created.
And Jim’s famous, much imitated stutter only added to his onscreen naturalness.
The Jimmy Stewart Stutter
“Jimmy had the same effect on pictures that Marlon Brando had some years later. Jimmy had the ability to talk naturally. He knew that in conversation people do often interrupt each other and that it’s not always easy to get a thought out. It took a little while for the sound men to get used to him. But he had an enormous impact. And then, some years later, Marlon came out and did the same thing all over again—but what people forget is that Jimmy did it first.”
He Was a Bomber Pilot During WWII
On September 16, 1940, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt instated a mandatory draft of all men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-six. On October 29, 1940, the random selection of the first 900 names drafted was publicly broadcast.
Of those 900 names, “James Maitland Stewart” was the 310th called.
Many big stars of the day avoided the draft though the protection of their studio bosses. Jimmy Stewart could have done the same.
But he didn’t.
Jim even had another out from military service. After being drafted, he failed the army physical: at 10 pounds underweight, Jimmy Stewart was judged unfit to serve his country.
Rather than accept defeat, Jimmy argued with the doctor at his second physical that his slight weight was a family characteristic. It wasn’t, but that’s how determined Jim was to serve his country.
And it worked.
Jimmy Stewart: A True Hero
In March 1941, just after winning the Best Actor Oscar for The Philadelphia Story (1940), Jim entered the army as a buck private.
With his passion for flying, Jimmy then applied for admission to the Air Corps. But at age thirty-two, a full six years older than the standard age cutoff for the Air Corps, his chances of acceptance were slim. In the end, Jim’s flying experience—he’d earned his private pilot license in 1935, and a commercial pilot license in 1938—was deemed more valuable than his age was limiting. Jimmy was accepted to the Air Corps, and mastered flying the difficult B-24 Liberator.
In November 1943, James Stewart arrived in Great Britain to lead the 703rd Bomb Squadron division, which consisted of a dozen B-24 bombers and 350 soldiers and flyers. During his time overseas, Jimmy flew in 20 combat missions, and accumulated more than two thousand hours of flying time.
By the time of his honorable discharge at the end of the war, James Stewart had achieved the rank of full colonel, the highest military rank of any star who served during WWII.
Like many of our greatest generation who bravely served, Jimmy Stewart didn’t like to talk about his WWII service. But he revealed just how meaningful those years were to him in a late 1980s interview:
“[the] military experience that I had was something I think about almost every day, and one of the greatest experiences of my life. Greater than being in movies.”
He Was An Amazing Friend. But Chose His Friends Sparingly.
Jimmy Stewart once shared that:
“I think every living creature is capable of feeling left out, and I almost look at it as a duty for one creature to look out for another.”
Jimmy Stewart was kind and welcoming to all. But despite his warm, friendly demeanor, very few people got to know Jimmy intimately. As director John Ford said of him:
“You don’t get to know Jimmy Stewart. Jimmy Stewart gets to know you.”
Jim chose his friends wisely and sparingly. His daughter Kelly has shared that Hank Fonda was one of the few close friends her father ever had. Often, Jim and his closest pals were so in tune with one another, words were simply not necessary: Fonda and Jimmy were known to sit together, silently building model airplanes or kites, for hours on end, without speaking a word. The silence wasn’t awkward; it was the ultimate expression of the ease and comfort Hank and Jim felt in one another’s company.
Another of Jimmy’s closest friends was the equally laconic Gary Cooper.
Jim once shared a story about a hang out with Coop, and the minimal word count that was typical whenever these two buddies got together:
“Coop didn’t waste many words. [I] Remember once we went for a long walk. Aaaah, big bird flew overhead. Cooper pantomimed a gun and said BANG!…High point of the afternoon’s conversation.”
Sometimes, words are truly unnecessary. Jimmy Stewart was the kind of friend who recognized and respected this. As Henry Fonda put it, Jim was:
“Simply the kind of guy everyone should want as a friend.”
He Was Married One Time. And Remained Faithful.
Much has been written about Jimmy Stewart’s romantic life. While his personal values and moral code make it hard to believe that Jim was ever the heartbreaking ladykiller some Stewart biographers make him out to be—that interpretation sounds more like an attempt of said biographers to present the near saintly Stewart in a controversial light in order to sell a book—there’s no doubt that young Jimmy Stewart was popular with the ladies.
Jimmy dated such renown beauties as Ginger Rogers, Norma Shearer, Marlene Dietrich, Olivia de Havilland, and Dinah Shore before falling for the elegant and classy Gloria Hatrick McLean.
Jim and Gloria met at a dinner party hosted by their good friends, Gary and Rocky Cooper. The Coopers put the party together expressly to set Jim and Gloria up.
And the plan worked.
Jim and Gloria became near inseparable shortly after. As Jimmy said of meeting Gloria [aff. link]:
“For me it had been love at first sight. She was the kind of girl I had always dreamed of. The kind you associate with open country, cooking stew, and not fainting because it was made of cut-up squirrels. She’d look at home on a sailboat or a raft.”
Even better, Gloria wasn’t an actress, which Jim thought crucial to making a marriage in Hollywood work.
Jimmy Stewart and His Family
Jim and Gloria married on August 9, 1949 at Brentwood Presbyterian Church. Jimmy then adopted Gloria’s two sons, Michael and Ronald, from her previous marriage. He loved them as his own. And in 1951, Jim and Gloria had twin daughters Judy and Kelly.
By all accounts, Jimmy Stewart was a sweet father. Jim was adored by his children, who appreciated the blessing of parents who were involved in their lives. In Hollywood no less. As son Michael said:
“It wasn’t a Hollywood upbringing.”
The family was grounded and tight-knit as a result.
Jim was a faithful, devoted husband, despite the temptations of Hollywood. He and Gloria remained happily married for 45 years, until Gloria’s passing in 1994. It was heartbreaking for Jimmy to lose the love of his life to lung cancer. But he firmly believed that he and Gloria would be together again:
“I’m devastated. I don’t know how I’m going to live without her. The only consolation is knowing that we will soon be reunited. Our love will continue in heaven.”
Don't Mess with Jimmy Stewart
Jimmy Stewart was a principled guy who knew what he believed in, and stuck with it no matter what. This admirable quality was at the core of his being. We recognize it watching Jim onscreen, and we appreciate it in the way he lived.
As Jimmy’s friend, producer Hal Kanter put it:
“He knows exactly what he’s doing, has strong opinions and can dig in his heels when he wants to. Remember, he’s remained a staunch Republican in a town where most of his friends are Democrats. He’s been a star in Hollywood, where divorce is rampant, but he’s been married to the same woman for almost forty years, with never a breath of scandal. And most importantly, never forget that he served in World War II and was the lead pilot in [almost] two dozen bombing missions.
Something got him through that war; something makes him stand by what he believes in no matter what. There’s a toughness, a stick-to-your-guns kind of courage and strength underneath that genuine niceness. People sometimes think because he’s that nice, he’s easy to manipulate. Believe me, the best advice I can give you is don’t mess with him.”
More Jimmy Stewart Next Week
And that wraps up my introduction to Jimmy Stewart.
Join me next week for all about Jim’s breakthrough performance in Frank Capra’s inspirational and timeless tribute to democracy, 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.