A rumor casts a shadow on the legacy of Jimmy Stewart. Was Jimmy Stewart Racist? The answer is no. Here's why.
Jimmy Stewart Was Not Racist. Here's Why.
June 11, 2022 Updated July 26, 2022
A recently posed question casts a shadow on the otherwise pristine legacy of Jimmy Stewart.
Was Jimmy Stewart racist?
The answer is no.
Jimmy Stewart Was Not Racist
Let’s go behind the origin of the rumor that Jimmy Stewart was racist, and the evidence that refutes it.
Hal Kanter, Hal Williams, & The Jimmy Stewart Show
It was Donald Dewey’s 1997 biography of Jimmy Stewart [aff. link] that first sparked rumors about the beloved star’s beliefs. For his book, Dewey interviewed the producer of Jimmy’s 1971 television show, writer Hal Kanter. Kanter’s interview includes his overwhelmingly positive insights on both Jim and working on The Jimmy Stewart Show (1971-1972).
But one anecdote Kanter shared has since been used as evidence that Jimmy Stewart was racist.
A Casting Mixup
According to Kanter, Jim erroneously believed that black actor Hal Williams had been cast as a police officer who would give Jim’s character “a cop lashing” in a particular episode. Jim expressed frustration that Williams’ character would be “lecturing me with millions of people watching.” He asked that the part be recast.
Kanter explained to Jim that Williams had in fact been hired to play an FBI agent in a different episode. According to Kanter, Jim was embarrassed that he’d mixed up the roles. Jim dropped his request to have Hal Williams recast.
Kanter’s anecdote has been retold by countless Classic Hollywood fans and Jimmy Stewart biographers over the years. Some claim that Jimmy’s objection to Hal Williams playing the police officer role was motivated by racism.
But this is untrue.
As Kanter’s anecdote underscores, Jim had no problem with Williams playing an FBI agent, a role with arguably more authority and prestige. As soon as Jim realized that this was the role Hal Williams had been hired to play, he had no desire to remove Williams from the show.
Jimmy Stewart was not a racist. But he didn’t support militancy. As friends like Leonard Gershe have shared, political militancy made Jim “very uneasy.”
Hal Kanter Never Called Jimmy Stewart Racist
In the politically charged climate of 1971, a time when militant nationalist groups, including the Black Panthers, were dominant media voices, Jimmy Stewart believed that casting Hal Williams as “a cop lashing” police officer suggested support of the militant approach he opposed. It was Jim’s disdain for militancy, not any racial prejudice, that motivated the recasting request he ultimately revoked.
It’s further noteworthy that at no point in his interview with Donald Dewey did Hal Kanter, the only primary source on the incident, call Jimmy Stewart a racist.
Indeed, in the dozens of interviews Hal Kanter gave about Jim and The Jimmy Stewart Show over the years, he never once called Jim a racist. Nor does Kanter call Jim a racist in his 1999 autobiography, So Far, So Funny.
Hal Williams Never Called Jimmy Stewart Racist
Hal Williams, the very actor in question, also never called Jimmy Stewart a racist, or said that Jim mistreated him on The Jimmy Stewart Show.
And, contrary to rumor, Jimmy did not fire Williams from the show. You can watch Hal Williams as Quigley in episode 6 of The Jimmy Stewart Show.
The two principal players in this anecdote, Hal Kanter and Hal Williams, never called Jimmy Stewart a racist. Neither should we.
Michael Munn Spreads the "Racist" Rumor
Michael Munn’s 2005 biography, Jimmy Stewart: The Truth Behind the Legend [aff. link], repeats The Jimmy Stewart Show casting misunderstanding, citing it as evidence of, in Munn’s own words, Jim’s “racist spirit.” Munn also claims that a 1976 interview he conducted with black actor Woody Strode, Jim’s co-star in 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, further proves that Jimmy Stewart was a racist.
But it’s possible the interview never occurred.
Michael Munn’s integrity as a biographer has been questioned. Munn insists that he was the confidant of nearly every great Classic Hollywood Star, a declaration he made only after all of these stars passed. Munn is the author of over 25 books, most of which are built on the intimate and often shocking revelations that, according to Munn, these stars were all anxious to share with him.
Michael Munn is an Unreliable Source
Among other dubious claims, Munn insists that at age 17, he and Ava Gardner became lovers, not long after George Raft ran Munn over with his Rolls Royce, at which point they became close. Munn claims that he and Laurence Olivier were great friends, and that Olivier nicknamed him “Eminem” decades before rapper Marshall Mathers adopted the moniker. Munn says Frank Sinatra made him an honorary member of the Rat Pack after the two sang duets together “for a laugh.” Munn says he regrets turning down a marriage proposal from the beautiful Lynne Frederick, the tortured widow of Peter Sellers, and that Steve McQueen opened up to him on a secret four day motorcycle off-roading excursion. It’s a trip McQueen’s wife insists never happened, but nonetheless forms the basis of Munn’s biography on McQueen, which critics have called “preposterous.” And when David Niven’s son asked for the tapes that Munn swears he recorded of Niven’s deathbed confessions, Munn ultimately admitted that his tape recorder had, conveniently, “chewed them up” years ago.
Even Munn’s publisher, Jeromy Robson of JR Books, admits to having seen only a few of Munn’s interview “reference materials,” and that for the most part, he must trust Munn’s “good memory for dialogue” as the only proof that any of these alleged interviews occurred.
The Alleged Woody Strode Interview
Michael Munn’s dangerous habit of mixing truth with exaggeration and fallacy calls his alleged interview with Woody Strode into question. If the interview did in fact occur, Munn quotes Strode as saying that, on the set of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Jimmy Stewart was “too decent a person” to be “a hard-case racist,” but that Strode believed Jim was “uncomfortable” around him. According to Strode:
“Stewart was never rude to me—he was never rude to anyone. But I could tell he preferred to be around Lee Marvin or [John] Wayne than me.”
Also in the Munn interview, Strode relates an incident in which Liberty Valance director, John Ford, asked Jim what he thought of Woody’s costume, which consisted of old overalls an equally old hat. Jim replied that he thought the costume made Strode “look a bit too much like Uncle Remus.”
According to Strode, John Ford then called the whole cast and crew over, and twisted the comment into something Jimmy Stewart never said. Ford proceeded to announce to the entire company that:
“One of the actors here doesn’t like Uncle Remus. In fact I don’t think he even likes Negroes.”
According to the Munn interview, it took Woody Strode years to realize that it was John Ford’s cruel maneuverings, not anything Jimmy Stewart actually said, that created the tension Strode felt on the Liberty Valance set:
“I was too young at the time to realize Ford was using me to get at Stewart. All I heard was Ford saying that Stewart didn’t like Negroes, and that made me mad at Stewart, and Stewart was just even more uncomfortable around me.”
Unfortunately, anger at Jimmy Stewart is also the takeaway of less engaged readers of Michael Munn’s book.
For Jim’s take on working with John Ford and the Uncle Remus incident, listen to his 1969 account below. The sheer fact that he shares the anecdote is evidence that Jim did not have any racist behavior to hide.
Woody Strode Never Called Jimmy Stewart Racist
Terrible rumors about Jimmy Stewart’s beliefs have sprung from an interview that possibly never occurred. If Michael Munn’s interview with Woody Strode did take place, it’s craftily presented, with Munn’s own words inserted in key places to suggest that Jimmy Stewart was a racist. In the alleged interview, Woody Strode never uses the word “racist” to describe Jimmy Stewart. It’s further worth noting that in his 1990 autobiography [ aff. link], Goal Dust—a book that accurately presents Strode’s words and thoughts—he never calls Jimmy Stewart a racist, neither does he relate any of the incidents about Jim described in Munn’s book.
Another reliable source for Woody Strode’s feelings towards Jimmy Stewart is a 1994 interview with Lee Marvin biographer, Dwayne Epstein. In this, the last interview Strode ever gave, he expresses only respect for Jimmy Stewart, calling Jim one of the screen’s “greatest actors.”
Lee Marvin on Jimmy Stewart
If we are to take Michael Munn’s 1976 interview with Woody Strode as fact, then Munn’s alleged interview with Lee Marvin, another Liberty Valance star, should also be considered.
In the interview, Marvin relates an incident where Jimmy Stewart actively opposed the racist behavior of another actor on set. This unnamed actor used the “n” word to refer to Woody Strode.
Afterwards, Lee Marvin remembered seeing both John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart lunge for the offending actor.
But Jimmy got there first.
Jim was “boiling” mad as he grabbed the actor by the shirt and threatened to beat him to an unrecognizable pulp if he ever used the word around Jim again.
Lee Marvin was impressed by Jimmy’s impassioned response:
“I liked Jimmy before that incident, but after it, I liked him a whole lot more.”
Refuting the Rumor
We’ve dissected the fallacies behind the rumor that Jimmy Stewart was a racist.
Here’s more evidence that refutes it:
According to Peter Fonda, the sheer fact that Jimmy Stewart was best friends with Peter’s father, Henry Fonda, proves that Jim was not racist.
As Peter shared:
“Dad would never have abided a racist.”
Jim’s daughter, Kelly Stewart Harcourt, also knew her father was not racist:
“There were not a lot of black people in Dad’s life, but he was not a racist.”
Producer Julian Blaustein, who produced Jim’s 1950 film, Broken Arrow, also knew that Jimmy Stewart was not racist:
“I never knew Jimmy to do or say anything that was racist.”
The Words and Actions of Jimmy Stewart
In addition to the testaments of people who knew him, Jimmy Stewart’s own words and actions prove he was not racist.
Jim spoke of his Hollywood career in a series of interviews with journalist James Bawden between 1971 and 1983 [aff. link]. At one point in their conversations, Jim shared that his 1934 arrival in Los Angeles was marred only by the obvious mistreatment of the black community. According to Jimmy Stewart, Los Angeles in 1934 was:
“Magical! No freeways. Electric streetcars went everywhere. You could smell the orange blossoms. No smog because few people could afford cars in those days. But I gradually learned L.A. was heavily segregated. Blacks usually sat at the back of the bus. You’d never see them in the big department stores. At MGM there was a separate entrance and lunchroom for the black laborers and maids. It was the dark side of the American dream.”
These are not the words of a racist man.
Jim hit it off particularly well with Duke Ellington during filming of 1959’s Anatomy of a Murder, for which Ellington made history as the first black musician to compose the score for a major Hollywood production. Jim and Duke got to know each other during filming in Marquette County, Michigan, where the entire company stayed at the same hotel and shared meals. For Jimmy Stewart, Duke Ellington was responsible for the best part of each evening:
“[Duke] played for us in the dining room at night, until ten, eleven, which was great fun for us.”
Jim and Duke upset distributors of the film for a scene in which the two are seated next to each other on a piano bench, jamming at the piano of a bar filled with dancers. Thanks to the passionate insistence of director Otto Preminger, the controversial scene stayed in the film [aff. link].
Watch Jim and Duke at the piano in this controversial scene below:
Sharing hotel, meals, and a piano jam session on and off film with Duke Ellington. Jimmy Stewart was not racist.
Jimmy Stewart & American Brotherhood Week
In 1946, Jimmy Stewart led a small group of stars who vocalized their support for brotherhood among all Americans. American Brotherhood Week, sponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, was meant to encourage not just religious tolerance, but acceptance and equality for all races and nationalities.
To promote Brotherhood Week, Jimmy Stewart opened and closed a 3 minute trailer that played before feature films at theaters across the United States. In the trailer, Jim, Van Johnson, Shirley Temple, Eddie Cantor, Jennifer Jones, Ingrid Bergman, Walter Pidgeon, Katharine Hepburn, and Edward G. Robinson encouraged Americans to stand together in support of freedom for all, a message particularly relevant in the wake of World War II.
Watch the video below to hear what Jim and the other stars had to say about brotherhood:
Jimmy Stewart & American Brotherhood Week, 1947
Freedom, brotherhood, and equality were issues Jimmy Stewart clearly felt strongly about, for he returned to headline American Brotherhood Week the following year. The stated primary focus of the 1947 campaign was:
“to enroll as many people as possible in the fight against racial intolerance, bigotry, and discrimination.”
Jimmy Stewart voiced his support for this goal in a 16 second radio campaign that played the week of February 16-23, 1947. Jim’s plea underscores his belief in peace, freedom, and equality for all:
“This is Jimmy Stewart reminding you that this is Brotherhood week; a week reminding us all that the world of the future must be built on the recognition of the rights of each individual, whatever his color, creed, or national background. So this week, let’s resolve to live in harmony with our fellow man.”
Jimmy Stewart Was Not Racist
Jimmy Stewart was not racist. His words, actions, and moral code prove the fallacy of any rumor to the contrary.
Let’s not allow an unsubstantiated rumor to tarnish the reputation of one of the few Hollywood stars worthy of our complete respect and admiration.