James Maitland “Jimmy” Stewart (May 20, 1908 – July 2, 1997) was an American actor and military officer who is among the most honored and popular stars in film history. A major Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract player, Stewart was known for his distinctive drawl and down-to-earth persona, which helped him often portray American middle-class men struggling in crisis. Many of the film s he starred in have become enduring classic s. Stewart was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning one in competition for The Philadelphia Story (1940), and received an Academy Lifetime Achievement award in 1985. In 1999, Stewart was named the third-greatest male screen legend of the Golden Age of Hollywood by the American Film Institute, behind Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant.The American Film Institute has also named five of Stewart’s film s to its list of the 100 best American film s ever made.
He also had a noted military career and was a World War II and Vietnam War veteran and pilot, who rose to the rank of Brigadier General in the United States Air Force Reserve, becoming the highest-ranking actor in military history.
Stewart was born on May 20, 1908, in Indiana, Pennsylvania, the son of Elizabeth Ruth (née Jackson; March 16, 1875 – August 2, 1953) and Alexander Maitland Stewart (May 19, 1871 – December 28, 1961), who owned a hardware store. Stewart was mainly of Scottish ancestry and was raised as a Presbyterian. He was descended from veterans of the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the American Civil War. The eldest of three children (he had two younger sisters, Virginia Wilson Stewart and Mary Kelly Stewart), young Jimmy was expected to one day inherit his father’s store and continue a business that had been in the family for three generations. His mother was an excellent pianist, but his father discouraged Stewart’s request for music lessons. When his father once accepted a gift of an accordion from a guest, Stewart quickly learned to play the instrument, which became a fixture offstage during his acting career. As the family grew, music continued to be an important part of family life.
A shy child, Stewart spent much of his after-school time in the basement working on model airplanes, mechanical drawing and chemistry—all with a dream of going into aviation. It was a dream greatly enhanced by the legendary 1927 flight of Charles Lindbergh, whose progress 19-year-old Stewart, then stricken with scarlet fever, was himself avidly following from home; thus foreshadowing his starring movie role as Lindbergh 30 years later.
In 1938 Stewart had a brief, tumultuous romance with Hollywood queen Norma Shearer, whose husband, Irving Thalberg, head of production at MGM, had died two years earlier. Stewart began a successful partnership with director Frank Capra in 1938, when he was loaned out to Columbia Pictures to star in You Can’t Take It With You. Capra had been impressed by Stewart’s minor role in Navy Blue and Gold (1937). The director had recently completed several well received film s, including It Happened One Night (1934), and was looking for the right actor to suit his needs—other recent actor s in Capra’s film s such as Clark Gable, Ronald Colman, and Gary Cooper did not quite fit. Not only was Stewart just what he was looking for, but Capra also found Stewart understood that prototype intuitively and required very little directing. Later Capra commented, “I think he’s probably the best actor who’s ever hit the screen.”
Stewart was hospitalized after falling in December 1995. In December 1996, he was due to have the battery in his pacemaker changed, but opted not to, preferring to let things happen naturally. In February 1997, he was hospitalized for an irregular heartbeat. On June 25, a thrombosis formed in his right leg, leading to a pulmonary embolism one week later. Surrounded by his children on July 2, 1997, Stewart died at the age of 89 at his home in Beverly Hills, California, with his final words to his family being, “I’m going to be with Gloria now.” President Bill Clinton commented that America had lost a “national treasure … a great actor , a gentleman and a patriot”. Over 3,000 mourners, mostly celebrities, attended Stewart’s memorial service, which included a firing of three volleys for his service in the Army Air Forces and the U.S. Air Force. Stewart’s remains are interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.