Considered by many to be the embodiment of the very best aspects of America, actor James Stewart endeared himself to generations of film lovers with his portrayals of noble, idealistic, yet often conflicted characters that prevailed against the most daunting of odds. Far from the typical leading man, Stewart was lanky and boyish, with a stammering speech pattern that soon became a favorite among comic impersonators. But it was his refreshingly unaffected performances in hits like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939) and his Oscar-winning turn in “The Philadelphia Story” (1940) that won over critics and audiences alike. A highly-decorated bomber pilot during World War II, Stewart returned to motion pictures in Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946). A film widely regarded as overly sentimental upon its initial release, it went on to become a beloved holiday classic decades later. Another nostalgic favorite, although more appreciated in its day, was Stewart’s charming fantasy about a gentle man and his best friend – an invisible talking rabbit named “Harvey” (1950). In the decade that followed, however, Stewart set about redefining his naïve screen persona with portrayals of troubled heroes in frequent collaborations with director Anthony Mann in rugged Westerns like “Winchester 73” (1950) and “The Naked Spur” (1953), as well as four remarkable films with Alfred Hitchcock that included “Rear Window” (1954) and “Vertigo” (1958). An actor of remarkable talent and a man of unquestionable integrity, Stewart was that rarest example of a personal reality living up to Hollywood mythology.
With the outbreak of hostilities in Europe, Stewart became one of the first high-profile Hollywood stars to don a uniform. First drafted, then turned away, due to his inability to meet the U.S. Army’s weight requirement, the determined actor put on extra pounds and volunteered for service. In the wake of Pearl Harbor and mere days after accepting his Oscar for “Philadelphia Story,” Stewart was inducted into the Army Air Forces as a private in 1941. A life-long aviation enthusiast, he had already logged hundreds of hours as a civilian pilot, thus allowing the 33-year-old to enter flight training. After earning his wings and spending time as a flight instructor stateside, Captain Stewart at last finagled his way to Europe as part of a B-24 bomber squadron in 1943. Having led no fewer than 20 bombing missions over Nazi Germany, Stewart completed his service in England as wing operations officer and chief of staff for the 2nd Combat Bomb Wing. By the time of his discharge in 1945, he had earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Air Medals and attained the rank of colonel. Even after his return to Hollywood, Stewart diligently retained his status as a reservist, and in 1959 was promoted to the rank of brigadier general by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1966, 22 years after flying combat missions over Germany, Stewart flew on a B-52 bombing mission over Vietnam as an observer, before retiring completely in 1968.
At the 57th Academy Awards in 1984, Stewart was presented with an Academy Honorary Award for his 50 years of achievement in motion pictures by his longtime friend and former co-star, Cary Grant. In a real world moment that echoed his iconic role in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” in 1988 he and several other Hollywood notables, including Burt Lancaster and Katharine Hepburn, testified before Congress to oppose the colorization of classic films, a controversial innovation spearheaded by media mogul Ted Turner. Stewart also revealed a softer side of himself in his twilight years when he published a book of poetry, simply titled Jimmy Stewart and his Poems in 1989. Two years later, the beloved film star lent his voice to the animated adventure “An American Tail: Fievel Goes West” (1991) – his final film performance. One day after the death of fellow screen legend and “The Big Sleep” co-star Robert Mitchum, Stewart died of a pulmonary embolism at his Beverly Hills home on July 2, 1997. James Stewart was 89 years old.