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    Film Hero Jimmy Stewart Dies at 89

    James Stewart (AP photo/file) James Stewart (center) in the last scene of Frank Capra's 1947 film "It's a Wonderful Life." (AP photo/file)
    By Bart Barnes
    Washington Post
    Staff Writer
    Thursday, July 3, 1997; Page A01

    Jimmy Stewart, 89, a motion picture Olympian with an all-American image and a universal appeal whose roles as a movie actor helped define a national culture, died of cardiac arrest yesterday at his home in Los Angeles.

    In a career that spanned five decades, Stewart played real-life heroes and ordinary people, pioneers, lawmen, cowboys, military officers, politicians, businessmen, reporters, fools and wise men.

    He was an idealistic young senator fighting the entrenched political establishment in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939); Charles Lindbergh flying across the Atlantic in "The Spirit of St. Louis" (1957) and band leader Glenn Miller losing his life in a World War II plane crash in "The Glenn Miller Story" (1954). He was a shrewd country lawyer outwitting the city slickers in "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959) and the clown with the mysterious past who never took the smiling paint off his sad face in "The Greatest Show on Earth" (1952).

    James Stewart (AP photofile) James Stewart admires his friend and companion "Harvey," a 6-foot imaginary white rabbit, in the 1950 film of the same name. (AP photo/file)

    For his supporting performance as magazine reporter Macauley Connors, playing opposite Katharine Hepburn in the high society film "The Philadelphia Story" (1940), he won his first Academy Award. He also received an honorary Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1985.

    He won an Oscar nomination and the New York Film Critics' award as best actor of the year for "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," in which he delivered one of the more memorable lines of his career: "I wouldn't give you two cents for all your fancy rules if behind them they didn't have a little bit of plain, ordinary kindness and a little lookin' out for the other fella."

    In his own favorite role, Stewart was the civic-minded yet tormented George Bailey, who was saved from suicide by his guardian angel in "It's a Wonderful Life" (1947), which has since become a classic Christmastime perennial.

    His movie career included mysteries, romance, comedies and high drama, more than 75 films in all, beginning in the 1930s, which is often considered the Golden Age of Hollywood. He played opposite most of the leading actresses of his time. Among them were Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers, Jean Arthur, Carole Lombard, Joan Crawford, Claudette Colbert, Rosalind Russell, Grace Kelly, June Allyson and Kim Novak.

    He outlived almost all of the leading men of those early years, including Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, James Cagney, Fred Astaire, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant and Henry Fonda.

    To audiences around the world, Stewart is remembered as the hero of such Alfred Hitchcock suspense thrillers as "Rear Window" (1954), where he dangled from an apartment window ledge in New York's Greenwich Village; a frontiersman riding the plains in a John Ford Western; or a basic Mr. Nice Guy, winning against the odds by dint of virtue and hard work, in a Frank Capra movie.

    "Jimmy Stewart is the quintessential American man to millions of moviegoers," Rochelle Slovin, the founder and director of the American Museum of the Moving Image, said at a 1988 tribute to Stewart.

    "You made me laugh. You made me cry. You made me wish for a country we perhaps haven't seen for a while," actor Dustin Hoffman said at a 1980 American Film Institute Life Achievement Award ceremony for Stewart. "You made my parents very happy. You made me very happy. I'm going to see to it that you make my children very happy."

    On the screen, Stewart had a presence that was self-effacing and modest. He could be engagingly awkward, and he sometimes spoke his lines with a slight stammer, but he was lovable and sincere. There were a few times when he was just plain loony, as in "Harvey" (1950), when he played the amiable drunk, Elwood P. Dowd, who often was accompanied by his imaginary companion, a six-foot-tall white rabbit.

    But most of the time, Stewart was the cinematic epitome of common sense and decency. He was the proverbial boy-next-door. His style of acting seemed effortless and natural, and he established an easy rapport with his audiences. He often said that one of the hardest and most difficult aspects of his work was making his acting appear effortless. In fact, it required hard work and concentration, and Stewart was a tough and demanding taskmaster on himself.

    James Maitland Stewart was born in Indiana, Pa., where his family had operated a hardware store since the middle of the 19th century, and he never relinquished his small-town America roots. On the night in 1941 when he won his Academy Award for "The Philadelphia Story," his father called him from Pennsylvania at 4 a.m. "I hear you won some kind of award. What was it, a plaque or something?" asked Alex Stewart. "Well, anyway, you better bring it back here, and we'll put it in the window of the store."

    It remained there for 25 years.

    At Pennsylvania's Mercersburg Academy, Stewart played football and participated in dramatics. In 1932, he graduated from Princeton with a degree in architecture, but his participation in dramatic and musical productions there left him more interested in the theater.

    After college, Stewart spent the summer on Cape Cod with a theater group known as the University Players, directed by Joshua Logan. He played accordion at a tea room in Falmouth and won a minor role as a chauffeur in a pre-Broadway tryout of a show called "Goodbye Again."

    In that role, Stewart was on stage for only three minutes, and he had one line, "Mrs. Belle Irving is going to be sore as hell." But he managed to put enough effort and vitality into his performance to impress both the audiences and visiting critics from New York.

    That fall he went to New York himself, played a supporting role in an unsuccessful play called "Carrie Nation," and then in December was the chauffeur once more in "Goodbye Again." Over the next three years, he appeared in a variety of Broadway productions; then, in 1935, a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer talent scout persuaded the studio to offer him a part in a movie called "Murder Man."

    In that picture, Stewart was a police reporter called "Shorty." He was not pleased with his performance. "I was all hands and feet and didn't know what to do with either," he would say later.

    Nevertheless, it was enough to launch his motion picture career. He made 24 films during his first five years in Hollywood, including some of his best. Among them was the Capra film "You Can't Take It With You," which won an Academy Award for best picture in 1938.

    His other notable films of that early period were "Shopworn Angel" (1938), "Seventh Heaven" (1937), "No Time for Comedy" (1940), "Next Time We Love" (1936) and "Destry Rides Again" (1939), in which Stewart played opposite Dietrich.

    Early in 1941, with World War II already underway in Europe, Stewart tried to enlist in the Army. Initially, he was rejected for being underweight, but he fattened himself with a deliberate and aggressive eating campaign and eventually was accepted for military service.

    Already a licensed airplane pilot, he was assigned to the Army Air Corps, where he became a bombardier instructor. In 1943, he went to Europe as commander of a bomber squadron in the Eighth Air Force, and he flew 25 combat missions. He returned to the United States in 1945 as a colonel whose decorations included a Distinguished Flying Cross with oak leaf cluster and an Air Medal.

    Stewart remained in the Air Force Reserve after the war and in 1959 was promoted to brigadier general. In 1966, during his annual two weeks of active duty, he requested a combat assignment and participated in a bombing strike over Vietnam.

    Resuming his film career after World War II, Stewart faced a midlife crisis of confidence. His initial postwar films perpetuated the image of youthful innocence and hometown decency he had projected before the war, but in the late 1940s it didn't play as well as it had before Pearl Harbor. Critic Jesse Zunser, writing in Cue magazine in 1947, observed that "Jimmy is still exuding boyish charm in lethal doses."

    Despite its popularity in subsequent years, "It's a Wonderful Life," was a commercial disaster when it was released in 1946, and Stewart took this as a personal slap in the face. Over the next few years, he underwent a cinematic metamorphosis, growing more worldly wise, tougher and less inclined to be trusting.

    In "Call Northside 777" (1948), he was a hard-nosed reporter. He was a suspicious school headmaster in a Hitchcock murder movie, "Rope" (1948).

    Beginning in 1950, he commenced his development as the stoic frontiersman in such Westerns as "Winchester '73" and "Broken Arrow," where he fell in love with an Apache maiden. He tracked down outlaws, fought cattle rustlers, caught gun runners and foiled train robbers in movies such as "Bend of the River" (1952), "Naked Spur" (1953), "The Man From Laramie" (1955), "The Far Country" (1955) and "Night Passage" (1957). In contrast to the clean-cut wholesomeness he reflected in his earlier films, Stewart now rode the plains with a day's growth of beard and his attire often unkempt. He had a quick finger on the trigger.

    Professionally and in terms of personal popularity, his career probably peaked during the 1950s. He won awards from the Venice Film Festival, the New York Film Critics and the Film Daily poll of writers in 1959 for his performance as the defense attorney for an Army officer accused of murder in "Anatomy of a Murder," which also drew an Academy Award nomination. He also received Academy Award nominations for "Harvey" and "It's a Wonderful Life."

    Stewart was a military hero in "Strategic Air Command" (1955) and a hero of law enforcement in "The FBI Story" (1959). His Hitchcock thrillers included "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1956) and "Vertigo" (1958). He had a romance with an enchanting witch, played by Novak, in "Bell, Book and Candle" (1958).

    During the decade of the 1960s, Stewart reduced his work schedule substantially. He was a frontier senator in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962). In another western, "The Shootist" (1976), he was a small-town doctor telling John Wayne he had cancer. In 1977, he appeared in "Airport '77."

    But he was never successful on television. In 1971, he was a college anthropology professor in a situation comedy written expressly for him, "The Jimmy Stewart Show," Sunday nights on NBC. The program drew poor ratings.

    Two years later, he tried again, this time as a defense lawyer in a series called "Hawkins," but this, too, was short-lived.

    As he aged, he began to experience health problems, including heart ailments and skin cancer, and he wore a hearing aid. In 1989, he published a book containing a collection of poems he had written, and it sold more than 300,000 copies.

    In a statement released from his California office, former president Ronald Reagan, who acted with Stewart in war training films, said of his fellow actor: "We were glad that in 1983 we had the chance of presenting him with the Kennedy Center honors and in 1985 the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In his usual manner, he accepted both with grace and humility."

    In 1949, Stewart married Gloria Hatrick MacLean. She died in 1994.

    They had twin daughters, Kelly and Judith. There were also two sons from her previous marriage to Edward MacLean Jr., Michael and Ronald, who was killed in action in Vietnam in 1970 while serving in the Marine Corps.

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post

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