James Stewart was the movies' quintessential Everyman, a uniquely all-American performer who parlayed his easygoing persona into one of the most successful and enduring careers in film history. On paper, he was anything but the typical Hollywood star: Gawky and tentative, with a pronounced stammer and a folksy "aw-shucks" charm, he lacked the dashing sophistication and swashbuckling heroism endemic among the other major actors of the era. Yet it's precisely the absence of affectation which made Stewart so popular; while so many other great stars seemed remote and larger than life, he never lost touch with his humanity, projecting an uncommon sense of goodness and decency which made him immensely likable and endearing to successive generations of moviegoers.
Born May 20, 1908, in Indiana, PA, Stewart began performing magic as a child. While studying civil engineering at Princeton University, he befriended Joshua Logan, who then headed a summer stock company, and appeared in several of his productions. After graduation, Stewart joined Logan's University Players, a troupe whose membership also included Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan. He and Fonda traveled to New York City in 1932, where they began winning small roles in Broadway productions including Carrie Nation, Yellow Jack, and Page Miss Glory. On the recommendation of Hedda Hopper, MGM scheduled a screen test, and soon Stewart was signed to a long-term contract. He first appeared onscreen in a bit role in the 1935 Spencer Tracy vehicle The Murder Man, followed by another small performance the next year in Rose Marie.
Stewart's first prominent role came courtesy of Sullavan, who requested he play her husband in the 1936 melodrama Next Time We Love. Speed, one of six other films he made that same year, was his first lead role. His next major performance cast him as Eleanor Powell's paramour in the musical Born to Dance, after which he accepted a supporting turn in After the Thin Man. For 1938's classic You Can't Take It With You, Stewart teamed for the first time with Frank Capra, the director who guided him during many of his most memorable performances. They reunited a year later for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stewart's breakthrough picture; a hugely popular modern morality play set against the backdrop of the Washington political system, it cemented the all-American persona which made him so adored by fans, earning a New York Film Critics' Best Actor award as well as his first Oscar nomination.
Stewart then embarked on a string of commercial and critical successes which elevated him to the status of superstar; the first was the idiosyncratic 1939 Western Destry Rides Again, followed by the 1940 Ernst Lubitsch romantic comedy The Shop Around the Corner. After The Mortal Storm, he starred opposite Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant in George Cukor's sublime The Philadelphia Story, a performance which earned him the Best Actor Oscar. However, Stewart soon entered duty in World War II, serving as a bomber pilot and flying 20 missions over Germany. He was highly decorated for his courage, and did not fully retire from the service until 1968, by which time he was an Air Force Brigadier General, the highest-ranking entertainer in the U.S. military.
Stewart's combat experiences left him a changed man; where during the prewar era he often played shy, tentative characters, he returned to films with a new intensity. While remaining as genial and likable as ever, he began to explore new, more complex facets of his acting abilities, accepting roles in darker and more thought-provoking films. The first was Capra's 1946 perennial It's a Wonderful Life, which cast Stewart as a suicidal banker who learns the true value of life. Through years of TV reruns, the film became a staple of Christmastime viewing, and remains arguably Stewart's best-known and most-beloved performance. However, it was not a hit upon its original theatrical release, nor was the follow-up Magic Town -- audiences clearly wanted the escapist fare of Hollywood's prewar era, not the more pensive material so many other actors and filmmakers as well as Stewart wanted to explore in the wake of battle.
The 1948 thriller Call Northside 777 was a concession to audience demands, and fans responded by making the film a considerable hit. Regardless, Stewart next teamed for the first time with Alfred Hitchcock in Rope, accepting a supporting role in a tale based on the infamous Leopold and Loeb murder case. His next few pictures failed to generate much notice, but in 1950, Stewart starred in a pair of Westerns, Anthony Mann's Winchester 73 and Delmer Daves' Broken Arrow. Both were hugely successful, and after completing an Oscar-nominated turn as a drunk in the comedy Harvey and appearing in Cecil B. De Mille's Academy Award-winning The Greatest Show on Earth, he made another Western, 1952's Bend of the River, the first in a decade of many similar genre pieces.
Stewart spent the 1950s primarily in the employ of Universal, cutting one of the first percentage-basis contracts in Hollywood -- a major breakthrough soon to be followed by virtually every other motion-picture star. He often worked with director Mann, who guided him to hits including The Naked Spur, Thunder Bay, The Man from Laramie, and The Far Country. For Hitchcock, Stewart starred in 1954's masterful Rear Window, appearing against type as a crippled photographer obsessively peeking in on the lives of his neighbors. More than perhaps any other director, Hitchcock challenged the very assumptions of the Stewart persona by casting him in roles which questioned his character's morality, even his sanity. They reunited twice more, in 1956's The Man Who Knew Too Much and 1958's brilliant Vertigo, and together both director and star rose to the occasion by delivering some of the best work of their respective careers.
Apart from Mann and Hitchcock, Stewart also worked with the likes of Billy Wilder (1957's Charles Lindbergh biopic The Spirit of St. Louis) and Otto Preminger (1959's provocative courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder, which earned him yet another Best Actor bid). Under John Ford, Stewart starred in 1961's Two Rode Together and the following year's excellent The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The 1962 comedy Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation was also a hit, and Stewart spent the remainder of the decade alternating between Westerns and family comedies. By the early '70s, he announced his semi-retirement from movies, but still occasionally resurfaced in pictures like the 1976 John Wayne vehicle The Shootist and 1978's The Big Sleep. By the 1980s, Stewart's acting had become even more limited, and he spent much of his final years writing poetry; he died July 2, 1997.