Jimmy Stewart Biography

James Maitland Stewart

Jimmy Stewart was the movies’ quintessential everyman, a uniquely all-American performer who parlayed his easy-going persona into one of the most successful and enduring careers in film history. 

James Maitland Stewart was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania, on May 20, 1908. The son of Elizabeth and Alexander Stewart, he achieved so much in his lifetime. Growing up in a small town with his two sisters, Virginia and Mary, instilled values that he would carry with him throughout his life. 

Jimmy, as he was known by those close to him and his fans, attended Indiana Normal School, Mercersburg Academy, and Princeton University. His plans for the future entailed working at the J. M. Hardware Co. store that was started by his grandfather and passed down to his father. This never came to fruition although his father always thought that if things didn’t work out, Jimmy could come back home and take over the store.

Jimmy graduated from Princeton with a degree in Architecture. Due to the depression, Stewart thought there would not be many jobs available, so he took up an offer from a friend. He spent the next summer preparing a show for Broadway with the Falmouth Players. When the show headed to New York, Jimmy followed suit. He was enamored with it all. He started on Broadway with bit parts, moved to small parts, and those led to leading roles until he was discovered by Hollywood. 

In 1935, Stewart signed a contract with MGM studios and began his impressive film career. During the 1930s, he made twenty-one feature films and continued to hone his acting skills. He starred in films with Spencer Tracy, Ginger Rogers, Marlene Dietrich, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, Margaret Sullavan, and Edward G. Robinson.

MGM casted him in musicals, dramas, comedies, and westerns. Frank Capra took notice of him in Navy Blue and Gold and casted him in You Can’t Take It with You. In 1938, this film won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Stewart then starred in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and received his first Academy Award Nomination for Best Actor. He won the New York Critics Award, but not the Academy Award. This happened again twenty years later with Anatomy of a Murder.

Jimmy did win the Academy Award for Best Actor for The Philadelphia Story also starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in 1940. Stewart was riding high and MGM was expecting big things from him. What he chose to do next was bigger than anyone could have imagined. Like his ancestors before him, Stewart enlisted in the United States Army to the dismay of MGM.

The Stewart family tradition of serving in the military goes back to Jimmy’s third great grandfather, Fergus Moorhead, who served in the Revolutionary War. Jimmy’s maternal grandfather was a general for the Union in the Civil War. His father Alex, served in both the Spanish-American War and World War I. Jimmy Stewart entered the Army as a private and at the end of WWII was a colonel in the Army Air Corps, fully decorated as the result of the 20 combat missions he flew over Germany as leader of a squadron of B-24’s. Among the medals, he was awarded were two Distinguished Flying Crosses and the Croix de Guerre.

Stewart continued his military career after WWII by serving in the Air Force Reserves and rose to the rank of Brigadier General. President Reagan awarded him the Medal of Freedom, which is the highest award that can be awarded to a civilian in the United States.

Following the war, Jimmy got right back to the business of making movies. His first post-war performance in the movie It’s A Wonderful Life earned him an Academy Award nomination. Initially, this film was a box office bust, it has become the most famous Christmas holiday film in Hollywood history. It was also Stewart’s and Frank Capra’s favorite films.

During the 1950s​ Jimmy broadened his roles and collaborated with some of the greatest directors of his time, such as Alfred Hitchcock, Cecil B. DeMille, Billy Wilder, Anthony Mann, John Ford, and Otto Preminger. In 1955, Stewart was the top male at the box office and in the top five for several years. He received another Academy Award nomination for the film many considered his signature role, Harvey.

Jimmy ended his bachelor status in 1949 when he married Gloria Hatrick McLean.They had twin daughters, Kelly and Judy, and with Gloria’s two sons, Michael and Ronald, Jimmy settled down to family life. Unfortunately, they lost Ronald to the Vietnam War.

Stewart’s success continued into the 1960s and 1970s by acting in movies such as, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Shenandoah, and The Flight of the Phoenix. He also had his own television series The Jimmy Stewart Show and played the recurring role of Hawkins in the mystery movie of the week.

Jimmy was a popular guest on many television shows in the ’80s and was recognized as one of the great actors of the golden age of Hollywood. Stewart received his second Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement. He also was awarded the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille and American Film Institute Awards for Lifetime Achievement.

He accidentally started a new career as a poet when he recited his poem A Dog Named Beau on The Johnny Carson Show. Jimmy Stewart’s book of poems became a bestseller and continues to sell very well today.

Stewart went into semi-retirement when health began to fail him. He retired permanently from public life after his beloved wife of forty-five years passed away. 

James Maitland Stewart (Jimmy) died on July 2, 1997. He will be remembered as a talented actor, brave military hero, loving husband, good father, and a giant among men. He leaves a legacy of honesty, hard work, and strong values. He was a good man, a loyal citizen, and had a wonderful life. He indeed earned his wings!

Military Career

Service/Branch: US Army Air Corps / US Army Air Force / US Air Force Reserve
Years of Service: 1941–1947 (Army) 1947–1968 (Air Force)
Wars: World War II – 20 Combat Missions; Vietnam – Bombing Mission Observer
Notable Units: 2d Bombardment Wing / Army Air Forces Reserves
Highest Rank: Brigadier General (O-7)

Notable Military Awards:
Distinguished Service Medal
Distinguished Flying Cross with Oak Leaf Cluster
Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters
Army Commendation Medal
Presidential Unit Citation
Presidential Medal of Freedom
American Defense Service Medal
American Campaign Medal
European, African, Middle-Eastern Campaign Medal with six Bronze Service Stars
World War II Victory Medal
National Defense Service Medal
Armed Forces Reserve Medal with Silver Hourglass Device
1939-45 Croix de Guerre with Palm (From France)

General Stewart also earned his Command Rated Pilot Wings and “Mach 2” Pin

Total Military Service:  27 years, 2 months, 9 days

Major Film Industry Awards & Nominations

1940- Best Actor Academy Award Nomination for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
1941- WON Best Actor  Academy Award for The Philadelphia Story
1946- Best Actor Academy Award Nomination for It’s A Wonderful Life
1950- Best Actor Academy Award Nomination for Harvey
1960- Best Actor Academy Award Nomination for Anatomy of a Murder
1985- WON the Lifetime Achievement Honorary Academy Award

1951- Best Actor Golden Globe in a Drama Nomination for Harvey
1963- Best Actor Golden Globe in a Musical or Comedy Nomination for Mr. Hobbs Takes A Vacation
1965- WON the Cecil B. DeMille Award for Lifetime Achievement
1974- WON Best TV Actor Golden Globe in a Drama for Hawkins

1955- Best Foreign Actor Nomination for The Glenn Miller Story
1960- Best Foreign Actor Nomination for Anatomy of a Murder