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Jimmy Stewart was one of the most prolific actors of the 20th Century, yet there was another lesser known side to the Hollywood legend, that of war hero. James Maitland Stewart, who lived from May 20, 1908 – July 2, 1997, was an iconic American film and stage actor with a distinctive voice and everyman personality that made him instantly recognizable. Over his 70 year film career, he starred in numerous films and stage productions, many of which are now considered classics. He was widely known for portraying down-to-earth, middle class characters with everyday life challenges, which was much like his own personality.
Another facet of Stewart that was not widely known was his lifelong love of aviation and long-standing military service. Stewart was a very shy and introspective child who was interested in aviation. However, his family discouraged him from pursuing a career in aviation and attending the U.S. Naval Academy. Instead, he was encouraged to use his considerable intellect to pursue higher education at Princeton University. While at Princeton, Stewart discovered his love of acting and began a career as a stage actor.
During the Depression, the actor logged over 400 hours of flight time as a pilot. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the thespian was drafted into the U.S. Army, but was found to be underweight for his height. The actor was a long and lanky 6′ 3″ and only weighed 143 pounds at the time. He worked with a noted Hollywood trainer to put on the necessary weight, and successfully enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Later, Stewart would also serve in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. Stewart’s military service spanned a total of 27 years (1941-1968) and he served in World War II as well as Vietnam War conflicts.
During his distinguished military service, Stewart attained the rank of major general (two stars) and received many awards for his valor, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, Presidential Medal of Freedom, Armed Forces Reserve Medal, French Croix de Guerre, and the Army Commendation Medal. Ultimately, the prolific actor and war hero retired from the Air Force in May of 1968.
Following World War II and a five-year absence from film, Stewart took some time to re-evaluate his career. He had not abandoned his love of aviation and considered going into the aviation industry if his film career faltered. Upon the actor’s return to Hollywood in 1945, he became an independent contract actors and secured himself more freedom to choose his roles. Stewart became one of the first studio actors to do so. In 1945, his first post-war film was the Hollywood classic It’s a Wonderful Life, which was directed by Frank Capra and co-starred Donna Reed.
Throughout his impressive seven decades in Hollywood, Stewart’s down-to-earth, wholesome image was seen in such seminal films as The Philadelphia Story (1940), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Harvey (1950), as well as his longstanding collaboration with Director Alfred Hitchcock over several films. Moreover, his upstanding image also extended to his off-screen life. He was devoted to his wife of over 45 years, Gloria, and their family. The actor was devastated by his wife’s passing in 1994, and reportedly never recovered from the loss. The prolific actor and war hero worked in many genres of film including drama, comedy, and westerns, as well as attempted a few TV shows in the 1950s and 70’s. However, Stewart did not find much success in this genre.
Stewart was a prolific actor and war hero, who rarely spoke publicly about his military service and did he act in many military films. Strategic Air Command (1955), in which he starred opposite June Allyson, was likely his most well-known foray into military moviemaking. Yet, Stewart’s film career is undisputed as he remains one of the most represented leading actor on the American Film Institute (AFI) lists, such as the AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies and AFI’s 10 Top 10 lists. Moreover, he is also the most represented leading actor on the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time list presented by Entertainment Weekly Magazine. Furthermore, 10 of his films have been inducted into the United States National Film Registry as of 2007.
By Leigh Haugh
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