James Stewart, the tall, gangling and seemingly diffident Everyman of American motion pictures who prevailed in a fickle industry primarily by being himself, died Wednesday.
The star of such films as "It's a Wonderful Life," "The Philadelphia Story," "Harvey," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Rear Window," "The Spirit of St. Louis" and many other enduring examples of film history, was 89 when he died at his home in Beverly Hills.
He had been in failing health for several years, beginning with a series of heart irregularities, and was seldom seen in public after the death of his wife, Gloria, in 1994.
President Clinton, leading the country in mourning the actor's death, said, "America lost a national treasure today."
Jack Valenti, chairman and chief executive officer of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, said Wednesday that Stewart represented "cinema's nobility . . . and leaves a creative void that is simply unfillable.
"I think," Valenti added, "God is going to enjoy Jimmy's companionship."
Charlton Heston, a co-star and friend, described Stewart on Wednesday as a role model, not only in acting but also in how to behave as a celebrity on the set and in public.
"He had much greater range as an actor than he was credited for," Heston said. "He could be the playboy or the photographer, the congressman or the cowboy. He became, along with his good friend Gary Cooper, the quintessential American male. If American men couldn't quite see they were like him, they all wanted to be."
A reviewer once said: "No matter who he's supposed to be portraying, he's always Jimmy Stewart."
"She's right," Stewart said at the time. "The only kind of role I can really play is someone I can understand: a pretty average kind of man, probably trying to work out some kind of problem the best way he can without calling too much attention to himself.
"Someone . . . yeah . . . like me."
A Bankable Star for Decades
Skinny and lantern-jawed, Jimmy Stewart had risen to stardom in an era dominated by such conventionally handsome leading men as Robert Taylor and Tyrone Power.
Yet he retained his public appeal--visually and audibly recognizable, financially bankable for any production in which he appeared--to the end of his life, even surviving a five-year wartime hiatus (and becoming a war hero) that sent other leading men into oblivion.
Never known as a temperamental actor or one given to haggling over precedence or billing, he nonetheless seemed to attract some of the true plums of his profession. He told people it was "just luck."
"I was second choice to Gary Cooper for 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,' " he recalled. "And Frank Fay originated the lead role in 'Harvey.' In 'The Philadelphia Story,' I played second fiddle to Cary Grant. Still. . . I did OK."
He was nominated for all three pictures, as well as "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Anatomy of a Murder," and won the Academy Award for his work in "The Philadelphia Story." He received an honorary Oscar--presented by Cary Grant--in 1985 for his half-century in films. The American Film Institute also gave him its life achievement award in 1980.
Naturalness and believability were the hallmarks of Stewart's character, whether on-screen portraying a country banker fighting the philistines for control of his hometown, or in real life leading an Air Force bomber wing to Berlin through heavy anti-aircraft fire.
He had always been that kind of man, and attributed the trait to a "small-town, hardware store kind of upbringing" that he considered "a big asset for almost any kind of career--even being an actor."
Still, he admitted, acting was the last career anyone would have predicted for the child who was born James Maitland Stewart on May 20, 1908, in the little town of Indiana, Penn.
He was named for his grandfather, who had founded the family hardware business in 1853. His father, Alexander Stewart, continued to operate the store until he was in his late 80s.
"The main reason," Stewart said, "is that he wanted to have it ready for me to come back to, if ever I needed real work instead of what he regards as make-believe. . . . It was his guess that, sooner or later, people would get wise to me and decide I'd been fooling them. . . ."
He was a thin child who wore eyeglasses, and his ambitions seemed, he said, to "run pretty much between being a stage magician or learning to fly--but most of the kids I knew wanted to do those things, too."
"My father was a big, demanding, stubborn man who was a strict disciplinarian. Never let me or my sisters get away with a thing. So naturally we all just about worshiped him."
After grade school in his hometown, Stewart decided he wanted to be a naval officer. That would mean going to Annapolis, and his father was skeptical--so he sent his son to Mercersburg Academy, a Pennsylvania military school, "to see if I really liked the military life."
As it turned out, he didn't mind it. But there were complications.