Jimmy Stewart won the hearts of audiences everywhere with his “aw shucks” charm, making him one of the most popular Hollywood actors of all time. With a career spanning decades, Stewart represented an entire American generation. But what was really going on behind the scenes? Read these 45 facts about Jimmy Stewart to find out.
Jimmy Stewart Facts
1. An American Tale
In many ways, Jimmy Stewart had the ideal American home life. Born James Maitland Stewart in Pennsylvania, Stewart’s father ran the family hardware store while his mother was an accomplished pianist. Even so, young Jimmy was a shy and retiring child, and spent a lot of his time in the basement working on model airplanes.
2. Privacy, Please
The actor was notoriously guarded about his emotions both in public and private, and he kept only a few very close friends throughout his entire life. As director John Ford once complained, “You don’t get to know Jimmy Stewart, Jimmy Stewart gets to know you.”
3. The Quiet American
Stewart was as American as apple pie, and deeply patriotic. He was actually the very first American movie star to enlist in the Army for World War II.
4. Head in the Clouds
As a boy, Jimmy Stewart was an incorrigible daydreamer—a habit that didn’t help his average-to-low grades. Still, even his teachers were charmed and blamed his unimpressive academic performance on his burgeoning creativity.
5. Bachelor Party
Jimmy Stewart didn’t marry until he was in his 40s, and people definitely took notice. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper even dubbed him “The Great American Bachelor.”
6. Play It Again, Jimmy
Jimmy Stewart had a secret talent: he could play the accordion. One day at his father’s hardware store, a customer didn’t have enough money to pay for his items, so the man traded in his accordion instead. In a scene that could be from It’s a Wonderful Life, the local barber then taught young Jimmy how to play the instrument.
Seriously, it’s like a Norman Rockwell painting up in here.
7. A Princeton Among Men
Though Stewart had dreams of becoming a pilot, his father had much bigger plans for him: Princeton University. Always a dutiful son, Stewart realized his father’s wishes and enrolled in the Ivy League university in 1928—yet even this didn’t stop him from loving planes. As an architecture major, Stewart still wrote his thesis on airport design.
8. Fonda Feelings
During his university years, Stewart met a young Henry Fonda. The future superstar pair started as roommates and became best friends for the rest of their lives.
9. Put Me in, Coach
While many celebrities enlisting in World War II got confined to symbolic roles, Stewart refused to sit on the sidelines. Following his passion for aviation, Stewart became a pilot and begged to be put in the fray. Astonishingly, he rose from the rank of private to colonel in four years, fought in Germany, and earned the prestigious Croix de Guerre.
10. Single and Ready to Mingle
As one of America’s biggest stars, Jimmy Stewart had no shortage of dates at the ready. He had relationships with beauties like Ginger Rogers and Loretta Young, but none of them ever quite worked out. Young even once chose her other boyfriend over Stewart because she felt that the actor would never be ready to settle down.
11. Oh Ye of Little Faith
Although he went on to fame and fortune, MGM studios didn’t have any faith in the young Stewart as an actor. He signed a contract with the studio, but they didn’t initially see any leading man qualities in his boyish charms, and thought he was just a “lanky young bumpkin with a hesitant manner of speech.” They weren’t wrong…except, that’s exactly what made him a star.
12. From Stringbean to Beefcake
The actor’s famously slight frame often gave him trouble. In high school, he only made third string on the football team because he was so slim, and when he first tried to enlist in the Army, they rejected him because he was five pounds underweight. The slip of a kid had to run home, stuff himself with food for a while, and get re-weighed.
13. Marry Me, Margaret
The story of Jimmy Stewart and the beautiful actress Margaret Sullavan is worthy of a tear-jerking Hollywood movie. Stewart was immediately smitten with Sullavan when he met her in college—but sadly, it was doomed to a heartbreaking end. Sullavan only saw him as a dear friend and married Stewart’s agent in 1936 instead.
Oof, that’s gotta sting.
14. The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship
After years toiling away in minor parts, Stewart finally got his big break in legendary director Frank Capra’s film You Can’t Take It With You. Capra’s previous muse was Clark Gable, but the director was looking for a breath of fresh air. He more than found it in Stewart: The pair’s future collaborations in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life remain absolute classics today.
15. Wish You Were Here
In 1941, Stewart won his only Academy Award in a big category for his performance in The Philadelphia Story, opposite Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. The night was a triumph—except for one little thing. When he got the gold, Stewart was pretty disappointed that he beat out his friend Henry Fonda. Ever the altruistic friend, Stewart had actually voted for Fonda.
16. Blinged out
Jimmy Stewart eventually achieved the rank of brigadier general, making him the highest-ranking actor in American military history.
17. The Real Christmas Story
Though we now see It’s a Wonderful Life as a feel-good, even schlocky Christmas movie, few people know just how nightmarish it was behind the scenes. Stewart, newly returned from war and unsure how many more parts he would get, was reportedly tense the entire time. His co-star Donna Reed even once admitted, “This is not a happy set.”
18. Putting the “Poe” in Poetry
In contrast to his sunny professional disposition, Stewart’s favorite poet was the macabre writer Edgar Allan Poe.
19. Hungry for Victory
Stewart staunchly refused to talk about his time in the war, but we do have chilling clues about his experiences. According to one of his biographers, the conflict affected him almost literally down to the bone. He was never a big eater, but he spent long periods during the war eating almost nothing, or else surviving off peanut butter and ice cream.
20. Lean on Me
Though she broke Stewart’s heart, Margaret Sullavan made it up to him by turning him into a force of nature. The actor started out as a reedy, self-conscious boy in Hollywood, but Sullavan was his greatest defender. She talked him up to executives, demanded he be in her movies, and even spent hours training him to control his distinctive drawl and mannerisms.
Director Edward Griffith even once mused that “It was Margaret Sullavan who made James Stewart a star.”
21. The Only Man for the Job
It’s a Wonderful Life is now a bonafide Christmas classic, and when Frank Capra was casting for the lead George Bailey, both Stewart and his BFF Henry Fonda were up for the part. In the end, though, Capra knew Bailey’s nearly-unerring optimism and goodness were difficult to play and, as he said, “I knew one man who could play it…James Stewart.”
22. Say No to the Beau
One of Stewart’s longest and most high-profile relationships was with screen legend Olivia de Havilland. In fact, de Havilland somehow even managed to get the confirmed bachelor to propose to her—but it had a bitter end. After Stewart popped the question, De Havilland rejected him. She later went one further and dumped him for director John Huston.
This guy can’t catch a break.
23. The Runaway Groom
Maybe all of Stewart’s hesitant ex-girlfriends knew what they were doing. In 1942, Stewart committed the ultimate betrayal. He had been dating actress Dinah Shore and was finally ready to tie the knot. That is, until he wasn’t. Before they got to the Las Vegas chapel, Stewart got cold feet and called the whole thing off.
24. When the Camera Stops Rolling
Though Jimmy Stewart was closed-off with everyone but his most intimate friends, still waters run deep. According to his Vertigo co-star Kim Novak, whenever he had a particularly emotional scene, Stewart was often still affected after the director yelled “Cut!” and would have to take several minutes to himself to regroup.
25. The Good Son
Seriously, people loved this guy. President Harry S. Truman even once commented, “If [my wife] and I had a son, we’d want him to be just like Jimmy Stewart.”
26. Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow
Though Stewart was blessed in a lot of departments, hair wasn’t one of them. His hairline started receding during his service in the forces, and once he returned to Hollywood, he wore a silver toupee for most of his roles.
27. Third Time’s the Charm
In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Stewart third on their list of “The Greatest American Male Actors.” He was just behind heavy-hitters Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant. Not bad for the beanpole.
28. Wedding Crasher
After a youth of romantic disappointments, Stewart finally met the love of his life in the model Gloria Hatrick. The pair married in 1949 and were together for the rest of their lives—but Stewart almost ruined the whole thing. On their first meeting at a party in 1947, a drunk and uninvited Stewart crashed the shindig and made an awful first impression on his future wife.
Luckily, she gave him a second chance.
29. Get off My Lawn, Literally
One day, a family of inquisitive fans set up on Stewart’s lawn to try to get a glimpse of the star, and the notoriously private and close-lipped Stewart got rid of them in the most ingenious way. He simply walked out of his front door and turned on the sprinkler system, all without having to say a word.
The man really was a national treasure.
30. You Like Me, You Really Like Me
In 1985, Jimmy Stewart won an honorary Oscar for his work in film, and his response was heartbreaking. After a whopping 10-minute standing ovation that ended up making the show run long, the elderly Stewart confessed, “This was the greatest award I received, to know that, after all these years, I haven’t been forgotten.”
I’m not crying, you’re crying.
31. I’ve Got the Magic in Me
When he was still in school, Stewart made ends meet by working as a magician’s assistant.
32. Over the Hill
Stewart famously worked with Alfred Hitchcock in thriller classics like Rear Window and Vertigo—until the director dealt him a cold-hearted betrayal. Vertigo was initially a critical and commercial failure, and Hitchcock blamed it on the fact that Stewart looked too old, which, you know, sometimes happens when you spend four years in brutal combat.
33. The Ol’ Double Cross
Sadly, Hitchcock wasn’t done with his betrayal yet. When it came time to cast his next film North by Northwest, Hitchcock passed the very eager Stewart over. Instead, he cast the more youthful-looking Cary Grant—who was actually four years older than Stewart.
34. Tried and True
Jimmy Stewart might have had a long road to marriage, but once he got there, he stayed true. Reportedly, the reformed playboy was never unfaithful to his wife Gloria.
35. The Nicest Man in the West
After World War II, the once-boyish Jimmy Stewart found surprising success in Westerns, particularly alongside cowboy icon John Wayne in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The film is now widely recognized as an absolute classic and a crown jewel of Stewart’s work—but the set was tenser than a gunfight at high noon.
Director John Ford had no love for John Wayne at the time, especially Wayne’s notorious avoidance of combat in World War II. He often jeered at him on set, “How rich did you get while Jimmy was risking his life?” Ever the gentleman, Stewart himself never spoke badly of his co-star, and only ever heaped him with praise in public.
36. Dad Doesn’t Know Best
True to his roots, after Stewart won his Oscar for The Philadelphia Story, he gave it to his father to display in the family hardware store. Well, dear old dad didn’t really understand the gravity of the situation. Apparently, when Stewart’s father first heard the news, he asked, “I hear you won some kind of award. What is it, a plaque or something?”
37. Man’s Best Friend
Besides playing the accordion in his spare time, Stewart also wrote poetry. One of his most tender and famous works is his poem “Beau,” which is about his dearly-departed dog. When Stewart read the full poem out loud in a 1981 episode of the Tonight Show, both the actor and host Johnny Carson ended the performance in tears.
38. No Way, No How
Though he was closed-mouthed about his war experiences, Jimmy Stewart did have loud opinions about Hollywood war movies. He found them shamefully inaccurate, and only deigned to star in two of them throughout his career. One time, MGM head Louis B. Mayer even suggested “The Jimmy Stewart Story,” about his own war effort.
Stewart turned him down flat.
39. Burying a Son
After his own hard work in World War II, Stewart expected his sons to enroll in the Army—but this patriotism came at a heartbreakingly high cost. In 1969, his eldest son Ronald tragically died while deployed in Vietnam.
40. A Man of Few Words
When Henry Fonda passed on in 1982, Stewart’s response was unforgettably touching. Never one for exaggerated displays of emotion, Stewart’s only public comment was concise and crushing: “I’ve just lost my best friend.”
41. Golden Boy
When Stewart won the Best Actor Oscar for The Philadelphia Story, he was only 32 years old, and the youngest actor to win at that point. He held the record for 14 years until the 30-year-old Marlon Brando snagged one for On the Waterfront.
42. Going to Glory
After Stewart’s wife Gloria passed on in 1994, the actor was reportedly heartbroken and “lost at sea.” When he left this Earth just three years after her, his tear-jerking last words were allegedly “I’m going to be with Gloria now.”
43. Saying Goodbye to a Legend
On July 2, 1997, the 89-year-old Jimmy Stewart died of heart failure. It was far from a lonely end: He went surrounded by his family and friends, and all of America mourned his passing. As President Bill Clinton commented upon the news, the country had lost a “national treasure…a great actor, a gentleman, and a patriot.”
We couldn’t agree more.
44. Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em
The actor may have played boyish good guys, but he had a little-known dark side. In 1939, he began a torrid affair with his married co-star Marlene Dietrich while filming Destry Rides Again. According to some sources, this had a very tragic end. Dietrich got pregnant and decided to terminate it—while Stewart coldly dumped her after filming wrapped.
45. You Can Take It With You
Unsurprisingly, the war had a lasting effect on Stewart even when it ended. Many sources claim he suffered from PTSD, including nightmares and shakes, as well as hearing loss. Physically, the damage was much easier to see. When he came back from fighting, his mother and father were reportedly shocked at his haggard appearance.
The war had aged him by a decade.