He was probably the last of Hollywood's great leading men and in many ways the least likely. Modest to the point of shyness in a glittering era of larger-than-life stars like Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, John Wayne and Errol Flynn he was, in fact, the bravest of all of them.
While others spent the war acting it out in the safety of film studios, this amiable country boy from Indiana, Pennsylvania, enlisted nine months before Pearl Harbour and became Chief-of-Staff of the Eighth Air Force's Second Combat Wing at air bases in Norfolk. As a bomber pilot he completed 25 missions over Germany and won the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Croix- de-Guerre and the Air Medal, before moving to the Japanese theatre of war. He never spoke much about his war experiences, but commentators noticed that after the war Stewart appeared deliberately to toughen up his roles.
Stewart, born on 20 May 1908, began serious acting in university amateur dramatics at Princeton University, where he was studying architecture. After graduation, he joined a theatre group whose members included Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper spotted him hanging around the MGM studio and talked the studio into giving him a screen test. A small role in the Murder Man in 1935 was the result.
He teamed up with two directors whose work changed his life. He was loaned from MGM to RKO where George Stevens put him in two romantic comedies, Vivacious Lady, with Ginger Rogers, and The Shopworn Angel, with his old friend Sullavan. They were both hits. Then Frank Capra picked him for two of his distinctive classic films of ordinary life which made Columbia a major studio - You Can't Take It With You and Mr Smith Goes To Washington. The die was cast and James Stewart was firmly installed as a bankable star with a style all his own. He was rarely thought of as a great romantic hero, but Kim Novak, his co-star in Vertigo and Bell, Book and Candle, said: "He was the sexiest man who played opposite me in 30 years."
During the Fifties he was one of the first big stars to swap a large up-front fee for a smaller salary and a percentage of the profits, a shrewd move which made him one of Hollywood's richest stars. He made four films with the British director Alfred Hitchcock - Rope, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Rear Window. In 1980, he received the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award, and in 1985, an honorary Oscar. His last movie credit was for lending his voice to Sheriff Wylie Burp in the 1991 animated film An American Tail: Fievel Goes West.
But after the death of his wife, Gloria, from lung cancer in 1994, Stewart became a virtual recluse. They had been one of Hollywood's genuinely happy couples after 45 years of marriage and had twin daughters, Judy and Kelly - who married a Cambridge lecturer.Reuse content