For a good portion of the 20th century, actor James Maitland “Jimmy” Stewart (1908-1997) was one of Hollywood’s most popular leading men. Stewart, who was often called upon to embody characters who exhibited a strong moral center, won acclaim for films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Vertigo (1958), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). In all, he made more than 80 movies. Take a look at some things you might not know about Stewart’s personal and professional lives.
1. Jimmy Stewart had a degree in architecture.
Acting was not James Stewart’s only area of expertise. Growing up in Indiana, Pennsylvania, where his father owned a hardware store, Stewart had an artistic bent with an interest in music and earned his way into his father’s alma mater, Princeton University. There, he received a degree in architecture in 1932. But pursuing that career seemed tenuous, as the country was in the midst of the Great Depression. Instead, Stewart decided to follow his interest in acting, joining a theater group in Falmouth, Massachusetts after graduating and rooming with fellow aspiring actor Henry Fonda. After a brief turn on Broadway, he landed a contract with MGM for motion picture work. His film debut, as a cub reporter in The Murder Man, was released in 1935.
2. Jimmy Stewart gorged himself on food so he could serve the country in World War II.
Stewart was already established in Hollywood when the United States began preparing to enter World War II. After the draft was introduced in 1940, Stewart received notice that he was number 310 out of a pool of 900,000 annual citizens selected for service. The problem? Stewart was six foot, three inches and a trim 138 pounds—five pounds under the minimum weight for enlistment. So he went home, ate everything he could, and came back to weigh in again. It worked, and Stewart joined the Army Air Corps, later known as the Air Force.
3. Jimmy Stewart demanded to see combat in the war.
Thanks to his interest in aviation, Stewart was already a pilot when he went to war; he received additional flight training but wound up being sidelined for two years stateside even though he kept insisting he be sent overseas to fight. (He filmed a recruitment short film, Winning Your Wings, in 1942, which was screened in theaters in the hopes it could drive enlistment.) Finally, in November 1943, he was dispatched to England, where he participated in more than 20 combat missions over Germany. His accomplishments earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross with two Oak Leaf clusters, among other honors, making him the most decorated actor to participate in the conflict. After the war ended, he returned to a welcome reception in his hometown of Indiana, Pennsylvania, where his father had decorated the courthouse to recognize his son’s service. His next major film role was It’s a Wonderful Life.
4. Jimmy Stewart kept his Oscar in a very unusual place.
After winning an Academy Award for The Philadelphia Story in 1940, Stewart heard from his father, Alex Stewart. “I hear you won some kind of award,” he told his son. “What was it, a plaque or something?” The elder Stewart suggested he bring it back home to display in the hardware store. The actor did as suggested, and the Oscar remained there for 25 years.
5. Jimmy Stewart starred in two television shows.
After a long career in film through the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, Stewart turned to television. In 1971, he played a college anthropology professor in The Jimmy Stewart Show. The series failed to find an audience, however, so was short-lived. He tried again with Hawkins in 1973, playing a defense lawyer, but that show was also canceled. (Stewart also performed in commercials, including spots for Firestone tires and Campbell’s Soup.)
6. Jimmy Stewart hated one version of It’s a Wonderful Life.
While Stewart had just as much affection for It’s a Wonderful Life as audiences, one alternate version of the film annoyed him. In 1987, he sent a letter to Congress protesting the practice of colorizing It's a Wonderful Life and other films on the premise that it violated what directors like Frank Capra had intended. He described the tinted version as “a bath of Easter egg dye.” Putting a character named Violet in violet-colored costumes, he wrote, was “the kind of obvious visual pun that Frank Capra never would have considered.” Stewart later lobbied against the practice in person.
7. Jimmy Stewart published a book of poetry.
In 1989, Stewart authored Jimmy Stewart and His Poems, a slim volume collecting several of the actor’s verses. Stewart also included anecdotes about how each one was composed. His best known might be “Beau,” about his late dog, which Stewart read to Johnny Carson during a Tonight Show appearance in 1981. By the end, both Stewart and Carson were teary-eyed.
8. Jimmy Stewart has a statue in his hometown.
For Stewart’s 75th birthday in 1983, his hometown of Indiana, Pennsylvania honored him with a 9-foot-tall bronze statue. Unfortunately, the statue wasn’t totally ready in time for Stewart’s visit, so they presented him with the fiberglass version instead. The bronze statue currently stands in front of the county courthouse, while the fiberglass version was moved into the nearby Jimmy Stewart Museum.