Throughout his lifetime, James Stewart was always grateful for his Hollywood success and made sure to keep his fans in mind.
The American actor, who performed in about 80 films and earned every major award for his craft, passed away in 1997 at age 89 from a blood clot in his lung.
James Bawden, a former TV columnist for the Toronto Star, recently co-authored a book titled “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet,” which chronicles his numerous interviews with some of Hollywood’s top stars from the golden era of filmmaking.
Bawden first interviewed the screen icon with the famously nasal, slightly stammering speech in 1971, when Stewart was promoting his first TV series, the NBC sitcom “The James Stewart Show.” That encounter would lead to two more interviews before Stewart’s death.
Bawden told Fox News Stewart always appreciated the support he received from fans and never ignored their feedback if they felt he had made a mistake.
“He did a movie with Otto Preminger [1959’s ‘Anatomy of a Murder’] where a whole trial scene revolved around a woman’s underpants,” said Bawden. “He said, ‘I got an Oscar nomination for that, but boy, did I hear from my fan base. They thought it was very, very risqué and asked me not to do that kind of material anymore. And I didn’t. Maybe I made a mistake.’”
But Stewart would be best recognized for many other portrayals, including 1939’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” 1940’s “The Philadelphia Story” and 1946’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” just to name a few. However, Bawden insisted the lesson Stewart’s audience taught the actor stayed with him over the years.
“He was very protective of the image that had been created for him,” he explained. “In fact, he turned down the lead in 1981’s ‘On Golden Pond’ because he said, ‘I don’t think my fan base wants to see me as a senile old kook.’ His best friend Henry Fonda, he took the part and won an Oscar for it.”
But the one role audiences were surprised Stewart didn’t take on was that of politician.
“It’s funny, when Ronald Reagan became president, [Warner Bros. Studio president] Jack Warner said, ‘That’s all wrong. It should be James Stewart for president.’ He was approached several times to become a senator for California.
“He was very, very right wing. One of his sons died in the Vietnam War. And he was really aghast at the student demonstrations in the 1960s… James Stewart did a number of combat missions in World War II. He believed in a powerful military. Always.”
Stewart was a proud patriot who wasn’t afraid to put Hollywood on hold to protect America’s freedom. According to The Jimmy Stewart Museum, Stewart was initially turned down by the army after he was drafted for being underweight.
“He went home, ate everything he could that was fattening and went back and enlisted in the Army Air Corps,” the museum shared. “He passed the physical with an ounce to spare.”
The New York Times reported Stewart was inducted in March 1941, nine months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He was assigned to the Second Combat Wing of the Eighth Air Force in England where he was the operations officer, chief of staff and squadron commander.
The newspaper added he led 20 bombing missions over Germany and remained in the Air Force Reserve when the war ended. In 1959, the Senate approved his promotion to brigadier general, which made him the highest-ranking entertainer in the American military. Stewart would retire from the Reserve in 1968.
Still, Stewart told Bawden he had no interest in tackling the public arena.
“Well, Ron [Reagan] had a successful start as governor of California and before that, he was president of the Screen Actors Guild,” said Stewart. “I’m trying to think of an example of a politician who tried acting and lasted. Can’t off-hand. Maybe they’re all actors? But no, I never wanted to become a politician.”
While Stewart would spend his later years as a leading spokesman for conservative causes and a frequent campaigner for the Republican Party, he also stayed busy working. His last role was voicing the character Wylie in the 1991 animated film “An American Tail: Fievel Goes West.”
Bawden claimed Stewart’s only wife, American actress and model Gloria Hatrick McLean, died in his arms in 1994 after suffering from cancer.
He still remembers the Hollywood star as “a very devoted Presbyterian” who “went to church every Sunday” and always remained thankful for all the opportunities Hollywood had given him to pursue acting.
At one point in his career, Johnny Carson asked the screen legend how he wanted to be remembered. His answer was simple.
“I’d like to be remembered as a man who believed in hard work and decent values, as one who believed in the love of country, love of family, love of community, love of God,” said Stewart.