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Ah ... waal ... it's Jimmy Stewart.

At age 80, after his many triumphs in westerns, biographies, and love stories, the universally acclaimed actor feels he belongs.

It is early afternoon as I walk up to Jimmy Stewart's Tudor-style home in Beverly Hills. A small van crammed with tourists on a "See the Stars' Homes!" tour quickly comes to a stop in the street. They press their noses against the van's windows and wait expectantly. I ring the bell.

The door opens and Jimmy Stewart stands framed in the entryway. He looks as if he had just stepped out of a vintage Norman Rockwell painting. His gangling 6 '3 1/2 " frame is attired in a blue blazer, gray slacks, and a maroon tie; he blends perfectly with the Ivy League feel of the brick house. Stewart shakes my hand; then, seeing the bus, he waves at the tourists.

"You . . . ah . . . waal . . . you'd better wave," he says in the world's most imitated voice, a mixture of corn syrup, stammer, and pure fun. I wave. Jimmy waves. The film fans grin wildly and wave back, their shou"Hi, Jimmy!" muffled by the sealed windows of the van.

"Well, now . . . come on . . . come on in," Jimmy Stewart says. He waves one last time and then closes the door behind us. I wonder aloud whether overenthusiastic fans ever get off the bus and knock on his door.

"Oh, sure," he says, leading me into the living room. His walk, at age 80, is still the familiar Stewart gait, like a circus clown on spindly stilts. "They . . . they want me to autograph something, or mostly just to say hello," he says.

"Doesn't that interfere with your privacy?" I ask. Then a different thought hits me"Or do you feel you belong to the public?" I ask.

"Absolutely," he replies. "I don't feel that my private life is my own. I must devote some of my life to my audience-my partners." He pauses. "Long ago someone told me that even though I might become a star in the movies, always remember this-never treat your audience as customers-always treat them as partners. I've never forgotten that. It's . . . it's a tremendous piece of advice," he says.

For five decades Jimmy Stewart's "partners" have applauded his down-to-earth qualities, both on and off the screen. The ideal father, he attended PTA meetings and marched in Boy Scout parades. He's the decent guy who's long been a staunch member of the Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church. He's the patriotic American who flew 20 combat missions in World War II. He's the nice guy who's never had a scandal attached to his name, and he's been married to the same woman for more than 38 years. Once described as "the most normal of all Hollywood stars," James Stewart is still the "aw, shucks" kid on the block, the "Mr. Nice Guy" in town, and "everybody's man" to a world of fans.

Stewart's 1940 MGM biography stated: "His type is as normally average as the hot dog and pop at Coney Island." Moviedom's moguls capitalized on his ideal American appeal by casting him in parts that projected that image. His first big hit, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, established him not only as "Mr. Average Nice Guy" but also as an exceptionally talented actor.

In Mr. Smith, Stewart played Jefferson Smith, a decent, trusting person who by fluke is appointed senator by his state's crooked party machine. The climax of the film is Smith's filibuster on the floor of the U.S. Senate to prevent his fellow senators from voting on his expulsion. The scene was a grueling one for Stewart.

"Grueling is as good a word as any," Stewart remembers. "The hardest thing for me was trying to fake the hoarseness in my voice as the filibuster went on." As he recalls the story, Stewart begins to speak in a deep, gravelly voice"At the end of the day's shooting, the director, Frank Capra, came up to me and said, 'Jim, you don't sound as if you're losing your voice; you sound as if you're faking it.' Now, that really worried me, so on the way home I stopped at an ear, nose, and throat doctor and went in and said, 'Is there any way you can give me a sore throat?'

"And he just looked at me kinda puzzled and said, 'I've heard you Hollywood people are crazy, but you take the cake. It's taken me 30 years to learn how to keep people ftom getting a sore throat, and now you come in here and want me to give you one. O.K., I'll give you the worst sore throat you've ever had in your life!' So I said, 'Well . . . fine.'"

The doctor agreed to accompany Stewart on the movie set the next day. Every few hours he would swab the actor's throat with a vile mercury solution that swelled and irritated the vocal cords. "I could hardly talk," Stewart remembers. "Hurt something terrible, but it worked!"

Stewart's medically aided tour de force in Mr. Smith garnered a 1939 Academy Award nomination, the first of five. Stewart and Clark Gable (for Gone with the Wind) were rated as equal favorites to win, but Robert Donat took home the prize as the schoolmaster in Goodbye, Mr. Chips. A year later Stewart did win the Oscar for his portrayal of a young newspaperman in The Philadelphia Story.

Whatever genre Stewart has performed in, from westerns (Winchester '73) to mysteries (Rear Window), ftom biographies (The Spirit of StLouis) to sentimental tales (It's a Wonderful Life), he has never subordinated his own image to that of the character he portrayed. Asked if he really plays himself on the screen, he replies, "I think I like Laurence Olivier's answer. He said, 'I always play myself-with deference to the character.' I guess that's what I try to do too."

Jimmy Stewart stands quietly in his living room, surrounded by photographs and mementos of a life he has shared with millions of moviegoers. On the black surface of a grand piano are framed photographs of his wife, Gloria, and their four children; pictures of Stewart with Ronald Reagan; and a color shot of Gloria and Jimmy with Pope John Paul II.

Stewart points to an oil painting on the wall and says, "Hank Fonda painted that. It's of my horse, Pie. He died two days after Hank finished painting it. I rode him for 20 years in my western movies."

A skilled horseman, Stewart made some 18 westerns, ranging from his first 1939 comedy role in Destry Rides Again with Marlene Dietrich to a minor part opposite John Wayne in The Shootist (1976). As the "fastest slowpoke in the West," he also starred in such classics as Broken Arrow, Cheyenne Autumn, and How the West Was Won. Walter Brennan, often cast as his tobacco-chewing sidekick, once remarked, "Jimmy Stewart's not one of your rootin'-tootin', quick-draw cowpokes. Jimmy may look like he's dawdlin' along, but it ain't so. He's really one smart hombre. And straight as a hitching post!"

"In many ways, westerns are the most legitimate and colorfully dramatic tales of Americana," Stewart says. Then he adds, "l loved making them."

Stewart turns away from the painting of his horse and walks to a couch near a wall of bookshelves. "Well, I guess we can sit here. I call this 'my spot,'" he says. Behind him on the bookshelf is a statue of an elephant.

"Nice to have something conservative around," he says with a sly grin. Stewart is a staunch conservative Republican and a close friend of Ronald Reagan's. Asked why he never ran for president, Stewart replies"I can't talk fast enough to be a politician."

Stewart settles on the couch, hands folded in his lap. His fingers are long and delicate, better suited for portraying a pianist than playing a western sheriff drawing a six-gun for a shootout. I ask whether his favorite movie was a western.

"No, a comedy," he replies. "It's a Wonderful Life, that was my favorite. I liked it because the story wasn't from a book, or a play, or a true happening, or a script developed by writers. It came from two sentences in letters that the director, Frank Capra, received from a friend. One of the letters had a p.s. that said, 'Just remember, no man is born a failure.' Later, another letter carried this p.s.: 'Nobody's poor who has friends.' The movie evolved from those phrases, and it fascinated me. The whole cast and crew had the feel of being creative. It was very exciting for an actor."

Is there such a thing as a natural actor? I ask.

"I think so."

Are you?

"I don't . . . think so." Stewart responds slowly. "I mean, acting doesn't come easy to me. I've always had great respect for it, because you can never sit back and say, well, 'I've got it made and I can play anything.' You're always learning."

Is acting fun?

"Sure, it's fun. Anything that's your life's work has got to be fun, for you and the audience."

Who has been the greatest influence on your acting career?

"Josh Logan," Stewart says without hesitation. "Without him I wouldn't even be an actor. He was completely responsible for getting me into acting." Stewart leans forward, his elbows on his knees. "It was at Princeton, and I can remember exactly where it was on campus when Logan told me about the University Players. I can remember as if it happened just the other day. . . ."

JAMES MAITLAND STEWART was born in the improbably named town of Indiana, Pennsylvania, on May 20, 1908. His father, Alexander Stewart, ran a hardware store, and when customers didn't have enough money to pay their bills, he'd accept something in barter. One day a downon-its-luck carnival troupe came in and paid with an accordion. "I just started fooling around with that accordion," Stewart remembers. "Every note doesn't have to be exact. You're
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Author:Millner, Cork
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Biography
Date:May 1, 1988
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