by Nick Thomas
If you don’t think Jimmy Stewart put the classic in ‘classic movies,’ consider these titles in which he starred: “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “The Philadelphia Story,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Rear Window,” “Vertigo,” “Harvey,” and the list goes on. No wonder Stewart appears near the top of just about every list of all-time most popular classic film actors.
With such a resume, it’s hard to imagine the man didn’t develop an ego the size of the famous Hollywood Sign on Mount Lee in the Santa Monica Mountains. But according to his daughter, Kelly, the respectable, unpretentious, all-American guy he often portrayed on film was also the real Jimmy Stewart.
Married to his beloved Gloria for 45 years, the Stewarts had two sons (one killed in Vietnam) and twin daughters. Like her siblings, Kelly never took up acting (she became an anthropologist).
“The life of an actor didn’t really look like that much fun to me,” she said. “We went to dad’s set a couple of times (and) it looked very tedious to me – short takes, just a few minutes long, after which people come rushing up to you, touching up make-up and hair, hovering and fussing and looking. I remember thinking, I could never do this.”
Growing up, Kelly recalls her father preparing for roles at home.
“Dad sat in a big comfy armchair that had a matching footrest and no one else ever sat in that chair when (he) was home! When he was working on a movie, he would sit with the script in his hands and his lips moving saying his lines to himself. He never said anything out loud. I have that image of him burned into my mind. We never read any of the lines with him. Except for that, he rarely brought his work home with him.”
His trademark slow drawl, says Kelly, was no act. “He loved to tell stories about his own experiences and he had great timing. He just took a long time to come out with the punch line!”
Although not a traditional father in some ways, she still gives him high praise. “He wasn’t a hands-on dad – he didn’t help us with our homework and I doubt he ever changed a diaper. But he taught by example and just had a very quiet way about him.”
Not surprisingly, Kelly remembers her dad as being gracious with fans.
“I’ve had people come up to me and tell me they wrote him a letter when they were in high school and got a personal response back. He had a secretary helping him, of course, but he signed all the letters. I never saw him say ‘no’ to an autograph seeker, even when there were crowds of people. It was actually a kick to get that glimpse of dad’s fame.”
When Stewart’s wife died in 1994, Kelly remembers him retreating into great despair.
“I think he had just had enough of the world. Dad was the most stubborn person I’ve ever met and was going to do what he wanted – to hunker down inside his beloved home, with his two dogs. At the end, I believe he appreciated his wonderful life and knew he was loved.”
This interview for Father’s Day was condensed and edited from the author’s book “Raised by the Stars.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 800 magazines and newspapers.