James Stewart – American Film Institute

James Stewart

8th AFI Life Achievement Award Honoree

James Stewart

Jimmy Stewart is among Hollywood’s most highly honored and deeply loved men. This is not only for his professional successes, but every bit as much for his integrity, his character, and his humanitarianism. He’s retained his all-American boy image; the years only added to his stature.

Stewart made his professional debut in the play “Goodbye Again,” which took him to Broadway. He was seen by Bill Grady, a talent scout for MGM who had seen several plays of his and was impressed with this young actor. Jimmy was summoned to Hollywood and after a screen test at MGM, at the age of 27, he signed a seven year contract. In his first film in 1935, he played a reporter in THE MURDER MAN, with Spencer Tracy in the lead. Although, he was considered an oddity among Hollywood’s leading men and a challenge to casting directors, he secured many notable supporting parts in many early films with the top stars of the era. His first leading man role was as Margaret Sullavan’s husband in NEXT TIME WE LOVE, but the film that fans found him most endearing was in 1936’s charming musical, BORN TO DANCE where he was given the chance to sing and dance with tap dancer Eleanor Powell. Many reviewers of the time singled out Jimmy Stewart as “the screen’s brightest discovery.” He made a number of other hits including NAVY, BLUE AND GOLD, where Director Frank Capra first took notice of this great young actor. Capra then cast him in the hit YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU, which earned the Oscar for Best Film and Director. During this time, Jimmy was rapidly progressing in his film career and receiving higher billing. His second teaming with Capra catapulted Jimmy Stewart to superstar status for his acclaimed performance of idealistic Senator Jefferson Smith in Frank Capra’s MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. It was this film that earned him his first Oscar nomination.

In 1940, he won an Oscar for his off-beat performance as a self-loathing gossip columnist in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. Many considered this win as a consolation prize for not winning the Oscar for MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. At the height of his early career, Stewart shocked the studio heads at MGM by enlisting in the war. During World War II, Stewart flew twenty missions over Germany as a bomber pilot, rising from a private to colonel. Until his retirement from the service in 1968, he was a Brigadier General in the Air Force Reserve, the highest ranking entertainer in the Armed Forces. He returned to Hollywood, after the war, but not to his old studio MGM. He chose instead to support a small independent company, Capra’s Liberty Films, by taking the role of George Bailey in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE which earned Stewart his third Oscar nomination and was his last teaming with Director Frank Capra.

In the early fifties, Stewart became one of the first Hollywood stars to elect to work for a percentage of the profits. A major breakthrough soon to be followed by every other major motion picture star, which signified the end of the “studio system.” His first profit-sharing experience was the enormously successful WINCHESTER 73, the film established him as a western hero and marked the beginning of his fruitful association with Director Anthony Mann. Throughout the fifties, Stewart’s versatility was illustrated by his variety of performances in HARVEY, his fourth Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the charming inebriate whose constant companion is the invisible six-foot high white rabbit of the title; in Cecil B. DeMille’s THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH; in Billy Wilder’s THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS where he personified Charles A Lindberg; and in Ottto Preminger’s ANATOMY OF A MURDER where he portrayed a shrewd small-time lawyer who takes on a shocking murder case, winning him the New York Film Critics Award and his fifth and last Oscar nomination. He also had leading roles in three of Hitchcock’s masterworks, REAR WINDOW, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and VERTIGO.

The American Film Institute recognized the magnitude of Jim’s accomplishments by awarding him the Life Achievement Award in 1980 for advancing the art of American film. In presenting the award, the AFI declared:

“In a career of extraordinary range and depth, Jimmy Stewart has come to embody on the screen the very image of the typical American. Whether flying the ocean as Charles Lindbergh, going to Washington as Senator Jefferson Smith, or playing ordinary men who somehow never got around to leaving their home towns, Stewart has captured the essence of American hopes, doubts, and aspirations. His idealism, his determination, his vulnerability, and above all, his basic decency shine through every role he plays…”

Jimmy Stewart passed away on July 2, 1997 at the age of 89, just a few years after the passing of his beloved wife, Gloria. He was mourned by fans worldwide. Perhaps greatest tribute of the American Film Institute was the observation that James Stewart is an actor “so beloved by the movie going public that they call him ‘Jimmy,’ just like a member of the family.” And so he remains, our Jimmy. America still needs heroes, and Jimmy Stewart continues to fill the bill.




The AFI Life Achievement Award — the highest honor for a career in film — was established by the AFI Board of Trustees on February 23, 1973 to celebrate an individual whose career in motion pictures or television has greatly contributed to the enrichment of American culture.

The award is given to a “recipient whose talent has in a fundamental way advanced the film art; whose accomplishment has been acknowledged by scholars, critics, professional peers and the general public; and whose work has stood the test of time.”

In 1993, the AFI Board of Trustees extended the criteria to encompass individuals with active careers and work of significance yet to be accomplished.