Over his sixty-year acting career, two-time Academy Award winner James Stewart was never one to back away from a risky role. A surprising number of the parts he played were fragile, disillusioned figures, given to very dark moments.
Biographer Donald Dewey said that Stewart, when considering a script, was first interested in his character’s vulnerability. Oftentimes, Stewart preferred the character to be a step beyond vulnerable.
“No other actor in so many roles has inspired so many characters sharing the screen with him to accuse him of being ‘crazy’ or ‘nuts,’” Dewey wrote. “Stewart’s characters themselves have broached the possibility that they were more pathological than emotional.”
Take, for example, George Bailey, Stewart’s most famous protagonist. Prior to his redemption at the conclusion of It’s a Wonderful Life, Bailey becomes so deeply embittered about his financial plight that he tries to kill himself by jumping off a wintry bridge.
Scottie Ferguson in Vertigo, another pivotal Stewart portrayal, is a veritable psychologist’s textbook of symptoms — a depressed and obsessed acrophobic who ends up in a psychiatric ward, virtually catatonic.
Stewart reached his apotheosis in evil portraits when he played Dr. Phil Martin in the Consequence episode on the popular Suspense radio program. Unhappily married, Dr. Martin fakes his own death in a house fire, commits bigamy by taking a second wife, and then induces his new wife to attempt murder: all in a grisly half-hour production!
The American Film Institute ranks Stewart as the third best American male actor — how can a performer who has essayed more than his fair share of roles involving murder, suicide, bigamy, and paralyzing depression stay highly popular for so long? Probably because he is James Stewart.
“I’ve never been a Hollywood glamour boy,” he once said. “I am James Stewart playing James Stewart. I couldn’t mess around with characterizations. I play variations on myself.”
That statement, while self-deprecating, is true: Stewart, no matter how sinister the part or the movie, was always that straightforward, appealingly direct, young man from Middle America who raised stammering to an art form.
Bad guys, good guys, didn’t matter. He was still Jimmy Stewart under it all. His off screen image bolstered this persona. Stewart was a decorated World War II hero: he logged 2,000 hours as a pilot in the Army Air Corps, flying some 20 combat missions. He and his wife Gloria were married for 45 years, a rare lengthy marriage in Tinsel Town.
Audiences around the world identified with his authenticity. Stewart built a reserve of admiration that carried him through 80 films, numerous plays, television appearances, and radio shows.
If there was one role that epitomized the Stewart touch, it was Elwood P. Dowd in Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, Harvey. Stewart developed a serious fascination for Dowd and his invisible companion, a tall white rabbit for whom the comedy is named. The match between actor and character was so perfect that Stewart/Dowd appeared in three Broadway productions, six successful months on the London stage, once on television, and an Oscar-nominated turn on film.
Harvey began as a dream Chase had in the early 1940’s about a giant white rabbit chasing a psychiatrist. After rewrites and try-outs, Harvey arrived on Broadway, November 1, 1944, Chase’s original vision, pretty much intact.
Although he was not in the opening cast, Stewart eventually joined the production. The show and the character became eternally his.
Chase’s storyline was simple: Dowd, an amiable tippler, and his best friend, Harvey, unseen by everyone but Dowd, meander through a droll adventure with a life-affirming message. And, yes, a psychiatrist is pursued by the rabbit (who, late in the play, is now seeing him as well).
Stewart told Cue magazine, “You’ve got to convince the audience that this big rabbit is your friend, and the whole idea is wonderful. Elwood can’t be a screwball or an imbecile. You have to convince the audience that, if they had rabbits of their own, it would be kind of nice.”
Dowd had a host of memorable lines: “Doctor, I wrestled with reality for forty years, and I am happy to state that I finally won out over it.” And: “My mother used to say to me, in this world Elwood — she always called me Elwood — you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant. For years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”
Calling the writing “wise and remarkable,” Stewart said that he had “a special love and admiration for that big white rabbit. He became a very close friend of mine.”
Later in his life, people would approach Stewart in public venues and ask him if Harvey was with him that day. He usually would reply, “Harvey has a cold and he decided to stay home.”
May 20, 1908 – July 2, 1997