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Jimmy Stewart: Prototype Of the 'Best of America'

Oscar-winning actor appeared in 81 movies

"Call me Jimmy" is what James Stewart insisted whether he was meeting the British prime minister at 10 Downing Street or giving a handshake to the African guide who would lead him on his 21st "camera safari" to Kenya.

He didn't need to say it in 1985, when he received America's highest civilian award, the Medal of Freedom, from the president of the United States, since Ronald Reagan had known "Slim Jim" for decades.

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To the world, Jimmy Stewart, the Oscar-winning actor who died July 2, was the prototype of the "best of America." His life on screen and off made him one of our finest ambassadors.

His Air Force buddies from World War II remember him as a calm squadron leader, as he led 25 combat missions, winning a chestful of medals. He retired from the Air Force in 1963 as a brigadier general.

As President Clinton said last week, "Jimmy Stewart was a national treasure ... a great actor, a gentleman, and a patriot."

Who hasn't seen such Stewart classics as "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Harvey," "The Greatest Show on Earth," and "Rear Window"? In all, he appeared in 81 movies.

According to Mr. Stewart, it was his lean frame and slow drawl that first got him into westerns. He played sheriffs or cowboys in 17 outdoor epics, including "Winchester '73" in 1950.

That film was reportedly the first time a star took a minimal salary in exchange for a percentage of the box office. The producer smiled, "You may be slow, but you're smart." The actor replied, "Well, I was a Boy Scout."

In one of our last interviews, Stewart said that "It's a Wonderful Life" was his favorite of his movies. Although the film failed at the box office, the story about a small-town family man who is helped by an angel grew enormously in popularity when it later aired on television.

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"There's another reason 'It's a Wonderful Life' is important to me," Stewart said. "George Bailey, a family man with a small-town business, who never got far from his roots, was my father. When I did that role, I was playing my dad."

Stewart was a man who cherished commitments. His father, Alexander, was his idol. "He was a strong, stubborn man who demanded respect," the actor said, "but my sisters and I adored him."

When Stewart won the first of his two Oscars ("The Philadelphia Story," 1940), he sent it to his dad, who promptly displayed it in the front window of his hardware store in Pennsylvania. His second Oscar was presented by Cary Grant in 1985, saluting his 50 years of "meaningful performances and high ideals on and off the screen."

"My dad worked in the store until he was almost 90," the actor once said. "He kept it going so just in case this acting thing fizzled out, I'd still have a job."

Long listed as one of Hollywood's most popular bachelors, Stewart ended that status when he met Gloria McLean. "I fell like a ton of bricks," he said.

It was the most un-Hollywood of weddings. Only family and close friends attended the traditional ceremony. The marriage lasted 45 years until Gloria's death in 1994.

Their family began with her two sons, which he adopted, and two years later Gloria gave birth to their twin daughters. Of Gloria, Stewart said, "She was the love of my life and my very best friend."

The public helped to ease the void after her death. Each year, he had new fans thanks to videos, re-releases, and the late show. Although some critics insisted that he always played Jimmy Stewart, the fans answered, "What's wrong with that?"

The senior Stewart had a deep influence on his only son. He wanted him to go to college, and Jimmy followed family tradition, graduating from Princeton University with the intent of becoming an architect.

The summer he graduated, he came back to help out in the hardware store. His dad was flabbergasted when the younger Stewart explained he wanted to join a college classmate, Josh Logan, and become a member of Logan's new acting company.

"Do you know how to act?" was his father's first question. Young Stewart set out to do just that.

After doing summer theater with the University Players in Massachusetts, Stewart made his Broadway bow in 1932. Then came a test at MGM, and the young man from Indiana, Pa., was off to Hollywood in 1935 and on his way.

He went back to vacation with his dad. "Now, you're going to be a movie star?" Alex Stewart asked.

"That's my hope," replied son Jimmy.

"Promise me," his dad insisted, "if you're going to be one, be the best there is."

Again, Jimmy Stewart followed his father's advice.

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