Like so many people, Kelly Stewart Harcourt, daughter of late actor Jimmy Stewart, looks forward to watching the annual winter broadcasts of It’s a Wonderful Life, which her father starred in as George Bailey. “My father often said his favorite movie was It’s a Wonderful Life,” Kelly exclusively tells Closer Weekly in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now.
Reexperiencing the story of kindhearted George, who in his darkest moment learns how much his neighbors in Bedford Falls love him, the 69-year-old recalls how her famous father, who died at age 89 in 1997, always made their family’s Christmas celebration extra special.
“Once my dad dressed as Santa Claus and came into our bedroom — my sister and I were astounded,” she remembers about a 1958 Christmas trip to Hawaii. Though they eventually realized who was under that costume, Jimmy, a consummate actor, never broke character. “I slapped him on the back and nudged him, but he just carried on as Santa.”
Like the lovable everyman characters he often played in hits like Rear Window, Vertigo, Harvey and more, Jimmy believed in honor, family, faith and doing the right thing. He was already a Hollywood leading man when World War II broke out and led him to enlist. His wartime experiences — although harrowing — would make Jimmy a deeper, more serious man and a better actor.
“He had seen dark things and internalized some rage,” Robert Matzen, author of Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, explains to Closer. “After he returned, he sought more challenging roles. In It’s a Wonderful Life, George reaches a breaking point, has that flash of temper and destroys the models in his living room. I don’t think that scene would have been possible for Jimmy before the war.”
In the early 1940s, a gossip columnist christened Jimmy “The Great American Bachelor.” He romanced Mae West, Ginger Rogers, Olivia de Havilland and many lesser known starlets, often double-dating with his great friend, actor Henry Fonda. “They were a couple of young, tall, good-looking guys on the loose,” says Jimmy Stewart: A Biography author Marc Eliot, who adds that Jimmy was as popular offscreen as he was on. “You can’t manufacture or learn likability, but Jimmy had it. And it took him everywhere.”
In 1939, the actor joined the A-list by starring in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In 1941, he won a Best Actor Oscar — beating out Laurence Olivier — for The Philadelphia Story. Pennsylvania-born Jimmy had it all, but his sense of duty ran deep. Both of his grandfathers fought in the Civil War, and his father served in WWI. With the onset of WWII, Jimmy enlisted with the Army Air Corps and began flying bomb raids over enemy territory.
“During his toughest mission, an anti-aircraft shell detonated under the flight deck of his plane and a two-foot hole was blown out between his legs,” reveals Matzen. “He was looking straight down at Germany and they had to fly that plane four hours back to base with only three engines.”
Upon his return to civilian life, the Winchester ’73 actor was no longer the happy-go-lucky man of his youth. Troubled by nightmares, he sought refuge in his faith. “When he needed strength, help and comfort, he would pray and go to church,” says daughter Kelly. Because of his beliefs, Jimmy was drawn to the It’s a Wonderful Life script for its air of melancholy as well as its heartwarming message of love.
“I filmed a long scene with him, sitting on his lap, putting tinsel in his hair. He was a very nice man,” Jimmy Hawkins, who played his son Tommy, tells Closer. Karolyn Grimes, a.k.a. little Zuzu, adds that it was obvious that Jimmy loved children. “He was just a gentle, kind soul. He never lost his temper. Once time I missed a line and he told me, ‘Don’t worry. You’ll get it right next time.’ And sure enough, I did.”
Perhaps playing a family man in It’s a Wonderful Life got Jimmy thinking about his future. “He started to date around again, but he didn’t enjoy it as much as he used to,” explains Matzen. In 1947, he met his wife-to-be, Gloria McLean, at a Christmas party. “She was not pretentious and was a really good sport,” recalls their daughter Kelly. “She had an incredible sense of humor and was really beautiful.”
Jimmy continued to make movies, but Kelly and his three other children, Michael Stewart, 73, Judy Stewart-Merrill, 69, and late son Ronald McLean, became the center of his life. “Gloria and the children continue to bring me enormous pleasure,” he once gushed in a 1985 interview. “On the whole, it’s been a darn wonderful life.”