So Long, Jimmy
Our correspondent interviews producer/director Jimmy Hawkins, who recently published a 50th anniversary book on It’s a Wonderful Life, as well as other friends of Jimmy Stewart’s.
By A.J. FLICK
Tucson, Arizona (Special to Classic Movies) – True to his nature, one of the last things that beloved movie star Jimmy Stewart did was an act of kindness.
Stewart signed six copies of a commemorative book on It’s a Wonderful Life for various charities.
“Just last week, I picked them up,” said Jimmy Hawkins on July 2, the day after Stewart died.
Hawkins portrayed Stewart’s son in the 1946 classic as well as in Winchester ’73 (partially filmed at Old Tucson Studios in 1950).
“I knew he wasn’t in good health, but he was nice enough to sign the books.”
Stewart died July 1 at age 89 in his Beverly Hills, California home.
Hawkins, now a producer/director, last Christmas published a coffee table book on the 50th anniversary of It’s a Wonderful Life. Included is an interview Hawkins conducted with Stewart.
Stewart also wrote the foreword to Hawkins’ previous book on It’s a Wonderful Life trivia.
“He’ll be missed,” Hawkins said, from his home in Los Angeles. “It was very nice of him to sign those books. But that’s Jimmy Stewart. He was giving to the end.”
Hawkins said Stewart’s public image as a friendly, caring man was accurate.
“He was just as people thought he was. He was a gentleman. He was a gentle man.”
Tucson resident and former Western movie star Rex Allen Sr. remembered Stewart yesterday as “a beautiful guy.”
“On and off the screen,” Allen said, “he was just the same guy.”
Winchester ’73 was filmed at Old Tucson before Robert Shelton took its helm. But in 1959, Shelton said scouted locations for 1960’s The Mountain Road, a World War II movie of the China-Burma-India Theater.
“The studio asked if I could find a piece of country that looked like China but was close to Tucson,” Shelton said.
“I did a lot of sniffing around down near Patagonia and found this place off Harshaw Road. It was exactly what they wanted.”
While filming in Nogales, Stewart was promoted from colonel to brigadier general in the U.S. Air Force Reserve.
Stewart played a major in the film. According to one newspaper report, two soldiers from the Fort Huachuca Military Police “arrested” Stewart on the set for being out of uniform, wearing civilian socks and displaying the wrong insignia.
The practical joke was revealed when retired Brig. Gen. Frank Dorn, the film’s technical adviser, pinned the real stars on Stewart’s lapels.
“Stewart was very patriotic,” said film historian Fred Goodwin. “Most people don’t know that he was one of the very first people to volunteer for service in World War II.”
“He was a big-time Hollywood star when he volunteered,” Goodwin added. “He went in as a pilot and flew a lot of missions. He was a bona fide pilot. He wasn’t one of those guys who just sat by the side. He saw combat in World War II.
“In fact, when he got out of the service in 1945, he didn’t know if he wanted to go back into acting or not.”
Luckily for moviegoers, director Frank Capra talked Stewart into making It’s a Wonderful Life.
“And the rest is history,” Goodwin noted.
Stewart, a conservative Republican, was a hawk during the Vietnam War, Goodwin said. He was brokenhearted when his wife Gloria’s son was killed in action.
“He took that really tough,” said Goodwin. “I wrote him a letter in 1989 and I told him I was a Vietnam War veteran at the same time as his stepson and I remember when he got killed.”
Not only did Stewart respond with a warm letter, Goodwin said, but agreed to autograph a number of items.
“He even drew me – and I didn’t ask for this – a caricature of Harvey the rabbit,” Goodwin said, referring to the 1950 fantasy movie Harvey.
Stewart began making movies as a contract player for MGM Studios. However, Goodwin said, he was one of the first actors to “free-lance” his skills to other studios.
“He was one of the most natural actors to ever hit the screen,” Goodwin added. “He came across as very natural. He related to everybody. He projected a nice image. I don’t remember him ever using a four-letter word in any of his movies.
“He was a class person. Anyone you talk to who knew him would say he was a gentleman. He was a very classy gentleman, period. And one of the most popular movie actors of all time.”
Stewart’s versatility as an actor was legendary, said co-star Hawkins. He made Westerns, biographies, suspense movies, dramas, comedies, you name it. His last film role was as the voice for Sheriff Wylie Burp in the 1991 cartoon An American Tail: Fievel Goes West.
“You knew you’d be entertained when you saw a Jimmy Stewart movie,” said Hawkins.
“He was the epitome of the common man, the everyday man,” he added. “That’s why people related to him and his movies. They could see themselves doing what he was doing on screen.”
Hawkins remembered talking to Stewart several years ago about the computer-colored updating of It’s a Wonderful Life.
“He wasn’t a fan of colorization,” said Hawkins. “But I feel the message of the picture is the important thing and if it takes colorization or polka dots to do it, then you should do it.
“Each man’s life touches many other lives. And if he’s not around, then it would leave a hole,” Hawkins said. “That’s the message of It’s a Wonderful Life. And that message has got to be heard.”
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