It’s a Wonderful Career

A talk with Jimmy Stewart, legendary nice guy, is a lot about hard work and something about how Hollywood works.

The actor, a double Academy Award winner, doesn’t seem to be able to give up on a lifelong habit, the one that gets him up each morning and gets him to work, and then makes him stick with it until something’s been accomplished, something figuratively at least is in the can. Then back the next day for more work, even at age 83 and after 78 films in almost 60 years.

Correction, make it 79 movies.

Stewart’s latest is a surprise for a lot of Hollywood watchers. In the actor’s long career he’s touched and played all of the bases: politician, banker, cowboy, friend to a mythical rabbit. Last time his face appeared in a film was in the 1978 “The Magic of Lassie.”


But there up on the screen Friday in the credits for Steven Spielberg’s latest, “An American Tail: Fievel Goes West,” is the name James Stewart, the voice of Sheriff Wylie Burp.

Bingo! No. 79.

Work is a habit he treasures and wishes others would capture in their pursuits of Hollywood fame and fortune. He’s out of his Beverly Hills home and at his business manager’s office at 9 a.m. when he’s in town, and that’s most of the time. His colleagues--agents, advisers--have been with him for years, many for more than 30. He busies himself with letters, requests for personal appearances, submitted scripts, personal and business business.

New generations have discovered him as his films have gone into videocassettes, so now he finds himself frequently answering letters that start: “My father and mother have talked about you. . . .”

And there are still the many public ceremonies, the honorary degrees, the classroom requests. He was once offered three honorary degrees if he could show up at the same time at three different places.

Busy is a well-worn habit.

In the days of the big studios as a contract player you went to work every day. You got there at 8 o’clock and you left at 6:30. Whether you were working on a picture or not you had something to do. A screen test, a lesson, a gym workout. At other times you would go to the openings of pictures and introduce them to the audience the first night they played.

You had big parts in little pictures and little parts in big pictures. You were working all the time. You were learning your craft by working at it. Someone would come to you and say, “Here’s a script. You will play the role of George. Go down to wardrobe and get fitted for what you’re going to wear. Shooting starts Tuesday.”

One morning I had a scene with Jean Harlow at Metro and in the afternoon I was loaned out for a scene with Margaret Sullavan at Universal.

Now, so many of the actors sit at home and either their agents tell them, “I’ll let you know when something comes” or they keep getting scripts and reading them and saying, “No, this isn’t right for me.”

Friday--a sort of Jimmy Stewart retrospective type of day--will find the actor typically busy. “An American Tail” opens in the morning and in the evening--one of those night things--an awards ceremony, this time as the first Hollywood star to receive the Governor’s Award for the Arts. Nine Californians will be honored by Gov. Pete Wilson and the California Arts Council for their contributions to the arts, from composer John Adams to writer Wallace Stegner to actress and community cultural leader Carmen Zapata.

The money raised from the evening’s to-do goes to a little-known group that does what Stewart keeps saying today’s young artists need more of--work, training, educational guidance and more work. It’s called the California State Summer School for the Arts. It may not be the solution to the endangered status of most school arts programs, but it’s a healing move in the right direction.

On a small scale it does what the big studios once did. It single-mindedly and intensively trains people with potential in acting, music, dance, film, writing and the visual arts. The program is only five years old. Each year it accepts 400 youngsters from grades 8 through 12 from public and private schools and in four weeks gives them intensive exposure to their future fields.

Boot camp for the mind.

Basic training for talent.

Each summer a different college is chosen as the school’s site. Next summer it will be CalArts in Valencia. Forty-five faculty members provide a virtual 10-to-1 student-teacher ratio. While the summer school is partially funded by the state and private sources, there’s always the matter of tuition, $1,100 in this case, which includes room, board and plenty of work. Officials of the school estimate that half of the enrolling students receive 30% to 100% scholarship support.

Thus, such fund-raising ceremonies as Friday’s awards program, a major source of revenue to help train young artists, if just for a summer.

Proper training of young actors is one of the things that’s been missing since the loss of the big studios. You learned your craft by working at it, not talking about it.

That learned craft caused producer-director Steven Spielberg to zero in on the tallish actor at a party. He asked Stewart to join him in his next “An American Tail,” this time as a voice actor. This was not exactly new to Stewart; he had done voice-overs most recently for a soup commercial and earlier for his friend Leonard Firestone and his tire company.

He would do the sheriff role, he said, with one condition: Spielberg had to be in the studio directing him.


It took 10 days and it was done at Hollywood’s Interlock Studio. The picture itself was made at the Amblimation studios in London. Stewart and the other voices, those of Amy Irving, Dom DeLuise, John Cleese and Jon Lovitz, were recorded as many as 10 times each session at different speeds and with different phrasings. Spielberg chose the acceptable take and the animators then had to match the action to the voice.

“An American Tail: Fievel Goes West” becomes Stewart’s first Western since his cameo appearance in “The Shootist” in 1976. He says he owes a lot to Westerns and the Frank Capra picture “It’s a Wonderful Life.” They gave new direction to his career at a time Hollywood itself was changing.

Hard to believe, but following his return from the Air Force in World War II Stewart was not picked up by MGM. Capra cast him for the lead in a movie that eventually did weak box-office business. Audiences after the war wanted comedy, not problems. That’s Capra’s theory about “Wonderful Life” via Stewart. It took time for the movie to find its audiences while Stewart himself was trying to find work.

He and a few other actors (his friend Henry Fonda was one), on the advice of their agents led by Lew Wasserman, began to negotiate acting roles on a percentage basis rather than for a flat salary. It would be the beginning of the end for Stewart’s treasured studio system and for contract players, a move that led to today’s million-dollar acting deals. In the vernacular of Hollywood’s new moguls, percentage of gross, not salary, became the medium of exchange.

For Stewart, the $1-million payday never arrived. Scripts keep arriving, though, from writers and agents hopeful of his return to acting. He’s rejected them. In most cases they call for him to play the role of a “grouchy grandfather.”

Stewart may be a grandfather four times, but grouchiness he rejects. That’s no way to do business, not even in a Hollywood that has changed so much.

It’s been a wonderful experience for me, making movies. I’ve had the feeling for a long time that I was in something that was important to the public. Not only as a means for entertainment but as a medium for the audience to learn important things about life by watching these stories. I’ve heard this from a lot of people regarding “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Parents write and say they have been trying to talk to their kids, but they ignore them. Yet the movie gets messages across to them. It’s this type of thing that has been a wonderful experience for me.