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Jimmy Stewart: A wonderful life centered on duty
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Jimmy Stewart: A wonderful life centered on duty

The Hollywood legend went from Best Actor to brigadier general.

Even the most talented and charismatic actors rarely have off-screen lives worth knowing about, let alone emulating. One notable exception is Hollywood legend Jimmy Stewart.

Few who enjoy Stewart's wrenching portrayal of George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” have any idea they’re watching a man fresh from combat in World War II. That’s because he didn’t talk about it; he just poured all that untreated PTSD into his performance.

Enlisting in the Army Air Corps nine months before Pearl Harbor wasn’t exactly a good career move. The 33-year-old Stewart had just won an Academy Award for “The Philadelphia Story.” The army tried to use his celebrity for PR duties, but Stewart insisted on combat duty, eventually flying 20 bombing missions over Germany.

The highly decorated Stewart remained in the reserve, reaching the rank of brigadier general. In 1966, for his two weeks of active duty, he once again requested combat and flew bombing missions against the VC in Vietnam.

Although Stewart only won one Oscar in his career, he was nominated for Best Actor five times. The first nomination came in 1939, for "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

In that film, Stewart's naive young senator proclaims, "I wouldn't give you two cents for all your fancy rules if, behind them, they didn't have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness and a little looking out for the other fella, too."

This famous line expresses something of Stewart's approach to Hollywood as well. Witness the "everyday kindness" and "looking out for the other fella" in Stewart's emotional yet dignified speech when accepting an honorary Oscar from old friend and co-star Cary Grant in 1985:

I thank you, Cary. And I thank the Board of Governors of the Academy for this gracious and most appreciated honor. And I'm also grateful to my fellow actors and actresses for their help and their friendship through the years. I'm grateful to producers and writers and props and grips and makeup and wardrobe and lighting and cinematographers — all of 'em; everybody who was there with me and who helped me to get along so well between "action" and "cut." A part of this Oscar belongs to them, a good part of it. And I'd also ... especially am I grateful to Frank Capra. Frank Capra and all of the directors who so generously and brilliantly guided me safely through the no-man's land of my own good intentions to more meaningful performances, for which they share abundant credit in my heart. And finally, the audience, all you wonderful folks out there. Thank you for being so kind to me over the years. You've given me a wonderful life. God bless you. Thank you.

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