July 14, 1997 12:01 AM EDT

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For the half-century of his life onscreen, James Stewart had a guilty secret, and the moviegoing public let him get away with it. Stewart presented himself as an ordinary guy–just a Jimmy. Maybe a slightly overachieving Jimmy, what with the Princeton degree and the Air Force brigadier general’s stripes. But all in all a solid Republican sprung from humble merchant stock in Indiana, Pa. In a lifetime of movies, Stewart was the goodwill ambassador for a genial, vanishing America.

Stewart became the butt of a thousand impressionists for his familiar “Waaaaal,” which sounded like a trombonist running out of breath and purpose. He cared little for the racking discipline of the Method; he would simply stand on his mark and stammer out his lines. He wore his renown comfortably, like a pair of overalls, and enjoyed as scandal-free a life as any top Hollywood star. “My husband,” said Stewart’s one and only wife Gloria, “is much too normal to be an actor.” The man himself considered his job well done “if you can get through a film and not have the acting show.”

Waaaaal, he could run from the charge, but he couldn’t hide. And now we can say it out loud: James Stewart was a great actor.

Watch him at work in the 1946 It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra’s Christmas confection with the bittersweet center. Stewart, as young George Bailey, is stepping up on one of his shaky soapboxes to tell off crippled town bully Lionel Barrymore. It is the first of many righteous harangues George will deliver, and at first he doesn’t realize this one will get him in serious trouble, for he is talking himself into a lifetime sentence in Bedford Falls. Stewart seemed to spend most of his career on the threshold of puberty; the anguished ripple of a high-strung teenager was heard in each syllable. But here, through his carefully eccentric alternation of strangulated pauses and staccato paragraphs, in the almost imperceptible straightening of his body language from question mark to exclamation point, we see a footloose lad turning into a responsible young man–a rite of passage in a movie minute. Ladies and gentlemen: acting!

American acting, for Stewart carried the image of America, at least as the nation once fancied itself: rural, righteous, ornery, stubborn in its idealism, never picking a fight and never backing away from one. To look at his scarecrow physique and the long, gawky strides, as if he were making his way across a pond by stepping on turtles’ backs, you’d never guess Stewart was a movie star. But that’s what helped make him one: his extraordinary ordinariness.

At 89, Stewart had nothing more to prove and, as he saw it, not much to live for. But when he died, he took a lot with him: the audience’s considered belief that he, of all actors, was the attainable best of us. So his death last week, of a blood clot in the lung, provoked a surprisingly profound melancholy in his fans and friends. “I know he was elderly, and we had to expect it,” says Doris Day, his co-star in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 The Man Who Knew Too Much, “but I still can’t believe it. And I can’t stand it.” Now only Katharine Hepburn, Stewart’s blithe siren in The Philadelphia Story, is left to exemplify the glamour and idealism of Hollywood in its golden ’30s.

Back then it took Hollywood a while to realize what kind of acting Stewart was capable of. MGM director W.S. Van Dyke II pegged him as “unusually usual.” To the brass at Metro, who signed Stewart in 1935, the label meant he was a sensitive fellow with zero sex appeal–not the stuff of celebrity. So he was made to sob through After the Thin Man (pssst: he dunnit), shuffle through Born to Dance (he wasn’t), swivel on skates in Ice Follies of 1939 (it was).

Fortunately, Capra, over at Columbia, found in Stewart “the uncommon common man”: as a lion tamer of the wild Vanderhof clan in You Can’t Take It with You and as Jefferson Smith, patron saint of patriotic lost causes, nurser of noble grudges, in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. David O. Selznick saw Stewart as a worthy partner for Carole Lombard in the intelligent soaper Made for Each Other. Somebody at Universal made him the unlikely western hero of Destry Rides Again, opposite an amused Marlene Dietrich. These moguls may have undervalued Stewart as an appealing young actor who wouldn’t upstage the female lead. But they let him put his wares before the public. The public bought, and by the end of the decade, Stewart, despite MGM’s best efforts, was a star. Stayed that way as long as he cared to.

You could pay him the usual backhand compliment directed at an enduring Hollywood icon and say that he played–brilliantly played–Jimmy Stewart. But that ignores the pioneering vocal eccentricity, the stammer that miraculously made every line seem as if it had just occurred to him; he was Method before Method was cool. And to say Stewart played himself hardly does justice to the near Shakespearean breadth of his characters and performances. The mannerisms evolved; the man grew.

Which Jimmy Stewart do you mean? The hometown boy of romantic comedy, goshing and gollying his way into Margaret Sullavan’s heart in The Shop Around the Corner? Or the tortured Capra hero whose trust in American values was tested past all endurance, till he tumbled close to madness? Or the pixilated Elwood P. Dowd of Harvey, his best friend an invisible rabbit? Or the vengeful loner of the Anthony Mann westerns of the ’50s–taut epics like Bend of the River and The Man from Laramie–in which Stewart often played a bitter Moses leading settlers to the far country he could never call home? Or the slick rural attorney in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, a little too comfortable with the trial’s lurid voyeurism? Or the hero of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a broken gent for whom an obsession with a corpse is the most fulfilling romantic release? Or the frontier lawyer in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, uneasy with the heroic legends printed about him?

Similarly, to praise Stewart as the embodiment of the aw-shucks American hero is really to patronize him. His true achievement is to have reflected the changing, aging, increasingly troubled face of America, from its early days as the new big likable kid on the block of world power to the questioning twilight between World War II and Vietnam.

In Mr. Smith he is just a whisper away from hysteria; moral innocence confronted with political corruption must erupt violently. In real life he gave up his career to join the Army Air Corps, distinguishing himself on bomber runs. But those clear eyes, as blue as the skies patrolled by the Strategic Air Command, saw terrible things. He returned to movies with It’s a Wonderful Life, where George Bailey does good deeds in a small town that his ambitions were too big for; he is a hero because, with reluctant grace, he made the noble compromise.

From then on, the sanctified edginess in Stewart’s movie parts took on the tinge of bitterness, despair. His typical character–the complicated man with a questionable past–was pretty much in a bad mood for the whole ’50s. The Capra hero played by Stewart had been a figure of wild gestures; the Hitchcock hero was a man in moral traction, drawn to look at evil and wonder at its awful seductions. This was daring stuff. It took a bold man to twist and extend his star quality from sunny Jim into the darker shades of his mature roles. It took an extraordinary actor to achieve all this with such skill and courage, and not let the acting show.

As neurotic as the Stewart character could be, it was for the most part anti-erotic. Smart city gals (Hepburn, Sullavan, Jean Arthur, Rosalind Russell, Dietrich, Ginger Rogers, nearly the whole fabulous constellation of ’30s star actresses) would toy with this bumpkin, only to find he had magically restored their emotional virginity. In his private life–which he kept private–Stewart was a responsible grownup, a bachelor until 1949, when he married Gloria McLean. She had two sons from a previous marriage; they had twin daughters.

Clearly, Stewart loved Gloria with the generosity and tenacity of his best screen characters. They were a famously compatible couple, entertaining friends and, after Stewart’s informal retirement in the late ’70s, traveling on safaris. The Stewarts also made an annual trip to Washington, where they paid tribute to Gloria’s son Ronald, who was killed in Vietnam.

Unlike Henry Fonda or Burt Lancaster, Stewart did not have the luck to star in melancholy-twilight masterpieces; his final films were mostly amiable and mundane. He eased into late maturity with rueful good humor, telling director Peter Bogdanovich, “After 70 it’s all patch, patch, patch.” And he remained touched by his celebrity. “We were coming out of Chasen’s one night,” says Bogdanovich, “when a man put his hand out and said, ‘Mr. Stewart, I don’t guess it means much to you, but I want you to know I think you’re wonderful.’ Jimmy had taken his hand to shake it, and as the man started to take his hand away, Jimmy held on to it, looked him in the eye and said, ‘It means everything to me.'”

To a later generation he was probably best known as the wry gentleman who every few months came calling on Johnny Carson. Stewart would uncoil himself in the Tonight Show guest seat, tell one of his hilariously laborious anecdotes, perhaps read one of the verses that, in 1989, made him a best-selling poet. One bit of doggerel elegized his pet golden retriever: “And now he’s dead./ And there are nights when I think I feel him/ Climb upon our bed and lie between us,/ And I pat his head./ And there are nights when I think/ I feel that stare/ And I reach out my hand to stroke his hair,/ But he’s not there./ Oh, how I wish that wasn’t so,/ I’ll always love a dog named Beau.”

Artless, yes; the poem lacked the gift of making grief palpable, as Stewart had done with such searing poignancy in Vertigo. But the feelings were just as direct, honorable, crushing. Imagine his desolation when, in 1994, Gloria died, at 75, of lung cancer. With no hand to hold, no hair to stroke, no lovely, comforting figure to share his bed, Stewart was bereft and, for all his loving children and friends, alone. He stopped his ritual of going to the office to answer his fan mail. Says Lord Richard Attenborough, who appeared with Stewart in The Flight of the Phoenix (1966): “He said that he just did not want to live anymore.” He withdrew into himself, built a moat around the castle of his isolation. He fed on memories of Gloria–so painful because they were so sweet–and on the survivor’s inevitable feelings of loss and guilt.

“In the past two years at home, sad to say, he came down from his bedroom only to eat lunch and dinner,” Army Archerd, a close friend, wrote in his Daily Variety column, “and only on some occasions.” When Archerd suggested he stop by, Stewart replied, “I don’t think you’d find me very interesting these days.” He had always been meticulous in presenting himself to the world; now, with Gloria gone, the masque was over. He stopped playing Jimmy Stewart. In a recent news clip, painful to see, he was bald, gaunt, liver-spotted, nearly unrecognizable. Yet he waved, as airily as possible, to the camera–an act both reflexive and heroic.

“The bitter part of his passing,” says Kim Novak, the object of his obsession in Vertigo, “is that there’ll never be another Jimmy Stewart. He wasn’t an actor; he was the real thing. But the sweet part is that he was ready to move on. The last time I spoke with him, about five weeks ago, I felt he had already left on another journey. He was in a peaceful place where he didn’t want to know about earthly things. He was like a brave Indian warrior who knew it was time to move on and was facing the darkness unafraid. That part I feel good about. He’s free now, and he was really grateful that God took him. His body became a hindrance, and he wanted to be free to let his spirit go–go to where he could be back with Gloria.”

Death is not a happy ending in Hollywood movies. A beloved man is dead, and we mourn, for our loss at least as much as his. But this is a cause for celebration. Today a new generation, raised on facetiousness and arid sensation, has the thrilling duty to discover Stewart’s crucial contribution to the movies that made the movies great. The young may also take instruction from his exemplary life story. How simple it was–we would like to say how simply American. Jimmy Stewart lived for movies, fought for his country and died for love. Now isn’t that a wonderful life?

–Reported by Georgia Harbison/New York, Jeffrey Ressner/Los Angeles and other bureaus

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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