Jimmy Stewart passed away this week.
I had the honor to dine once with Mr. Stewart. This was around 1984, the locale was Chasen's restaurant, and he was the "date" of
a friend of mine. She was "baby-sitting" while Jimmy's wife was outta town.
Chasen's was the natural habitat for the elite of old Hollywood; Sinatra was supping in the next room while we were there, and the
Reagans had just departed. It was a place where celebrities could dine among their own in peace, protected from autograph-seekers.
This rule did not apply where Jimmy Stewart was concerned.
Throughout our meal, we were interrupted every three-or-so minutes by someone cautiously, hesitantly approaching our table. They
would get close enough to eavesdrop on the conversation and, when they heard a sentence end, they would pounce — but politely. Every
single intrusion went exactly like this...
"Mr. Stewart...excuse me...I hate to interrupt your dinner, and I can come back later if you prefer, but you are my favorite actor in
the world, and I just couldn't miss the opportunity to tell you."
Now, let's do some math.
In the ninety minutes we were there, this happened about twelve times. That's eight times per hour. Let us assume that this
was not atypical, and that it could only happen more often in a public place less upscale than Chasen's. So if Jimmy Stewart only went out in
public two hours per day, that's sixteen times a day, times seven days a week, or 112 times a week, or 5,824 times a year (5,840 in a leap year).
Jimmy Stewart had been a national treasure since around 1940 — that was the year he won the Oscar for Best Actor in The
Philadelphia Story. So that's 44 years, times 5,824 a year, which means...
Well, I've run out of fingers, but I don't think it would be an exaggeration to suggest that James Stewart had heard, "You are my
favorite actor" something like a quarter of a million times by then. And what really impressed me...what I found astounding and amazing and
altogether charming was that, each time someone uttered those words, Mr. Stewart acted like this was the first time he had ever heard it.
Honestly. I saw it a dozen times — thirteen, if you count the time I said it. He clasped the stranger's hand, and
made an honest effort to get up and to ask them their name, and he'd say, "Why now, isn't that nice of you to say that?" As if no one had ever
said that before, as if the person five minutes earlier had not spoken the exact same words.
Was he pretending, just to be polite? Nah. Jimmy Stewart was a great actor, true, but no one is that good. He
was actually touched and flattered, every time. I've seen stars who, with a lot less reason, were bored and blasé about fan-type
accolades. They had learned how to be polite and to ever-so-quickly brush the person aside without even pausing to look them in the eyes.
Not Mr. Stewart. He really and truly was appreciative, and he took a few minutes to chat with each person and to sign an
autograph for them, carefully inquiring to whom it should be addressed and how the name was spelled. He made each of them feel like they had
done him the favor by coming over and expressing their love for him and his work.
I was fascinated. I remember thinking that somewhere, within that aspect of his personality and manner, was some direct
connection to his believability on the screen. I still cannot explain it, but I'm sure there's a connection.
I was also intrigued. Every person who made the pilgrimage to our table also said, "My favorite movie is..." and here, they would
mention either It's a Wonderful Life or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or Vertigo or Harvey. One person even
nominated The Spirit of St. Louis. During a rare moment with no visitors hovering about, I asked him which of his films was most often
cited to him this way, and he paused, stroked his chin, and gave the matter a fair amount of thought before responding...
"It's a Wonderful Life, I think. If you'd asked me that a few years ago, the answer would have been Mr. Smith, I
suppose. But since they started showing Wonderful Life every Christmas, I think that's the one. Yes, that's the one. It's
a Wonderful Life. That's the one most people mention to me. It's a Wonderful Life." (Mr. Stewart didn't say a lot during
our dinner, but everything he said, he said about six times.)
I asked him if people ever mentioned his more obscure movies.
"Oh, heavens, yes. They mention Harvey and Vertigo and Rear Window and Mr. Smith and Philadelphia
Story and Destry Rides Again, and the others. But every now and then, they come up with some movie...some movie that even I don't
remember. Just the other day, just the other day we were at the Beverly Hills Hotel for some function, and this woman told me her favorite
movie was...what was that picture she mentioned?"
He glanced about for his wife Gloria to ask her, but Gloria was nowhere on the premises. So he started thinking hard, trying to
"It doesn't matter," I said. But it did matter to Mr. Stewart: I'd asked a question and he felt I deserved an answer.
After a minute or so of gesticulating like George Bailey or Jefferson Smith, he came up with it. "Speed. Did you
ever see it? I don't remember a thing about it but apparently, I made it. I played a race car driver in it. Speed.
That was it. That was this woman's favorite picture. This woman at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I asked her if she'd ever seen Mr.
Smith and all she wanted to talk about was Speed. I was embarrassed that I couldn't tell her a thing about it."
I've been thinking about that tonight, as all the news programs are itemizing Mr. Stewart's greatest achievements. They're
mentioning all the other wonderful films that audiences will be watching forever — countless Jimmy Stewart fans have yet to be born — but
no one has mentioned Speed.
Don't bother hunting it down, by the way. I did, and I didn't like it much. But I loved the fact that he loved the fact
that the lady at the Beverly Hills Hotel did.