When Jimmy Stewart Had His Own Sitcom

It’s true! Jimmy Stewart (1908-1997) starred in his own sitcom for one season (1971-72). That’s intrinsically notable; so is the fact that this show represents the only occasion — ever — when Stewart allowed himself to be billed as “Jimmy”. It’s usually “James Stewart”.

Like any first-rate actor, Stewart excelled in all genres. We’ve already done a post on his westerns; he was also a favorite of Alfred Hitchcock’s for his suspense films. Stewart also appeared in war pictures, melodramas, and biopics. But he might well be primarily associated with comedy, usually light comedy, or dramas with a comedic component. His very first film was a Vitaphone comedy short called Art Trouble (1934) starring Shemp Howard, Harry Gribbon, Marjorie Main, Beatrice Blinn, and Leni Stengel. And it is an AMAZING artifact! After this, Stewart immediately moved up to features, many of them well-remembered comedies: You Can’t Take it With You (1938); Destry Rides Again (1939); No Time for Comedy (1940); The Philadelphia Story (1940); Harvey (1950); Bell, Book, and Candle (1958); Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962); and The Cheyenne Social Club (1970).

By the time he had reached his early 60s, Stewart was as vigorous, talented and beloved as ever, but maybe not the box office draw he once had been. The ’60s and ’70s were about the worship of youth, and the stars were now guys like Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight. Many major Hollywood stars had long since taken the plunge into television, but the biggest ones from his own generation had held out for a while. Ones who managed to make a success at it included Barbara Stanwyck on The Big Valley, and Robert Young on Marcus Welby, M.D. (though his first tv success had been a couple of decades earlier on Father Knows Best. The same year as Stewart’s show, Henry Fonda tried and failed with The Smith Family (1971-72) (his earlier The Deputy had done slightly better, running two seasons, 1959-61). And in 1971, Glenn Ford launched Cade’s County, only to last a single season. It was kind of in the air then.

Not a shock that he made the cover of TV Guide when his show was launched

So The Jimmy Stewart Show premiered in 1971. In it, Stewart starred as a bicycle riding anthropology professor whose son must move back home with his wife and kids after their house burns down — causing all manner of zany chaos! The solid cast included Julie Adams, his co-star from Bend in the River, and best remembered nowadays for Creature from the Black Lagoon; Jonathan Daly (between his stints on Petticoat Junction and CPO Sharkey), Ellen Geer (daughter of Will Geer), John McGiver (stalwart of many a Disney movie), and a pre-Barney Miller Jack Soo.

The role was well calculated for Stewart’s persona and current age (now of the grandfather generation). The comedy concept was also common at the time — most of Bob Hope’s films of the era had a similar premise. The tone of the show (and theme music) is very similar to other gentle “family” programs of the time, not unlike Here’s Lucy, The Doris Day Show, or Family Affair. And bad timing for that! All of those shows and dozens more all got the ax around this time, regardless of popularity, in an effort to fill tv schedules with younger, hipper shows, an industry wide effort, show biz historians now call the “Rural Purge”. This and the fact that the show got bad reviews and ratings, insured its demise.

Stewart was down but not out, as far as television was concerned. He came back with another series called Hawkins in 1973, in which he played a crusading lawyer, not unlike ones he had played in the movies. This too folded after a season (Andy Griffith would have far more success with a similar concept a dozen years later in Matlock.) At this point Stewart returned to the movies in a small way, in films like The Shootist (1976) and Airport ’77. The dude was still doing voiceovers in tv commercials in the 1990s!

There are numerous clips of The Jimmy Stewart Show up on youtube; you should check it out!