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GARBO? HARLOW? HEPBURN? JAMES STEWART REMEMBERED THEM WELL

The small roles James Stewart played in the two seventies films mentioned in my 1976 New York Times interview were not the last roles the actor played. Two years later, he actually had a big role in 1978's "The Magic of Lassie," and he performed it with his customary conviction and grace. That's the kind of actor he was. --Guy Flatley

 

"The reason I’m playing a small role in ‘The Shootist’ is very simple," James Stewart said by phone on a recent Sunday, after church and noontime dinner in his Beverly Hills home. The 68-year-old actor was discussing his surprisingly minor part as a physician who treats John Wayne, a cancer-stricken gunslinger, in Don Siegel’s new western.

"I wasn’t offered a bigger role, and since I still consider acting my profession, I jumped at the chance to do this. I’d guess you’d call this part and the one I’ll play in ‘Airport 1977’ cameos, which means that I’ve been around a long time."

So he has--since his supporting role in 1935’s "Murder Man," starring Spencer Tracy, and all the way through such choice hits as "The Philadelphia Story" (at left, with Katharine Hepburn), "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Destry Rides Again," "The Shop Around the Corner," "It’s a Wonderful Life," "Harvey," "Rear Window," "Vertigo" and "Anatomy of a Murder." Then, about six years ago, when Hollywood producers stopped phoning, he renewed his acquaintance with the tall and tipsy Harvey, winning warm reviews both on Broadway and on London’s West End. In recent months, he has demonstrated his loyalty to another old buddy by hitting the campaign trail for Ronald Reagan.

In art, too, Mr. Stewart is a mite conservative, as reflected in his comments on "The Shootist." "It’s a pure western about the old West. We’re not trying to be psychological; we’re simply showing the good guys and the bad guys. The past and the present are two different times, and the idea of taking an era when the country was being developed, when it was exciting and exhilarating, and blaming it for what’s going on now is ridiculous."

Another era Mr. Stewart holds in high esteem is the golden age of Hollywood--the 1930’s and 40’s. "The big studios were such a wonderful training ground for actors and actresses, and one misses them terribly. I came out here as a contract player at M-G-M, and I went to work every day. It might be a big part in a little picture, or it might be a little part in a big picture, or maybe I’d be doing a test, taking voice lessons or working out in the gym.

"M-G-M had Crawford, Garbo, Shearer, Dressler, Harlow, Hepburn and so many others," Mr. Stewart dreamily recalls. "Today’s actresses--talented performers like Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli and Candy Bergen--would have flourished even more in the day of the big studios. It was a tremendous time. You learned your craft by working at it. You crawled before you walked."

And, crawling or walking, you did what you did with a minimum of bare skin and raw violence. "If you’ll pardon the expression," Mr. Stewart stammers and drawls in the inimitable style cherished by generations of moviegoers, "I think we’ve all had a bellyful of that."