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Jimmy Stewart brought life to Mr. Krueger

The first time Michael McLean met Jimmy Stewart, he thought the old man had "lost it." He knocked on the door of the actor's house to meet with him about a low-budget movie called "Mr. Krueger's Christmas" they were going to do together. McLean was convinced Stewart was perfect for the lead role.

A man answered the door. He was unshaven, disheveled and stooped with age. Wearing an old cardigan sweater, double-knit slacks and glasses, he talked and moved slowly. Stewart's butler? An assistant? To his horror, McLean realized this was Stewart himself.

"I thought, 'This guy is out of it,' " recalls McLean. " 'How am I going to use him for my movie?' I was panicked. I thought, 'What have I done?' "

After chatting with Stewart for some 15 minutes, one of McLean's associates, concerned about the condition of the actor, asked Stewart, "How active do you want to be in this role?"

With that, Stewart removed his glasses, snapped to attention and replied in a strong voice, "You mean, how active do you want Krueger to be?"

As McLean recalls, "I suddenly realized, 'He's been auditioning! He's been doing Krueger!' It was genius! He knew every line. He knew the character better than I did."

The rest is a part of TV movie history. Stewart did the project and "Mr. Krueger's Christmas" has become annual TV Christmas fare. It will return for its 23rd season this month.

McLean, who wrote the original story, talked his way into the producer's job but had never made a movie. Not wanting to appear unprofessional, he pretended to be a delivery man when he took the script to Stewart's agent, then returned later for a meeting as himself.

The agent balked at the money — for the entire project, Stewart would be paid what he was normally paid for one day to work on another movie — but after McLean acted out the movie in his office, the agent was in tears and an agreement was struck. Then McLean went to meet Stewart for the first time.

As McLean recalls, "We were going to look for costumes, and Stewart already had it figured out. He knew Krueger. He said, 'Krueger would wear a coat that was made in such and such a year, and it would look like this and be made of such and such a material.' It was so professional. We spent three hours at Western Costume to pick out his wardrobe. While he was trying things on, he would try out his lines in front of the mirror."

The movie allowed Stewart, a Presbyterian, to fulfill a lifelong dream of leading the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Stewart also agreed to do the movie because he believed it would promote the true meaning of Christmas.

The holiday "has come to be connected with Santa Claus, gifts, lights, decorations, trees," he said. "We may be guilty of forgetting that Christmas is really the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ."

During the filming of the movie, the actor approached one scene with great solemnity. It was the scene of him talking to Jesus. Before filming of that scene began, he announced, "I've got only one of these in me. Everyone who doesn't need to be here, get them out. Tell them I want this to go well. I can do other takes, but this will be the right one. There will only be one."

After he finished the scene, McLean asked the cameraman, "Did you get it?"

"I hope so," he replied, "because I was crying."

Later, after production was finished, McLean took the final product to Stewart's house. He watched the movie with Stewart and his wife Gloria. When it was finished, Gloria left the room in tears.

"So, what do you think?" he asked Stewart.

"Well," he said after a long pause, "Gloria is my best critic. I guess we did good."


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