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Jimmy Stewart was worried about losing the true spirit of Christmas too

‘Everything is Santa Claus and presents’ instead of ‘what Christmas really means,’ said the famous actor to explain why he accepted a role in ‘Mr. Krueger’s Christmas’

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Actor Jimmy Stewart waves as he rides down Sunset Boulevard in the annual Christmas parade in Hollywood, Los Angeles on Nov. 30, 1986. At right is Stewart’s wife, Gloria, and left is actor Gil Gerald.

Kevork Djansezian, Associated Press

When a 27-year-old Michael McLean placed the phone call to Jimmy Stewart’s agent inviting the renowned actor to be in “Mr. Krueger’s Christmas,” the first-time filmmaker recalled changing his voice to sound more grown-up. “When they find out how young I was, they’ll freak,” he remembers thinking.

Even though Fred Astaire had liked the script, he’d recently appeared in another Christmas film, and encouraged them to reach out to Stewart — who had been McLean’s top pick all along. Stewart’s agent got back to them quickly saying the actor had interest, but you “must be kidding” about the financial offer; the agent interjected, “We’re talking about a (expletive) star!” 

“MGM gave him $100,000 for one day’s shooting, as much as you’re offering for two full weeks!” But the agent was willing to meet in L.A. and hear more, and McLean was ecstatic. “I’ll never forget this day if I live a million years,” the long-time songwriter told us in a recent interview. “I was doing a screaming around the house routine because we might get this.” 

By the time the Latter-day Saint producer walked the agent through the scene where young Clarissa asks, “You hung the mittens on the Christmas tree?” and Krueger responds, “You remind me of everything good about Christmas,” the agent was teary.   

That’s when McLean restated what they could pay, while making the unusual request the church retain perpetual rights with no residuals. The agent responded simply, “Sounds OK to me, kid.”

At the press conference following the film’s premiere, Stewart was asked by a reporter, “Why did you do a film so ‘off-Hollywood’?”

“I liked the message. I thought it was time we needed something like this.”

Stewart later elaborated that the show presented “in a very simple and a very straightforward way … what Christmas really means” — a view of the season that “we’ve sort of let … go by the road.” 

“The birth of Jesus Christ. This is what got me excited about it at first.”

A faith awakened by war

This wasn’t always what animated Stewart. When the actor first arrived in Los Angeles as a 27-year-old in 1935, he gained a reputation with his friend Henry Fonda for being one of Hollywood’s biggest playboys. 

But that changed in 1941, when he became the first movie star to enlist in World War II eight months before Pearl Harbor, telling an MGM executive pressuring him to avoid serving, “This country’s conscience is bigger than all the studios in Hollywood put together.” 

When the military administration tried to divert him into the Air Force Motion Picture Division as a recruiting tool, Stewart refused — fighting for a combat assignment instead. He was eventually assigned to a bomber crew flying over Germany that historians concluded had some of the war’s highest casualty rates.

Stewart recalled the awkward family farewell before going overseas, with his father struggling to know what to say, before embracing his son and turning quickly to walk away … but not before slipping an envelope in his pocket.  

That night, he read in his bunk, “My dear Jim, soon after you read this letter, you will be on your way to the worst sort of danger. … I am very concerned … But Jim, I am banking on the enclosed copy of the 91st Psalm.”

“The thing that takes the place of fear and worry is the promise in these words. I am staking my faith in these words. I feel sure that God will lead you through this mad experience … I can say no more. I only continue to pray. God bless you and keep you. I love you more than I can tell you. Dad.”

“Dad had committed me to God,” he said. “I felt the presence of both throughout the war.”

By the time his service ended in August 1945, a month before the war ended, Col. Stewart was one of the most decorated pilots in his U.S. Army Air Forces unit, having flown 20 combat missions and holding the highest active military rank of any actor in history. 

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Lt. Gen. Valin, Chief of Staff, French Air Force, awards the Croix De Guerre with Palm to Col. Jimmy Stewart for exceptional services in the liberation.

U.S. Air Force

But when he returned home, he was also hurting. According to biographer Robert Matzen, Stewart had lost weight and showed many symptoms of what modern clinicians would call PTSD, including regular nightmares (one of the squadrons Stewart supervised lost 13 planes and 130 men in a single battle).

Becoming George Bailey

At this low point in his life, Stewart struggled to find new acting jobs until director Frank Capra offered him a role as George Bailey in his new movie, It’s a Wonderful Life — an offer initially declined due to the film’s intense storyline involving a man driven to consider suicide (he had hoped for more of a comedic role after the dark war years).  

Yet in that iconic performance, Danny Sjursen notes, Stewart “became George Bailey, and audiences were transfixed” as they watched him “channeling all his rage, trauma, sadness, darkness.” 

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Stewart pictured in a scene from It’s A Wonderful Life.

Paramount

“I don’t think he had that kind of capacity before the war,” biographer Matzen said. “It enabled him to be ferocious and to have that raw emotion.”

In one scene, George Bailey slumps in agony, raising his eyes to heaven. “Dear Father in heaven, I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way. I’m at the end of my rope.”

“As I said those words,” Stewart later recalled, “I felt the loneliness, the hopelessness of people who had nowhere to turn, and my eyes filled with tears. I broke down sobbing.”

Those tears weren’t in the script, “but the power of that prayer and the realization that our Father in heaven is there to help the hopeless, had reduced me to tears.”

A ‘regular guy’ movie star

Three years afterIt’s a Wonderful Life” came out, Stewart would marry at age 41. Bucking the Tinseltown trend, the actor remained devoted to his wife, Gloria McLean, throughout their 45-year marriage. Jimmy adopted Gloria’s two sons from a previous marriage, and they had twin girls together.

Genuinely the “everyman” he often played in movies, Stewart famously grew to dislike the glamour of Hollywood — staying away from fancy cars, expensive clothes and cosmetic surgery common among some of his peers. 

He became concerned with the increasing violence and sexual content of modern films, and served as an elder at Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church.

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James Stewart arrives with his wife and two sons for the command performance of “The Mudlark” at the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square, London, England, Oct. 30, 1950.

Laurence Harris, Associated Press

As the 12 days of shooting for “Mr. Krueger’s Christmas” began in 1979, director Kieth Merrill asked the 71-year-old actor what he’d like to be called. 

“Jimmy is fine.” When filming started, however, the crew kept calling him “Mr. Stewart” — with Merrill explaining, “We just couldn’t help ourselves.” 

Knowing he would be alone in Utah on Sunday (since they didn’t film on the Sabbath), Merrill said, “Mr. Stewart, how would you like to come to the little town where I grew up and have a good old fashioned Mormon pot roast Sunday dinner with my mom and dad?” 

After the actor accepted, the director phoned home. “All right if I invite Jimmy Stewart to dinner?” Merrill smiled fondly as he recalled his mother’s reaction to “meeting the Hollywood heartthrob movie star of her youth” and even hearing him praise her cooking.  

“We quickly learned that Jimmy was not one to ‘eat and run,’” Merrill reminisced, noting that part of what was so “charming” was that he “didn’t feel like he needed to get away.” 

They spent the entire afternoon in their living room, with the actor telling stories — “My dad wanted my Oscar in the hardware store so I gave it to him”while making them laugh by lapsing into the on-screen characters he played over the years. 

Becoming Willy Krueger

Earlier, after their first meeting in L.A., Merrill wandered through the “canyons of costumes” with Stewart at Western Costume — marveling at the “transformation” that occurred as the beloved actor selected the character’s wardrobe. 

“Jimmy Stewart had a distinctive idea of the character and how he intended to portray him.”

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Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Krueger in “Mr. Krueger’s Christmas.”

Screenshot from “Mr. Krueger’s Christmas.”

Merrill told us about assuming the older actor was falling at one point during the sleigh ride scene and rushing forward to grab him. “No, no — you’re ruining the scene,” Stewart exclaimed. “I’m acting!” 

Stewart was patient with less experienced co-stars, including the youngest member. In one scene, the mother realizes 6-year-old Clarissa left her mittens at Mr. Krueger’s basement apartment when the girl puts her fingers up on a store window. 

Kamee Lyons, now a mother of five children (including football standouts Ryder and Walker, now on a Latter-day Saint mission to Norway), remembers her dad, who was the director, discovering pen all over her fingers and being frustrated. 

“It’s OK, she’s a kid,” Stewart interceded, “let’s get this stuff off her hands.”

The actor also arranged for a surprise cake on Kamee’s birthday, after noticing she was grumpy. Years later, he sent a letter of congratulations when she graduated from high school.     

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Jimmy Stewart and Kamee Lyons on the set of “Mr. Krueger’s Christmas.” | Kamee Lyons

One of Stewart’s only moments of aggravation was when the wind machine blew plastic snow into his mouth. “You better scrap this scene or the wind machine. I can’t talk with plastic snow in my mouth.”

Despite his long experience, Stewart still welcomed guidance. When everything was set to film the iconic scene where Mr. Krueger leads the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, the assistant brought a message from Stewart backstage that he’d like a word with the director before coming out.  

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Director Kieth Merrill provides direction to Jimmy Stewart during the filming of “Mr. Krueger’s Christmas.”

Kieth Merrill

“Kieth, I suddenly realize that I need professional instruction before I go out there and pretend to lead that choir. Normally I could act it, but that is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir out there! They deserve more than some actor faking it. They deserve the best that I can give them even if it’s only for a movie. Is there some way you can help me?”

The choir’s conductor, Jerold Ottley, was immediately sent for — providing what Merrill called an “accelerated private lesson in conducting big choirs.”

When Stewart appeared a half an hour later on the podium, dressed in the ragged clothes of Mr. Krueger, the singers spontaneously gave him a standing ovation. 

“It was clear that the adoration was not about his Hollywood celebrity,” Merrill wrote. “It was a tribute to a man whose roles and life had always been a positive example” — someone who for over half a century had been a “a surrogate brother, father, and friend” and had helped “teach us how to live.”

This unplanned moment led to the addition of a similar applause scene in the final cut of the film. Stewart later spoke of this opportunity as among the most unique of his career, saying “the chance to stand in front of that choir that I have adored all my life was just impossible to resist.”

When President N. Eldon Tanner of the First Presidency presented a new leather-bound family history of the Stewart family at the film’s conclusion, the emotional actor called the gesture “amazing.” His enduring appreciation was evident in 1983, when he donated his personal papers and movie memorabilia to Brigham Young University — including two accordions and his personal copy of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” 

Kneeling at his feet

In preparing to shoot the film’s crowning moment where Willy Krueger unexpectedly stumbles into the presence of the newborn Christ child, Stewart again surprised the director with another request.  

“I need to do this in one take,” he said. “For me, this scene and these words are very personal and very real, and I will not be able to do it twice.”

Stewart had made a similar request after the intense prayer scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But in this case, since only a single 16-millimeter camera was used, the actor agreed to a second take that would allow another angle. As the nativity filming began, the director recalls “a spirit of reverence on the set that I had never experienced before.”

The usual clamor of making movies, he said, was unusually calm. Communications were muted and whispered. 

As Willy Krueger leans toward the manger, his eyes widen slightly — “Oh, dear.”

That was different from the script, but intuited from Stewart’s grasp of the character. After nervously fumbling with his old cardigan, Krueger looks away as if hoping for support. He then turns back: “Oh, y-y-you’re ... you’re …”

“For a brief moment, it’s real. We’re there,” Merrill recollected, comparing it to a “time warp.” 

“I’m Willie Krueger, and I-I-I’m custodian over at the Beck Apartments. I- But-but you know that, don’t you?” 

The actor speaks more strongly as he steps toward baby Jesus. “Thank you for everything you’ve done for me. As long as I remember you’ve been right by my side. I’ll never forget when you walked with me right in those first few hours after I lost Martha.”

His beloved Gloria would live yet another 15 years. But a decade earlier, Stewart had mourned the loss of his son, 24-year-old Ron, who was ambushed in Vietnam in 1969.

“I’ve always been able to count on you when I’ve felt dark inside,” Krueger says, “and you were right there, every time. Even when I didn’t feel good about myself, I knew that you cared for me enough.”

The actor then kneels before the Christ child and says, “I love you. You’re my closest, my finest friend. And that means I can hold my head high, wherever I go.” Even those unaware of the rest of Stewart’s life could sense the words were more than an act.

Jacob Hess is a contributing writer and editor for the Deseret News and received his PhD from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He’s the co-author of “You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong)” and “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”

Andrew Durbin is a recent graduate from Brigham Young University, where he studied history and philosophy. He is currently researching to expand his capstone project, “Mr. Stewart Goes to Zion: Church Media, Jimmy Stewart, and the Miraculous Making of Mr. Krueger’s Christmas,” into a book.