Great Everyman Actors
Two prolific actors who specialized in playing ordinary men often put in extraordinary circumstances AND historical persons “known” to most Americans were Gary ‘Coop’ Cooper and James ‘Jimmy’ Stewart. Both men generated a lot of “good will” for themselves the way they conducted themselves off-screen (at least for most of their lives) as well. Although John Wayne earned a Congressional Medal of Honor labeled “John Wayne American” the work left on film from these two gentlemen’s careers defined several ideals of our culture: that good can come from persevering through adversity that self reliance and self discipline are assets & that one should stick to “his” principles. The characters they played exhibiting these traits exemplified the kind of positive role model that an ordinary citizen can play in their families and/or for our nation.
One of the early directors associated with creating Great Movies about regular guys was Frank Capra. Appropriately each of these actors starred in at least two “Capra-corn” films: Cooper in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Meet John Doe (1941) & Stewart in You Can’t Take It with You (1938) Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).
Both men played heroic American icons from baseball – Cooper played Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees (1942) Stewart played Monty Stratton in The Stratton Story (1949) – and other walks of life: Cooper played World War I hero Alvin York in Sergeant York (1941) Wild Bill Hickok in The Plainsman (1936) and the title role in The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955) while Stewart starred in Carbine Williams (1952) & The Glenn Miller Story (1953) and also portrayed Charles Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis (1957).
Both men starred in a number of Westerns portraying common men in difficult situations: Cooper in The Westerner (1940) and High Noon (1952) among others & Stewart in so many including The Naked Spur (1953) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Ironically each also starred in a Western which “celebrated” a great gun of the West: Cooper in Springfield Rifle (1952) & Stewart in Winchester ’73 (1950).
For their careers both were nominated five times for a Best Actor Academy Award – Cooper winning twice while Stewart won only once … and there is an interesting tie-in between the two men involving the Academy Awards. On April 17 1961 – Gary Cooper received an honorary award for “his many memorable screen performances” but was unable to attend the ceremony that year (he was to die less than a month later on May 13) and so it was accepted on his behalf by James Stewart who gave an emotional speech in so doing. Stewart himself was given an honorary award “for his high ideals both on and off the screen” by the Academy in 1985.
As far as I can tell from my research they never appeared as actors in the same movie though I found it interesting that both men were born in May Cooper more than seven years before Stewart.
I thought about including Cary Grant who also played several “everyman” roles (particularly the “one put in extraordinary circumstances” kind) or John Wayne in this essay. However so many of Grant’s roles were really of more sophisticated (suave & debonair) men which along with the fact that he was British disqualify him as an American “everyman” in my book. Wayne’s roles were typically heroic on a grander more mythical scale (some even caricature type roles) instead.
Would you add William Holden Henry Fonda or Gregory Peck to this list?