Jimmy Stewart had one of the most recognizable voices in Hollywood. Rich Little poked fun at Stewart in a 1978 broadcast of the "Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts" in Stewart’s honor. Little says, “Anybody can do Jimmy Stewart.” In the program, Little ribs Stewart by saying, “I’ve noticed lately that your Jimmy Stewart isn’t what it used to be.” He then goes on to show Stewart how to impersonate Jimmy Stewart. The ability to pull off a convincing Jimmy Stewart impersonation requires two things. It requires the ability to mimic the tone, phrasing and pauses in Stewart's voice. Also learning how to imitate Stewart's distinctive body language helps to make the impersonation more convincing.
Scenes and Lines
Imitating specific scenes from Jimmy Stewart movies provides a concrete reference point for developing a Stewart impersonation. Pick out a few scenes from classic Stewart movies, such as “It’s A Wonderful Life,” “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington,” “Vertigo” and “Anatomy of A Murder.” Stewart’s movie career lasted for sixty years so you have a lot of material from which to choose. Write down a few of the lines from each movie. Memorize the lines so you can devote all your attention on the impersonation.
Tone and Phrasing
One of the distinguishing characteristics of human speech is its rhythm. Speech ebbs and flows with different ways of phrasing and emphasis. Imitating someone’s speech patterns is similar to playing a musical instrument. One of the most recognizable characteristics of Stewart's voice was a slight stutter and pauses between words. He had a slow and deliberate way of speaking. His voice had a slight hesitation and quivering quality to it. It is almost as if Stewart labored over every word as he spoke. Born in Indiana, Pennsylvania in 1908, his accent is difficult to pin down. Stewart had a somewhat mid-western accent with a flat, nasal-like quality to it. Focus on imitating Stewart’s voice as you practice the lines from the scenes you have selected. Concentrate on the tone and phrasing as you practice the lines. The goal is to give an accurate rendition of Stewart’s speaking mannerisms and style.
Body Language and Gestures
Human communication involves more than words. Meaning is also conveyed through body language and gestures. Professional impersonators study a subject’s body language when they are trying to nail down a character. One of Stewart’s most famous movies scenes is the filibuster scene in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Senator Smith, Stewart’s character, expresses a wide range of emotions in slightly over one minute. The Senator’s emotions range from quiet desperation to angry outrage. The scene culminates with Senator Smith collapsing on the floor. Stewart uses his lean and lanky body to great effect in this scene. Study Stewart’s body language as he moves from one emotion to the other. This one scene is a useful resource for learning how to impersonate the way Stewart used his tall, lean and lanky body when he spoke.
Do not expect to create a perfect Jimmy Stewart impersonation overnight. Professional impersonators spend hours practicing and fine-tuning an impersonation. Practice some of your favorite Jimmy Stewart scenes in front of a mirror. Practicing in front of a mirror allows you to see yourself in the moment and make corrections quickly. You can also record your performances with a video recorder. Watching the video recording helps you to evaluate your performance from the perspective of a spectator. Finally, try out your impersonations on a few friends or family members who are familiar with Jimmy Stewart. Ask for their honest feedback and criticism.
Robert Russell began writing online professionally in 2010. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and is currently working on a book project exploring the relationship between art, entertainment and culture. He is the guitar player for the nationally touring cajun/zydeco band Creole Stomp. Russell travels with his laptop and writes many of his articles on the road between gigs.