If you read the online bio of Jimmy Stewart, here’s what you’ll read in part:
One of film’s most beloved actors, Jimmy Stewart made more than 80 films in his lifetime. He was known for his everyman quality, which made him both appealing and accessible to audiences. Stewart grew up in the small town of Indiana, Pennsylvania, where his father operated a hardware store.
Stewart got his first taste of performing during his time as a young man. At Princeton University, he acted in shows as a member of the Triangle Club, which put on shows. Stewart earned a degree in architecture in 1932, but he never practiced the trade. Instead he joined the University Players in Falmouth, Massachusetts, the summer after he graduated. There Stewart met fellow actor Henry Fonda, who became a lifelong friend.
That same year, Stewart made his Broadway debut in Carrie Nation. The show didn’t fare well, but he soon found more stage roles. In 1935, Stewart landed a movie contract with MGM and headed out west.https://www.biography.com/people/jimmy-stewart-9494773
If you look up Burgess Meredith, here’s what you’ll read:
Oliver Burgess Meredith was born in Cleveland, Ohio. After holding a variety of jobs and attending college sporadically during the 1920s, Meredith became determined to break into show business. He began an unpaid apprenticeship in 1929 with Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Company in New York City. After making his Broadway debut in 1933’s Little Ol’ Boy, Meredith achieved great success in 1935 as Mio in the Maxwell Anderson play Winterset. He was a founder of the New Stage Society in 1937 and served as vice president of the Actors’ Equity in 1938.https://www.biography.com/people/burgess-meredith-9542624
As for Henry Fonda:
Back home in Nebraska, Fonda took a stab at acting, filling his time at the Omaha Community Playhouse, where he frequently shared the stage with Marlon Brando’s mother. By the late 1920s, Fonda had made acting his full-time vocation. He traveled to New England, where he hooked up with the University Players Guild, which cast him alongside other young actors, including James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan.
Fonda’s first big break came in the 1934 Broadway production “New Faces.” A year later, Fonda was out west in Hollywood, beginning what would become a nearly 50-year career in the movies.
But that’s not the whole story.
The Forgotten Roommate
Each of these men shared something that’s been lost to history and fame: at one point all three lived on Broadway in a walkup flat, and my father was the fourth roommate.
Gordon Hubbel had graduated from Cornell with a degree in English literature and, like these other three, had gotten a taste for acting. They found each other and ended up sharing an apartment in Depression-era New York City. According to Dad, Meredith was a monumental drinker, and every so often Pop had to toss the young man over his shoulder and get him upstairs to bed.
Dad never mentioned how often his flat mates had to return the favor. There isn’t a single photo of my father from that time (or all his life for that matter) that he didn’t have a bottle or a highball in hand. Handsome, charismatic, the perfect actor’s height at 5'7", Dad was a born entertainer. These four men had a similar style, look and presentation, and each was a dedicated actor struggling to make it during one of our country’s toughest economic times.
Whoever got work that week paid the rent. Each man had his own opportunities, his own breaks. For Dad, Broadway WAS acting. Anything else was fake.
The West Won
So Dad didn’t bite when movies came calling, and his roommates got contracts. I can just see my father making fun of such foolishness. Stewart, Meredith and Fonda headed to Hollywood, and film immortality.
My dad….became a radio man, then a chicken farmer in Florida. And that’s where I came about.
I never understood why my father hated movies. It was a mystery to me growing up in the Fifties, as movies evolved and expanded. It wasn’t until Fiddler on the Roof came out in 1971 that Dad took my mother and me to see it.
He came out of the theater nearly speechless. I was only eighteen at the time, full of the piss and vinegar of youth. I had no clue why my father had had such a powerful reaction to the film. It would take me years to sort out why, and even then I’m not sure I know the real answer.
I think perhaps Dad, who had a terrible need to be right (“Radio is the future, the movies will never amount to anything!”) finally realized that his true dream to be an actor had always been within his grasp. He’d had a chance to take that leap and perhaps become a leading actor of his day, just like his roommates had done. He hated John Wayne with the kind of childish passion that only pure professional jealousy can engender.
“He’s a lousy actor,” Dad would say. He could be pugnaciously arrogant.
Uh huh. And you’re a chicken farmer, Dad. I never said that, but I thought it. And Dad knew it.
He Had a Heyday
My father had been a hotshot announcer at the NBC affiliate WMAL in Washington DC. He originated the country’s first courses in radio broadcasting, writing and advertising at American University (where I later got my degree, including studying with the professor who had replaced my father). He made his mark in many ways. He was a damned fine writer, and creativity flowed through his veins like a rich river.
Dad was a competitive ballroom dancer, a superb polo player, and he loved Big Band music. When Nat King Cole came to town, my father sat next to him on the piano bench holding the mike for The Man. My father was beyond entranced. He respected his radio audience and did his best to deliver delight and awe.
When television was in its infancy, David Brinkley was still a copy boy. Dad was announcing major events such as FDR’s funeral. Suddenly radio looked to be entirely eclipsed. For a while, Dad was the first broadcaster for the Redskins games. Then he backed off, concerned that being deaf in one ear would cost him his career.
Dad never even gave television a full shot. He just walked away, already defeated in his own mind. Brinkley would go on to a luminous career, so like Dad’s early roommates. Dad was no less talented or capable. I think Dad was terrified of failure, and it crippled him.
If you Google my father, virtually nothing comes up. He’s invisible to history except to those who knew him personally, and those folks are largely gone. I researched him through his surviving sisters not long before they died. As a result I had a chance to fill in a few blanks. But not many. It seems, nobody actually knew him.
Towards the end of his life, when his long-time alcoholism and three-pack a day smoking habit would finally take their toll, my father repeatedly claimed that he was happy with his life. I wonder. My father was ever the entertainer, the showman. But by then his bitterness had seeped into many areas of his existence. Lost opportunities, the roads not taken. Perhaps. I don’t really know as my father didn’t believe in speaking of such things. Too close to the chest.
I’m not sure my father ever forgave himself for failing to follow his three friends to the rolling citrus groves of the West where nothing was guaranteed. However, a handsome, suave, Cornell-educated and well-spoken fella might make a living in film. He would never know.
The Road Not Taken
I treasure every single gift my father gave me. However, there is one he will never know meant the most: take the road not taken. George Leigh Mallory (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Mallory) wrote, The greatest danger in life is not to take the adventure. I believe my father, who was deeply affected by the Depression, chose safe- as best he knew it. I don’t blame him one bit. But my dad plonked me on top of a full sized horse at the age of four, beginning a life-long passion. He was the one who urged me on when I decided to join the Army at a time when no self-respecting Southern female would consider such a thing (1973). He was the one who was energized and excited when I decided to become an entrepreneur, and be a speaker and writer. He didn’t live long enough to see my first published book. He would have been beside himself proud. After all, he’s the one who handed me my copy of the Oxford Complete Works of Shakespeare when I turned ten.
He knew exactly what he was doing. Without knowing it, and even though in some ways he was anything but, my dad was teaching me how to be an outlier. I didn’t even begin to come into my own until after his death. I am not one to believe that my father “is up there looking down on me.” Dad has returned to the stardust from which we all came. However his creativity and many of his talents live on through me. A daughter couldn’t ask for a better legacy.
Gordon Hubbel didn’t need to be famous to be a hero. Invisible doesn’t mean insignificant. My father was no Jimmy Stewart. But what he taught me far outstrips any Hollywood lifestyle he might have been able to offer, at a time when growing up on a farm was a lifestyle that was beginning to see its twilight. Having a Cornell-educated father on an isolated Southern farm was something else again.
And that was his greatest role of all.