Jimmy Stewart is an American hero. He taught us all the meaning of Christmas, served as a World War II pilot, and generally, is considered one of the greatest actors of all time. His famous, wavering voice may be the closest thing we all have to a collective conscience. So it’s fitting that Stewart was also something of a poet.
In 1981, Stewart joined Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show to read an original piece about his dead dog, Beau. As you can imagine, it cuts deep. The poem reduced Carson to tears on air, and I’ll bet it does the same thing for you today.
Jimmy Stewart Reads His Poem… and Johnny Carson Cries
“I’ll Never Forget a Dog Named Beau”
He never came to me when I would call
unless I had a tennis ball
or he felt like it,
but mostly he didn’t come at all.
When he was young
he never learned to heel
or sit or stay,
he did things his way.
Discipline was not his bag
but when you were with him things sure didn’t drag.
He’d dig up a rosebush just to spite me,
and when I’d grab him, he’d turn and bite me.
He bit lots of folks from day to day,
The delivery boy was his favorite prey.
The gas man wouldn’t read our meter,
he said we owned a real man-eater.
He set the house on fire
but the story’s long to tell.
Suffice it to say that he survived
and the house survived as well.
On the evening walks, and Gloria took him,
he was always first out the door.
the Old One and I brought up the rear
because our bones were sore.
He would charge up the street with Mom hanging on,
What a beautiful pair they were!
And if it was still light and the tourists were out,
they created a bit of a stir.
But every once in a while, he’d stop in his tracks
And with a frown on his face look around.
It was just to make sure that the Old One was there
to follow him where he was bound.
We are early-to-bedders at our house—
I guess I’m the first to retire.
And as I’d leave the room he’d look at me
and get up from his place by the fire.
He knew where the tennis balls were upstairs
and I’d give him one for a while.
He would push it under the bed with his nose
and I’d fish it out with a smile.
And before very long he’d tire of the ball
and be asleep in his corner in no time at all.
and there were nights when I’d feel him climb upon our bed
and lie between us,
and I’d pat his head.
And there were nights when I’d feel this stare
and I’d wake up and he’d be sitting there
and I reach out my hand and stroke his hair.
And sometimes I’d feel him sigh
and I think I know the reason why.
He would wake up at night
And he would have this fear
of the dark, of life, of lots of things,
and he’d be glad to have me near.
And now he’s dead.
And there are nights when I think I feel him
climb upon our bed and lie between us,
and I pat his head.
And there are nights when I think I feel that stare
and I reach out my hand to stroke his hair,
and he’s not there.
Oh, how I wish that wasn’t so—
I’ll always love a dog named Beau.
The Real Beau
As Jimmy Stewart describes it, his dog was a real troublemaker. Beau digs up the rose bushes, bites the delivery boy, and has a mind of his own. He doesn’t fetch or come when called. (“Mostly he didn’t come at all.”) Obstinate and wild, Beau’s character feels more human than canine — from setting a house on fire to struggling under the weight of the existential crisis.
“Sometimes I’d feel him sigh / and I think I know the reason why,” Stewart says near the conclusion of the poem. “He would wake up at night / And he would have this fear / of the dark, of life, of lots of things, / and he’d be glad to have me near.” At that moment, the poem’s emphasis shifts to the speaker: Stewart. These are the fears of man, not a dog.
Stewart was 73 years old when he read “I’ll Always Remember a Dog Named Beau” on The Tonight Show. He appeared grandfatherly, adjusting thick reading glasses beneath a slick of silver hair. Dignified, yes, but not exactly the feisty young man who defined films like It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
With Beau as a mirror, Stewart expresses deeper anxieties about aging and loss. This is further underscored by the presence of “the Old One” in the poem —likely another dog. Stewart and his wife Gloria Hatrick McLean loved dogs and kept multiple at a time. Their favorites were golden retrievers.
Beau was a golden retriever. He was described as “willful but beloved” in the biography Pieces of Time: The Life of James Stewart — very on par with Stewart’s poem. Stewart also opened up about Beau’s personality to Stanley Coren, a dog psychologist. According to Coren, Beau slept in the corner of Stewart’s bedroom:
“Some nights, though, he would sneak onto the bed and lie right in between Gloria and me. I know that I should have pushed him off the bed, but I didn’t. He was up there because he wanted me to pat his head, so that’s what I would do. Somehow, my touching his hair made him happier, and just the feeling of him laying against me helped me sleep better. After he died there were a lot of nights when I was certain that I could feel him get into bed beside me and I would reach out and pat his head.”— Jimmy Stewart to Stanley Coren“
Coren further details the relationship in his book, Why We Love the Dogs We Do: How to Find the Dog That Matches Your Personality. He says that Stewart was shooting a movie in Arizona when he received a call from Beau’s veterinarian saying that Beau was terminally ill. Gloria wanted to put him down but Stewart refused to authorize it, saying, “Keep him alive and I’ll be there.” He then left the production to spend more time with Beau, but after several days, the dog was euthanized.
Following the procedure, Stewart could not stop crying in his car. “The feeling was so real that I wrote a poem about it and about how much it hurt to realize that he wasn’t going to there anymore,” Stewart told Coren.
Stewart himself died in 1997 at age 89, of a pulmonary embolism. His wife Gloria had passed three years earlier and his final words to his family were: “I’m going to be with Gloria now.”