Having a dog for a pet can be an incredible experience. No matter who you are, they’ll love you loyally and unconditionally. Even if you’re one of the most famous people in the world, there’s nothing more valuable than that.
Which is why Hollywood celebrities love their dogs, just like the rest of us — and feel just as heartbroken when their pets pass away.
But when that happens, it can help to remember the good times, and to put your feelings down on paper.
That’s what legendary actor Jimmy Stewart did, penning an ode to his dog Beau, and reading it on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson — a beautiful, emotional moment that has become a TV classic, and will still touch the hearts of anyone who has ever loved a dog.
Stewart, the star of classic Hollywood films like It’s a Wonderful Life, Rear Window and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, made his appearance on the Tonight Show in 1981, when the actor was 73.
He tells Carson that he wants to read a poem, titled “Beau,” the name of his pet golden retriever.
At first, it seems to be a comedy bit fitting the late-night show: Stewart gets laughs with early lines about Beau’s stubborn behavior.
“He never came to me when I would call, unless I had a tennis ball… or he felt like it,” Stewart reads. “But mostly, he didn’t come at all. He never learned to heel or sit or stay, he did things his way.”
He makes it clear that despite Beau’s bad behaviors (including biting his famous owner and “setting the house on fire”) he was still fun to have around: “Discipline wasn’t his bag. But when you were with him, things sure didn’t drag.”
But halfway through the poem, it becomes clear that this isn’t just a joke poem about his troublesome dog. Stewart, growing increasingly emotional, describes calm nights by the fire when he would get Beau a ball, or the dog would come to sleep in their bed. He recalls sensing that the dog had fears, and that he was the one who could make him feel safe.
Stewart’s reading of his poem became one of the most famous moments in Tonight Show history. It’s often found in “best-of” collections of Johnny Carson’s tenure, and has over 4 million views on YouTube.
The poem was so emotional that even the host couldn’t help but shed a tear. Tonight Show sidekick Ed McMahon recalled it as one of the few times Carson choked up on air.
“Johnny was moved by the way Jimmy Stewart delivered it,” McMahon told Today in 2005. “Jimmy was a blend of great actor and great person. Both Johnny and I were in tears. Just a couple of maudlin mutt mourners.”
“I suppose the truth is that I’d rather have a happy dog than a trained one,” Stewart said, according to Psychology Today. “My dogs have never been good at things like ‘sit’, ‘stay’ or even ‘come’… I don’t even mind it when the dogs jump up.”
Stewart was on set filming a movie in Arizona when he got word that Beau was dying. Stewart took time off the shoot and rushed home to be with his dog in his final hours, according to the book Why We Love the Dogs We Do.
“I can’t just tell you to put him to sleep like this,” Stewart reportedly said. “Not over the phone-not without seeing him. You keep him alive and I’ll be there.”
He was by Beau’s side as vets euthanized the terminally ill dog, and cried after it was over. This experience led him to write his poem.
“After [Beau] 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,” Stewart later recalled. “The feeling was so real that I wrote a poem about it and how much it hurt to realize that he wasn’t going to be there any more.”