Walter Pidgeon Biography

Walter Pidgeon portrait
Walter Pidgeon portrait

Walter Davis Pidgeon (September 23, 1897 - September 25, 1984) was an American actor of Canadian birth, who lived most of his life in the United States, and eventually became a U.S. citizen. He starred in many motion pictures, including Mrs. Miniver, The Bad and the Beautiful, Forbidden Planet, Advise & Consent, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Funny Girl and Harry in Your Pocket.

Early life

Born in Saint John, New Brunswick, Pidgeon was the son of Hannah (née Sanborn), a homemaker, and Caleb Burpee Pidgeon, a merchant who owned a men's clothing store. Pidgeon attended local schools, followed by the University of New Brunswick, where he studied law and drama. His university education was interrupted by World War I, and he enlisted in the 65th Battery, Royal Canadian Field Artillery. Pidgeon never saw combat, however, as he was severely injured in an accident. He was crushed between two gun carriages and spent 17 months in a military hospital. Following the war, he moved to Boston, where he worked as a bank runner, at the same time studying voice at the New England Conservatory of Music. He was a classically trained baritone.

Career

Discontented with banking, Pidgeon moved to New York City, where he walked into the office of E. E. Clive, announced that he could act and sing, and said was ready to prove it. After acting on stage for several years, he made his Broadway debut in 1925.

A handsome, tall and dark-haired man, Pidgeon made a number of silent movies in the 1920s. However, he became a huge star with the arrival of talkies, thanks to his singing voice. He starred in extravagant early musicals, including The Bride of the Regiment (1930), Sweet Kitty Bellairs (1930), Viennese Nights (1930) and Kiss Me Again (1931). He became associated with musicals; however, when the public grew weary of them, his career began to falter. He was relegated to playing secondary roles in films like Saratoga and The Girl of the Golden West. One of his better known roles was in The Dark Command, where he portrayed the villain (loosely based on American Civil War guerrilla William C. Quantrill) opposite John Wayne, Claire Trevor, and a young Roy Rogers.

It was not until he starred in the Academy Award-winning Best Picture How Green Was My Valley (1941) that his popularity rebounded. He then starred opposite Greer Garson in Blossoms in the Dust, Mrs. Miniver (1942) (for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor) and its sequel, The Miniver Story in 1950. He was also nominated in 1944 for Madame Curie, again opposite Garson. His partnership with her continued throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s with Mrs. Parkington, Julia Bisbehaves, That Forsythe Woman and concluding with Scandal at Scourie in 1953. He also starred as Chip Collyer in the comedy Week-End at the Waldorf (1945) and later as Colonel Michael S. 'Hooky' Nicobar, who is given the difficult task of repatriating Russians in Post-World War II Vienna in the drama film The Red Danube (1949).

Although he continued to make art films, including The Bad and the Beautiful and Forbidden Planet (the latter based on Shakespeare's The Tempest), Pidgeon returned to work on Broadway in the mid-1950s after a twenty-year absence, and was featured in Take Me Along with Jackie Gleason. He received a Tony Award nomination for the musical play.

He continued making films, playing Admiral Harriman Nelson in 1961's Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, James Haggin in Walt Disney's Big Red (1962), and as the Senate Majority Leader in Otto Preminger's Advise & Consent. His role as Florenz Ziegfeld in Funny Girl (1968) was well received. Later, he played Casey, James Coburn's sidekick in Harry in Your Pocket (1973).

In addition, Pidgeon guest-starred in the episode "King of the Valley" (November 26, 1959) of CBS's Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater. Pidgeon plays Dave King, a prosperous rancher who quarrels with his banker over a $10,000 loan. When the banker dies of a heart attack on the job after a confrontation with King, it is discovered that the bank is missing $50,000. Leora Dana plays Anne Coleman, the banker's widow and the rancher's former paramour. The banker lost the funds with a bad investment, but the irate and uninformed townspeople are blaming King. Karl Swenson appears in this episode as Will Harmon.

Pidgeon's TV credits date back to the mid-50s when he hosted the M-G-M Parade (ABC, 1955-56), a variety series that offered a behind-the-scenes look at the film studio. He was featured in several high-profile TV specials from the late 50s through the mid-60s, notably playing the King in the 1965 Cinderella starring Lesley Ann Warren. Pidgeon began appearing in TV-movies in the late 60s, generally in character roles, and continued to do so fairly regularly through the mid-70s.

His other television credits include Breaking Point, The F.B.I., and Marcus Welby, M.D.. In 1963 he guest starred as corporate attorney Sherman Hatfield in the fourth of four special episodes of Perry Mason while Raymond Burr was recovering from surgery.

Pidgeon was active in the Screen Actors Guild, and served as president from 1952 to 1957. As such, he tried to stop the production of Salt of the Earth, which was made by a team blacklisted during the Red Scare. He retired from acting in 1978.

Walter Davis Pidgeon has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6414 Hollywood Blvd.

Personal life

Pidgeon married twice. In 1919, he wed Edna (Muriel) Pickles, who died during the birth of their daughter, also named Edna, in 1926. His widowed mother Hannah moved out to California to help care for his daughter. She lived there for the next 38 years, dying at the age of 94. In 1931, he married his secretary, Ruth Walker, to whom he remained married until his death at age 87 in Santa Monica, California on September 25, 1984, following a series of strokes.

Trivia

  • He donated his body to the U.C.L.A. Medical School in Los Angeles for teaching and research purposes.
  • He had a notoriously poor memory for names, referring to anyone whose name he could not remember as "Joe." This became such a habit that, for his birthday one year, the cast and crew of the picture he was working on bought him a present: A director's chair enscribed "Joe Pidgeon."
  • His daughter, Edna Pidgeon Atkins, once worked at the Animation Department of MGM before marrying in 1947. She gave Walter two granddaughters, Pat and Pam.
  • During his early performances on stage, he played a Mountie in Rose Marie. After playing this character on stage, Pidgeon became so enthusiastic that he actually applied to join the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Unfortunately he was medically rejected due to his earlier injuries in the Canadian Army.
  • Fred Astaire heard him singing at a party while appearing with an amateur company in Boston and got him an agent. Walter was more interested in acting, however, and joined E.E. Clive's repertory stage company where he worked on his craft. Thanks also to Astaire, the deep baritone auditioned for and became the singing partner for singer/entertainer Elsie Janis which toured for six months in the mid-1920s. Pidgeon's first wife traveled with the company as an understudy for Janis.
  • Turned down the role of Gaylord Ravenal in the Universal remake of Show Boat (1936) because he did not want to be typecast in musicals. Allan Jones played the role instead opposite Irene Dunne's Magnolia.
  • Hobbies included tending to his rose garden and playing bridge.
  • Played the husband of Greer Garson's character a total of eight times on film: in Blossoms in the Dust (1941) Mrs. Miniver (1942), Madame Curie (1943), Mrs. Parkington (1944), Julia Misbehaves (1948), That Forsyte Woman (1949), The Miniver Story (1950), and Scandal at Scourie (1953).
  • Walter had a brother, Larry Pidgeon. Larry suffered from yellow fever, caught while serving in the Pacific in World War II. Larry Pidgeon was the editorial editor of the Santa Barbara News-Press for many years.
  • Died one week after Richard Basehart, and from the same medical malady - stroke. Basehart famously played Admiral Harriman Nelson in Irwin Allen's television series, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964), the role that Pidgeon had originated in Allen's 1961 movie of the same name.

The Gentleman from Saint John

Walter Pidgeon portrait
Walter Pidgeon portrait