Walter Pidgeon

Walter Pidgeon

Walter Pidgeon, a handsome, tall and dark-haired man, was born in 1897 and raised in Saint John. He attended local schools and the University of New Brunswick, where he studied law and drama. His university education was interrupted by World War I. 

C. B. Pidgeon Store Saint John

Following the war, he moved to Boston where he worked as a bank runner. Pidgeon began his career studying voice at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. He then did theater, mainly stage musicals. He went to Hollywood in the early 1920s, where he made silent films, including Mannequin (1926) and Sumuru (1927).

Walter Pidgeon
Walter Pidgeon with Teresa Wright and Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver (1942)

When talkies arrived, Pidgeon made some musicals, but he never received top billing or recognition in these.

In 1937 MGM put him under contract, but only in supporting roles and “the other man” roles, such as in Saratoga (1937) opposite Jean Harlow and Clark Gable and in The Girl of the Golden West (1938) opposite Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Although these two films were big successes, Pidgeon was overlooked for his contributions to them.

MGM lent him out to Fox, where he finally had top billing, in How Green Was My Valley (1941). When he returned to MGM the studio tried to give him bigger roles, and he was cast opposite his frequent co-star Greer Garson. However, Garson seemed to come up on top in Blossoms in the Dust (1941) and Mrs. Miniver (1942), although Pidgeon did receive an Academy Award nomination for his role in the latter film.

Walter Pidgeon remained with MGM through the mid-’50s, making films like Dream Wife (1953) and Hit the Deck (1955) with Jane Powell and old pal Gene Raymond. In 1956 Pidgeon left the movies to do some work in the theater, but he returned to film in 1961.

Walter Pidgeon retired from acting in 1977. He suffered from several strokes that eventually led to his death in 1984.


  • His first wife Edna died in 1926 while giving birth to their daughter, whom Mr. Pidgeon also named Edna. 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. 
  • Pidgeon became a naturalized American citizen after living in the United States for a number of years. 
  • He donated his body to the U.C.L.A. Medical School in Los Angeles for teaching and research purposes.
  • (1952-1957) President of Screen Actors Guild (SAG). 
  • 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, was born in 1924, and she once worked at the Animation Department of MGM before marrying in 1947. She gave Walter two granddaughters, Pat and Pam. 
  • Wife Ruth was his secretary before he married her. 
  • Was nominated for Broadway’s 1960 Tony Award as Best Actor (Musical) for “Take Me Along” — an award that was won by his co-star Jackie Gleason . 
  • According to the producer of Salt of the Earth (1954), Paul Jarrico, who had been blacklisted during the “Red Scare” of the mid-1950s, Pidgeon tried to stop the production of this motion picture (which was being made by blacklistees) in his capacity as the president of the Screen Actors Guild, which had approved of the blacklisting. In an interview in 1997, Jarrico said, “There was a concerted effort to stop the making of the film after it became known that we were making the film. We had started the film in quite a normal fashion with contracts with Pathe Lab to develop our film and rental of the equipment from Hollywood, people who supplied such things. A whistle was blown by Walter Pidgeon, the then president of the Actors Guild, and the FBI swung into action and movie industries swung into action and we found ourselves barred from laboratories, barred from sound studios, barred from any of the normal facilities available to filmmakers, and we found ourselves hounded by all kinds of denunciations on the floor of Congress and by columnists. The public was told that we were making a new weapon for Russia, that since we were shooting in New Mexico, where you find atom bombs, you find Communists, and every kind of scurrilous attack–vigilante attacks–on us while we were still shooting developed”. 
  • Biography in: “The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives”. Volume One, 1981-1985, pages 640-642. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1998. 
  • Rose Marie Movie PosterDuring his early performances on stage, he played a Mountie in the play “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. 
  • Walter Pidgeon ran off to join his brother, Don, in the Canadian Army, but his young age (16) was discovered and he was sent back home. He eventually enlisted in the 65th Battery of the Royal Canadian Artillery during World War I, but he was injured during his training when he was crushed by two gun carriages at Camp Petawawa and also caught pneumonia. As a result of these, he spent 17 months recovering at an army hospital in Toronto, having never been sent overseas. 
  • 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. 
  • He performed in early talking musicals for Warner Brothers. 
  • 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. 
Walter Pidgeon from the Perry Mason TV show 1963
Walter Pidgeon from the Perry Mason TV show 1963
  • Was the last of the four stars (including Bette Davis, Michael Rennie, and Hugh O’Brian) who played a “substitute attorney” on the Perry Mason TV series in 1963 when the star of the program, Raymond Burr was recovering from an operation to remove intestinal polyps. The pressures of performing that guest role convinced him that starring in any TV series was not to his liking. 
  • Hobbies included tending to his rose garden and playing bridge. 
  • Played the husband of Greer Garson’s character a total of seven times on film; in Blossoms in the Dust (1941), Mrs. Miniver (1942), Madame Curie (1943), Mrs. Parkington (1944), Julia Misbehaves (1948), The Miniver Story (1950) and Scandal at Scourie (1953). That Forsyte Woman (1949) was the eighth film they did together. 
  • Walter had a brother, Larry Pidgeon. Larry suffered from yellow fever, caught while serving in the Pacific in WWII. 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.
  • According to Forbidden Planet (1956) costar Anne Francis, Pidgeon would entertain the cast and crew of his various projects with his encyclopedic collection of bawdy limericks. 
  • Was a naturalized citizen of the United States. 
  • Was a staunch conservative Republican. 
  • After World War I Pidgeon worked at a brokerage house in Boston while taking acting lessons at E. E. Clive’s Copley Playhouse. 
  • Turned down an offer to star opposite Irene Dunne in the 1936 “Showboat” because because he didn’t want to appear in another musical. 
  • He became a U.S. citizen in 1943. 
  • Walter Pidgeon, Raymond Massey and Ryan Gosling are the only three Canadians to be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar (as of 2014). 
  • Starred in Universal’s first all-talkie, “Melody of Love,” in 1928. 

Mrs. Miniver Movie Poster

  • Walter Pidgeon appeared in two Best Picture Academy Award winners in consecutive years: How Green Was My Valley (1941) and Mrs. Miniver (1942). Rhys Williams, Mary Field and Frank Baker also appeared in both films. Walter Pidgeon also appeared in three other Best Picture nominees: Blossoms in the Dust (1941), Madame Curie (1943) and Funny Girl (1968), and was a narrator in one more: Quo Vadis (1951). 

How Green Was My Valley Movie Poster

  • Was a co-star to five Oscar winning acting performances: Donald Crisp for How Green Was My Valley (1941); Greer Garson and Teresa Wright for Mrs. Miniver (1942); Gloria Grahame for The Bad and the Beautiful (1952); and Barbra Streisand for Funny Girl (1968).

Personal Quotes 

  • [on Hollywood] It was like an expensive, beautifully-run fan club. You didn’t need to carry money. Your face was your credit card–all over the world. 
  • I was like a kept woman during my twenty-one years at MGM. 
  • I didn’t demand any vetoes over the films I didn’t like, as they do today. I asked nicely and discovered a secret that has stayed with me for my entire career — that a request spoken softly usually brings results and demands rarely do. 
  • Movie Mogul Louis B. Mayer
    Louis B. Mayer

    I was called to [Louis B. Mayer]’s office to discuss a long-term contract he wanted me to sign. He told me he had been impressed by my work at other studios and that he felt I would be an asset to MGM. He peered at me over his glasses and suggested I tell him about myself. I started by saying I came from New Brunswick. “That’s in Canada”, I added. “I know where New Brunswick is”, said Mayer rather snippy. “Where in New Brunswick were you born?” “Saint John”, I replied. Mayer jumped to his feet and thumped on his desk. “Young man”, he shouted, “you can’t influence me with lies like that. Who told you to say you came from Saint John?” Finally I quietened him down and convinced him I really was from Saint John. I had to tell him where half-a-dozen streets and buildings were that he remembered (Mayer was also born in Saint John). But I left his office with a contract for much more money than I expected and we were friends until the day he died. 

  • Maybe it was better never to become red hot. I’d seen performers like that and they never lasted long. Maybe a long glow is the best way. At Metro I was never considered big enough to squire around Norma Shearer or Joan Crawford or Greta Garbo. Well, I outlasted them all at MGM, didn’t I? It takes a lot of work to appear easy going and I tried to avoid being stuffy. 
  • [on Greer Garson] A great lady, I think. We never had a bad word between us.  

Complete filmography 

Click here to read more about famous New Brunswickers. 

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