Before there was Tom Hanks, there was Jimmy Stewart — the ultimate all-American everyman, who stood up to the forces of political corruption in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939), found a reason to live by Christmas in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), and battled madness in Hitchcock’s thriller “Vertigo” (1958), often ranked as the best film ever made.
Before there was Jimmy Stewart, however, there was a kid named James Maitland Stewart, born near Pittsburgh in Indiana, PA. (You don’t have to be born in Pittsburgh to be claimed as one of our own).
Pittsburgh has had a number of important intersections with the motion picture industry, including the sheer amount of talent that has incubated in this region.
In recent history, Pittsburgh is probably best known for its singular weirdos (Jeff Goldblum) and larger-than-life personalities (Billy Porter). Legendary actor and eccentric, deadpan meta-comedian Charles Grodin, who died on May 18 at the age of 86, was a good example of this.
Here’s our list (in no particular order) of the most influential and interesting Pittsburghers to grace the camera.
The Indiana, PA-born actor is one of those rare leading men that just about everyone loves, and it’s impossible to overstate his importance. Not a gallant, dashing bon vivant like Cary Grant, not a gruff icon of ornery independence like John Wayne, Stewart’s personality was approachable, relatable, sympathetic, able to embody extremes of emotion — from passion to obsession to despair — like few actors in history. In 1999, the American Film Institute named him third on its list of the greatest American male actors ever. Key films: “Vertigo” (1958), “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939), “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962).
Once upon a time, if you wanted to make it in Hollywood, you had to be able to do a few things convincingly — singing, dancing and riding a horse (Westerns were big). Nobody had ever danced onscreen like Gene Kelly, born in Pittsburgh in 1912. He was amazingly athletic, but had classical ballet training — and transformed the movie musical entirely. He was also a master choreographer and turned in solid performances in dramatic roles. He even became a director. Key films: “An American in Paris” (1951), “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), “On the Town” (1949).
McDormand reached yet another career peak in the pandemic year with her portrayal of a homeless wanderer in “Nomadland” (2020), for which she won an Academy Award for Best Actress. She also helped produce the film. The 1975 Monessen High School grad has won four Academy Awards, two Primetime Emmys and a Tony — the “Triple Crown of Acting.” She’s married to Joel Coen of the Coen Brothers filmmaking duo, and has starred in many of their dialogue-driven, wildly original movies: “Blood Simple” (1984), “Fargo” (1996), “Burn After Reading” (2008) and “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001). Key films: “Fargo,” “Nomadland,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2018), “North Country” (2005).
He started out on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and worked his way up to become one of the biggest box office stars of the 1980s. Keaton could inhabit a character and make it his own — he was Beetlejuice, Mr. Mom and the best Batman ever. He embodied American working-class grit in the comedy “Gung Ho” (1986) and mastered complex drama as an addict in “Clean and Sober” (1988). Curiously, his two biggest roles — Batman and Beetlejuice — were partnerships with the legendarily eccentric director Tim Burton. When Burton left the “Batman” franchise, Keaton left too, turning down $15 million. He returned to stardom in 2014 with “Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” turning in an Oscar-winning performance. Key films: “Night Shift” (1982), “Beetlejuice” (1988), “Batman” (1989), “Birdman” (2014).
In recent years, West Homestead native Jeff Goldblum has become something more than a movie star and frequent character in commercials. He’s become kind of a meme, a symbol for this weird age we live in. A new book calls him “Hollywood’s most enigmatic actor.” His stylish-yet-nerdy persona grew out of early cult roles like “The Fly,” and continued onto decade-defining giants like “Jurassic Park.” He’s everywhere, yet somehow charming and not annoying (which is quite a feat). When a Pittsburgh tattoo shop started holding Jeff Goldblum Day, he actually showed up. Also, everybody seems to like him. In his spare time, he’s a terrific jazz pianist because of course he is. He’s been back to Pittsburgh to perform his music and between-song banter that’s worth the price of admission alone. Key films: “The Fly” (1986), “Jurassic Park” (1993), “Independence Day” (1996).
The Macau-born, Mt. Lebanon-raised Carnegie Mellon University grad Ming-Na Wen starred in a role as big as any of them — as the lead voice actor in Disney’s “Mulan” (1998). She has also been a television star, especially as an emergency room doctor on 11 seasons of “ER,” a massive hit from 1994-2009. She has dozens of credits, from animated voice work in “The Batman” (2004-05) to a key role as a mercenary assassin in the smash hit “Star Wars” spinoff “The Mandalorian.” Key performances: “Mulan,” “ER,” “The Joy Luck Club.”
Actor, singer and style pioneer Billy Porter is one of the rare entertainers to have won a Grammy, a Tony and an Emmy. He grew up in Pittsburgh and studied theater at CMU. Porter won a Tony for the Broadway production of “Kinky Boots.” He starred in the TV series “Pose,” about New York City’s drag ball culture scene in the 1980s, for which he won an Emmy and a Golden Globe. Porter is currently planning to shoot his first film as director in Pittsburgh this summer. He was named to Time magazine’s list of “100 Most Influential People of 2020.” Key performances: “Kinky Boots,” “Pose.”
The Charleroi-born actress, who spent most of her childhood in Smithton, started singing at the age of 6 and ended up with six decades in show business. She broke into the business in the mega-hit musical “Oklahoma!” (1955) and starred in “Carousel” (1956). Her innocent, wholesome-as-apple-pie image took an unexpectedly dark turn in “Elmer Gantry” (1960), where she played a prostitute bent on revenge against Burt Lancaster’s treacherous revivalist preacher. She won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for the role. She would return to musicals with “The Music Man” (1962) and later become famous to another generation as the mother on the singing family sitcom “The Partridge Family” (1970-74). Key performances: “Oklahoma!,” “The Music Man,” “Elmer Gantry.”