You remember him, asserts Joe. Frank is not so sure.
Be that as it may, we can tell you that today’s subject, Nat Pendelton, was a member in good standing of that robust classic movie elite — of athletes turned successful and often very interesting actors.
Just to name three, Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe were, of course, Olympic-level swimmers. Esther Williams excelled in aquatic sports before her MGM mermaid days. And don’t forget Sonja Henie.
Pendleton was nowhere near as big a star but he was a highly sought after character actor — rolling up nearly 115 credits over a 32-year career that spanned silent films to network tv. (He died in 1967 at the age of 72.)
By the way, the photo above doesn’t do Pendleton justice. The guy was a big, sweaty dude — similar to but more refined than the menacing Mike Mazurki. As pictured above, he could well pass, say, for a corporate sales v.p. or perhaps a stockbroker. He is probably better captured in the photo immediately below:
Born in 1895 in an upper-middle-class Iowa family, which after several movies found itself in New York City, Nathaniel Pendleton excelled as a wrestler in high school and then at Columbia University where he reportedly never lost a match. The Olympics (in Antwerp) followed in which Pendleton won a heavyweight silver medal. He then turned pro and didn’t lose a single match over a two-year period.
Inspired by an uncle who worked in silents, Pendleton decided to parlay his athletic successes into stints before the camera. His first movie, 1924’s The Hoosier Schoolmaster, was much like what followed, films about sports in one way or another. He also deployed his impressive bulk on the legitimate stage, appearing in several outing including a turn as Marcel the Great in the 1929 comedy His Girl Friday.
The 1930’s brought a boatload of assignments for Pendleton including 1931’s The Spirit of Notre Dame (guess what that’s about) and the infamous Marx Brothers comedy, 1932’s Horse Feathers. He and John Ford stalwart Ward Bond played wrestlers in 1932’s Flesh with Wallace Beery.
Pendleton appeared with some pretty potent leading stars including Carole Lombard (1934’s The Gay Bride), Humphrey Bogart (1938’s Swing Your Lady), Spencer Tracy (1940’s Northwest Passage), Bud Abbott and Lou Costello (1941’s Buck Privates) and William Powell and Myrna Loy in their Thin Man vehicles, (1934’s The Thin Man and 1939’s Another Thin Man).
Pendleton actually had at least once role that could be called a starring part, playing the lead in 1941’s Top Sergeant Mulligan. It was for the poverty-row studio, Monogram Pictures. Pendleton turned from movies to tv in the early Fifties, and retired completely in 1956. Quite a character indeed.