May 21, 2016 by smumcounty
Nathaniel Greene Pendleton was born on August 9th, 1895 in Davenport Iowa but his family soon after moved to New York where Nat was enrolled at the Brooklyn Poly Prep High School. At six feet tall, he quickly demonstrated his physical prowess there by becoming a star of their wrestling team. Wrestling would become a big part of Nat’s early life. After high school he attended Columbia University where he served as the captain of the wrestling team in 1915 and graduated having never lost a match. In between bouts, Nat managed to earn a degree in economics.
After college, Nat competed in the Amateur Athletic Union and was twice crowned AAU wrestling champion before heading to the Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium in 1920. There he competed in both the freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling events. He came away from the games having earned a silver medal in the heavyweight freestyle division, losing only a single match.
Nat turned pro after the Olympic games in the period in which wrestling was transitioning from an athletic contest to a show business spectacle. At the time, matches were either billed as “shoots”, meaning they were legitimate competitions, or “worked” bouts meaning they were performances. Nat only competed in shoots and he was on his way to the top, winning bout after bout, but still could not arrange matches with the top wrestlers at the time like former boxer Jack Dempsey or Al “Strangler” Lewis. Major bouts in wrestling were controlled by a trust of promoters who controlled the top talent and Nat’s promoter, Jack Curley, could not break in. Curley tried to goad the trust into a match with Nat by boasting that his man Pendleton could throw anyone, including Strangler Lewis. The trust responded by arranging a bout between Pendleton and John Pesek, a brute who was known as the trust’s enforcer and also known for at times playing dirty. At the end of the match, Nat had been bested and injured and thus ended his wrestling career.
For a tall, good-looking fella like Nat, acting was the next logical step in his career. His acting debut came in 1924 with a role in the silent “The Hoosier Schoolmaster”. Other small roles followed in the 20’s along with some work in Broadway plays such as “Naughty Cinderella” in 1925, “The Grey Fox” in 1928, and “His Girl Friday” in 1929 (no relation to the film with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell). But his acting career really took off in the 30’s when he began appearing in multiple films a year. In 1933 alone, he appeared in Capra’s “Lady for a Day”, pre-code classic “Baby Face” starring Barbara Stanwyck, and Mae West vehicle “I’m No Lady” and those are just three of the more memorable twelve films he appeared in that year.
In his roles, Nat often played cops, gangsters, and athletes, anyone with considerable brawn but few brains. Nat’s specialty was the good-natured goon. Other notable films from this period include two of the thin man films starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as sleuths Nick and Nora Charles, “The Thin Man” (1934) and “Another Thin Man” (1939), in which Nat played Lieutenant John Guild. In 1932, he appeared in “Deception” with Thelma Todd, a film for which he co-wrote the screenplay. He played a large part as a goofy gangster in “Sing and Like It” (1934) starring ZaSu Pitts. That same year he appeared with Jean Harlow in “Girl from Missouri” (1934) and “Manhattan Melodrama” (1934) starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, and Clark Gable. In 1936, Nat played real life strongman Eugen Sandow in “The Great Ziegfeld”, a biopic about Flo Ziegfeld with William Powell appearing as the famous Ziegfeld Follies originator.
Nat was also fortunate enough to play a recurring character in the popular Dr. Kildare film series starring Lew Ayres which ran from 1938 to 1942. Nat appeared as ambulance driver Joe Wayman who would often backup Kildare with his trusty wrench which he referred to as his “little convincer”. Even after Lew Ayres left the series in 1942, Nat continued appearing in the Dr. Gillespie spinoff series starring Lionel Barrymore. Other notable films from the 40’s include “Buck Privates” (1941) starring Abbott and Costello and featuring the Andrews Sisters and the sequel “Buck Privates Come Home” (1947) which was Nat’s final film appearance.
Nat generally retired after that only making some small appearances on television. Nat died on October 12th, 1967 in San Diego, California from a heart attack. He was 72 years old.
“Sing and Like It” with ZaSu Pitts and Nat
“The Great Ziegfeld” clip courtesy of Turner Classic Movies