Ask Alma's Owl: Columbia Wrestler Turned Actor

November 20, 2014
Photo from Wikimedia commons

Dear Alma,
How did Columbia wrestler Nat Pendleton (CC’1916) score parts in both the 1920 Olympics and the Marx Brothers movie Horse Feathers?

—Wrestling & Film Buff

Dear Wrestling & Film Buff,

Nathaniel Greene (“Nat”) Pendleton was a broad-shouldered Iowan who became a sports star on Columbia’s campus, where intercollegiate wrestling was introduced in 1903—the first program in the nation. The economics major wrestled for the Lions and was champion of the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association in the 175-pound weight class in 1914 and 1915. “Pendleton was a superb wrestler—one of the best we’ve ever had,” said retired Sports Information director Bill C. Steinman.

The young grappler went on to win a silver medal in freestyle wrestling at the 1920 Olympics in Belgium in the heavyweight event. Pendleton then entered professional wrestling with a promoter who boasted that he could trounce boxer Jack Dempsey.

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Pendleton in a 1930s publicity still.

It was not a huge leap from wrestling before crowds to performing in theater and portraying a wrestler in the Broadway play Naughty Cinderella offered him theatrical experience.

A 1939 column in America’s Greatest Comic Weekly noted, “Several times Nat Pendleton played in the first act of a Broadway show, then rushed to Madison Square Garden, where he defeated an opponent in a wrestling match, and then returned to the theatre and played in the third act of the play!”

Whether true or not, Pendleton went to Hollywood in the 1920s, where he pursued a career as a character actor, playing secondary roles such as gangsters and cops with tough-sounding names like Spike Mulligan and Mug Malone. “He often played the heavies, which befits someone of his size and strength,” Steinman said.

In the zany Marx Brothers classic Horse Feathers (1932), the brawny Pendleton portrayed a ringer playing college football. His best-known roles include those of a police detective in The Thin Man (1934) and a circus strongman in The Great Ziegfeld (1936).

Later, Pendleton acted with Abbott and Costello in Buck Privates Come Home (1947) and with Bela Lugosi in Scared to Death (1947). According to the Internet Movie Database, Pendleton had one last credit as an actor in 1956, an appearance on the TV series Schlitz Playhouse of Stars.

Pendleton died in San Diego in 1967 at age 72. In 2006, he was inducted into the inaugural class of the Columbia University Athletics Hall of Fame.

—by Gary Shapiro

Send your questions for Alma's Owl to curecord@columbia.edu