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Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Who's Your Favourite Olympic Actor?

One of my favourite character actors of the 30's and 40's is Nat Pendleton, I think he's a quality act all the way. He's a great dumb cop in The Thin Man and Another Thin Man, he's a great in the two Abbott and Costello Buck Privates films, he stooged for the Marx brothers a couple of times (At the Circus and Horse Feathers), he was ever present in the Dr. Kildare/Dr. Gillespie films. Then there were the one off, supporting roles in the likes of Northwest Passage backing up Spencer Tracy, It's in the Air backing up Jack Benny, Manhattan Melodrama backing up Powell, Loy and Gable, Reckless, Harlow and Powell, It's a Wonderful World with Colbert and James Stewart and probably his most famous role as the strong man in The Great Ziegfeld. I could go on but my personal favourite is Sing and Like It, not because it's the best film but because it's a rare lead part for him (admittedly he's playing the same dumb cluck but what you gonna do?).
All this might be enough but Nat Pendleton won a wrestling silver medal in the 1920 Olympics too.
He's not the only one mind you.

Bruce Bennett is probably my second favourite Olympic medal winning actor. He started out as Herman Brix and picked up a silver medal in the shot put at the 1928 Olympics. Not only that but he was world record holder going in to the 1932 Olympics but had to pull out due to a shoulder injury he picked up making a movie about college (American) Football. You'd think that was bad luck enough but he was MGM's first choice to play Tarzan and lost out on the part to Johnny Weissmuller (of whom more later) because of the same injury. Well Herman picked himself up, dusted himself of and started again by playing Tarzan in the Edgar Rice Burroughs approved serial a couple of years later, however tiring of being either uncredited "man at bar" or Tarzan clones in cheap rip offs he packed it in for a bit and took acting lessons. A short while later a familiar looking chap arrived on the scene calling himself Bruce Bennett and started picking up supporting roles in some pretty good movies (and of course the usual filler rubbish). The More the Merrier, Sahara, Mildred Pierce, Nora Prentiss, Dark Passage and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre are all graced by his presence and he continued acting all the way through to the 80's. As if to show that all that shot putting and vine swinging in youth is good for you Bruce/Herman made it all the way to 101 (his age) and was still skydiving at the age of 96!

Coming in at 3rd in our (my) countdown is Johnny Weissmuller, yes he may be more famous than the others but when you consider that he only played two different characters in a career that lasted 24 years (I'm not counting Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood and I don't think you should either) then I don't think you can blame me for knocking him down a peg or two. Of course I say he played two characters but lets be honest Jungle Jim (the other character) was just an excuse to let him wear clothes once his middle started to thicken, otherwise he would still have been playing Tarzan. He picked up 5 gold medals for swimming in 1924 and 1928 plus a bronze in 1924 for water polo. I will concede however that in his first years of playing Tarzan no other actor can touch him, and he was devilishly handsome in a Tarzany way.

Buster Crabbe deserves 4th just for maintaining a career that seemed to go nowhere for so long. Also my summer holidays from school wouldn't have been quite the same without Flash Gordon, though that may be down to Jean Rogers as Dale Arden and Charles Middleton as Ming (both for different reasons). Buster, who picked up a bronze and gold medal respectively at the 1928 and 1932 Olympics, played not only Flash Gordon but Buck Rogers and Tarzan (I think I'm beginning to see a pattern) too, all in popular serials from the mid 30s through to the early 40s. Then a series of nearly 40 westerns pumped out in just about 5 years, mostly supported by former Fatty Arbuckle sidekick Al St. John. He carried on acting on and off right up to the early 80s, indeed he carried on swimming up to the 70s setting a world record for the over 60 age group.

Sonja Henie picked up gold medals for Norway at three successive Olympics beginning in 1928 so she's up there with Weissmuller success wise, however film wise she's a pretty poor last place by my reckoning and she has points docked for being all palsy with Adolf Hitler which I don't think any of the others were. I choose not to comment on her films as she's already in deep enough what with the whole Hitler thing, that and I've only seen one of them (Sun Valley Serenade... rubbish if you really want to know).

I'd like to give a little mention to Esther Williams as she probably would have done alright in the Olympics in 1940 if the war hadn't come along and caused them to be cancelled. If I were her I'd have a word with Henie.

Well people I racked my brains, such as they are, for a whole eight and a half minutes before writing this blog and I feel sure there are other Olympian actors out there that I missed so why not drop me a comment admonishing me for all those brave athletes I ignored, or possibly with suggestions for Olympic athletes who should have become actors. I'll start you off with Ian "The Thorpedo" Thorpe as Harry in a remake of Harry and the Hendersons.



  1. Er... Dolph Lundgren? Best I can do, I'm afraid.

    I'm a big Pendleton fan too; I like the way he keeps a straight face during the bit in At the Circus when Chico and Harpo are searching his room.
    I'm afraid I don't know enough about the 'Lympics to nominate any Olympians who should have been actors, but I always thought non-Olympian tennis heart-wrencher Martina Hingis would have made a good impression in the movies.
    Conversely, that greasy chap who bangs the Rank gong was also clearly made for Olympic success.

  2. That's a good point actually. Now who was that Rank chap, I'm sure I remember seeing either an interview with him, or an interview with someone talking about him...
    I must confess to an almost complete ignorance of the Olympics myself, in point of fact everything I know about the Olympics is contained within the above post.