August 2, 1911 — September 3, 1987
Built like a weightlifting gorilla, with a face that looked like it had only been half-chiseled out of a boulder, Rusty Wescoatt was physically ideal for brutish henchman roles, and specialized almost exclusively in such parts during his long tenure with Sam Katzman’s Columbia serial stock company. However, Wescoatt’s serial appearances were notable not just for his physical menace, but for his entertaining screen personality; he played up the bullying and thick-witted aspects of his henchmen for all they were worth, making them colorful, vivid, and often very funny.
Norman Edward Wescoatt was born in Maui, Hawaii. His father, a mining engineer, was also a former boxer, and likely influenced young Wescoatt’s pursuit of an athletic career. Wescoatt was a star football player during his high school years, and presumably acquired the nickname “Rusty” during this time–since it appears in a 1929 Hawaii newspaper article about his high-school football team. Wescoatt subsequently attended the University of Hawaii, where he continued to enjoy success on the football field, and also excelled in swimming and wrestling. Upon completing college, Rusty took up professional wrestling as a career, beginning in 1933, although a 1935 newspaper item indicates that at that time he had a sideline in farming, and was also working as a buyer for a company called Armour and White. His wrestling career received an additional boost later in 1935, after a well-publicized record-breaking swim across the San Francisco Bay. During the latter half of the 1930s, Wescoatt engaged in innumerable wrestling matches in Hawaii and throughout the mainland United States, from California to New York to Pennsylvania to Texas. He also engaged in several bouts in Vancouver, Canada, and went on a professional tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1937. When not on tour, he appears to have divided his time between Hawaii and Los Angeles, finally settling permanently in California around 1940.
Although Wescoatt identified his occupation as “Professional Wrestler” on the 1940 census, I have not found any newspaper notices of his wrestling appearances dated later than 1939. He may have continued to wrestle during the first few years of the 1940s, but upon the outbreak of World War 2 he took a job as a shipyard superintendent for the duration. After the end of the war, he worked in the insurance field; at some point during the first half of the 1940s, he also held an unspecified technical position at MGM, his first known connection to the movie business. In 1947, he began his acting career, making his screen debut in the 1947 Columbia serial, The Vigilante. This initial chapterplay gave Wescoatt his only unequivocally sympathetic serial role; he appeared in a single chapter as a blacksmith named Garrity, who was held up by villains who were after a treasure concealed in some horseshoes, and subsequently provided hero Ralph Byrd with a strong assist in a fistfight with the same villains. Wescoatt’s role here allowed him to do little other than scowl stubbornly at the heavies and then fight them to a draw, but he performed both duties quite convincingly. He also added a realistic and probably ad-libbed bit of background business to the scene by taking time to douse his face with water after the fight; such acknowledgments of the physical effects of an extended battle were generally unheard of in the serial genre, but would have seemed like a natural touch to a professional athlete like Wescoatt.
Sam Katzman, the independent producer who turned out Columbia’s serials, was notorious for his disinclination for paying extra sums for stunt doubles; he preferred to hire supporting heavies who could handle their own fight scenes, such as Terry Frost and Marshall Reed. Wescoatt’s pro-wrestling experience made him a natural fit for Katzman’s stock company of henchmen, and from 1947 through 1952 he would work almost exclusively for Katzman, appearing regularly in Katzman’s serials as well as playing many bits and small character parts in the various low-budget A and B features that Katzman produced for Columbia.
Wescoatt’s second serial was The Sea Hound (Columbia, 1947), an interesting but uneven treasure hunt saga set in the South Seas and filmed on Catalina Island. He was cast as Singapore Manson, a brute of a sailor who served as the bodyguard of the “Admiral” (Robert Barron), an urbane island criminal. Wescoatt gave this character an entertaining combination of cockiness and slow-wittedness–grinning condescendingly when his fellow-henchmen were being rebuked by the Admiral and dutifully laughing at each of his boss’s jokes, but also registering either perplexity or an impatient desire to start busting heads when the subtler Admiral was hatching schemes or parleying with rivals. The script also played up Singapore’s eagerness to battle one-on-one with hero Captain Silver–played by Wescoatt’s fellow-Hawaiian and fellow-swimmer, Buster Crabbe. However, the serial disappointingly failed to deliver on this promised bout, ultimately killing off Singapore in abrupt and undramatic fashion at the hands of another villain and never giving him the chance to have a definitive showdown with Silver.
Above: “The Admiral said he was mine.” Rusty Wescoatt reminds Rick Vallin (far right) that he has staked his claim on the right to defeat Buster Crabbe in The Sea Hound (Columbia, 1947). Robert Barron is on the far left.
Brick Bradford (Columbia, 1948), a patchwork science-fiction adventure with some unusually quirky touches, featured Wescoatt in its last six chapters as Farrell, a member of the henchman pack. His dialogue was limited, but he did get to make an impressive leap from a cliff onto a rival villain, and to react with enjoyable bewilderment when he and the other henchmen were subjected to the baiting of another rival heavy (Leonard Penn) who had managed to turn himself invisible.
Above, left to right: Charles King, Jack Ingram, John Hart (partially hidden behind Ingram) and Rusty Wescoatt look wary as they try to cope with an invisible antagonist in Brick Bradford (Columbia, 1948).
Wescoatt’s next chapterplay appearance was in Tex Granger (Columbia, 1948), as as one of the members of an outlaw gang led by the badman Reno (Jack Ingram). Reno’s outfit was secondary to the serial’s principal team of bad guys, and thus Wescoatt’s screen appearances here were brief and sporadic; he was given a few opportunities to glower irritably and lie unconvincingly when trying to deceive kid sidekick Buzz Henry, and also became briefly prominent in the serial’s chapter, when he and fellow-henchman Eddie Parker succeed in unmasking hero Tex Granger (Robert Kellard) as the villains’ opponent, the “Mystery Rider.” The excited Wescoatt and Parker tried to sell this news to the other villains, but were ungratefully gunned down by their rival outlaws before they had a chance to share the secret.
Wescoatt was a more prominent member of the henchman pack in Superman (Columbia, 1948), one of Katzman’s better chapterplays. As a thug named Elton, he appeared throughout the serial’s second half, usually working in tandem with veteran henchman Charles King, and receiving several opportunities to menace Lois Lane (Noel Neill), pummel Jimmy Olsen (Tommy Bond), and (seemingly) punch out Clark Kent (Kirk Alyn). His size also allowed for some good visual demonstrations of the prowess of Alyn’s Superman; the hero’s effortless subdual of the hulking Wescoatt was almost as effective a display of super-powers as was Superman’s habit of smashing through walls or lifting heavy objects.
Congo Bill (Columbia, 1948), a mediocre Katzman jungle serial, cast Rusty as a henchman named Ivan, one of the accomplices of a gold smuggler played by Leonard Penn. Along with stuntman Fred Graham, Wescoatt tangled with hero Don McGuire in several fight scenes, and in between these action bits delivered an amusing and offbeat comic performance–using an exaggeratedly slow voice and a blankly oblivious stare to accentuate his brawny character’s brainlessness to highly entertaining effect. He always seemed one mental step behind everyone else, and never appeared to comprehend Graham’s sarcastic put-downs of his intelligence–in fact, he smiled at his cohort’s remarks as if he believed them to be compliments.
Batman and Robin (Columbia, 1949), featured Wescoatt throughout as a supporting henchman-pack member named Ives; as usual, he took part in several fights and made the most of his occasional bits of sarcastic or befuddled dialogue–particularly when he was outsmarted and (somewhat improbably) punched out by Alfred (Eric Wilton). Adventures of Sir Galahad (Columbia, 1949), Wescoatt’s last 1940s serial, gave him a less noticeable background part, with only one or two lines, as an unnamed soldier of the villainous Saxon Bartog (Don C. Harvey).
Wescoatt’s first 1950s serial for Katzman was Cody of the Pony Express (Columbia, 1950), a sluggish Western outing which top-billed Jock Mahoney but gave the lion’s share of its screen time to former child star Dickie Moore. Wescoatt made a one-chapter appearance here as a hired gun named Denver, who was hired to provoke Mahoney into a deadly gunfight, but was somewhat anticlimactically subdued with a single punch and taken into custody. Before this disappointing exit, Wescoatt did get an opportunity to wreak some entertaining havoc in a saloon–gleefully shooting a bottle and smashing a glass, then bullying the bartender with demands for more glassware to destroy.
The above-average chapterplay Atom Man vs. Superman (Columbia, 1950), like its predecessor serial Superman, cast Wescoatt as a member of the henchman pack, this time named Carl. He again alternated between effectively menacing the Daily Planet staff and getting demolished by Superman, and was also given a memorable scene in which his boss, the mad scientist Luthor (Lyle Talbot), punished Carl for failure by banishing the henchman into an extra-dimensional limbo known as the “Empty Doom,” then recalled him with a warning to do better in future. Wescoatt’s terrified facial expressions and panicked cries of “Don’t do it!” as he was beamed out of existence helped to make the scene genuinely frightening, while his rubber-legged stagger and groggily stupefied look after being beamed back provided a bit of comic leavening to the eerie bit.
Pirates of the High Seas (Columbia, 1950), like Wescoatt’s second serial The Sea Hound, was a South Seas treasure hunt filmed on Catalina Island and starring Buster Crabbe, but was much better-plotted than Sea Hound, and was in fact one of Katzman’s best serials. Wescoatt played Adams, one of the crewmen on a modern pirate craft captained by chief action heavy Marshall Reed; this character was somewhat less individualized than Wescoatt’s Singapore in Sea Hound, although he still got to growl and grumble to good effect, and also took part in many more fights with Crabbe than he had in the earlier outing.
Roar of the Iron Horse (Columbia, 1951) was another of Katzman’s best serials, and also gave Wescoatt his biggest henchman part as Scully, the brutal construction foreman of a Western railroad crew who was secretly conspiring with a mysterious boss to sabotage the railroad project. Wescoatt served as the principal action heavy here, and handled the part with gusto; he was smugly confident when ordering around the lower-ranking henchmen, brutally overbearing when disciplining railroad workers, and surly to the point of open contempt when conferring with his nominal employers, railroad engineer Hal Landon and his sister Virginia Herrick. He was also given several opportunities to engage in his old wrestling routines–violently body-slamming an unfortunate railroad worker in his introductory scene, then using this move, along with many other moves and holds, against hero Jock Mahoney with less success in a lengthy and excellent fight scene, in which neither Wescoatt nor ex-stuntman Mahoney used any stunt doubles.
Above: Jock Mahoney admonishes a temporarily subdued Rusty Wescoatt at the end of a protracted stuntman-versus-wrestler fight in Roar of the Iron Horse (Columbia, 1951), as Virginia Herrick watches approvingly from the background.
Wescoatt’s next serial was Mysterious Island (Columbia, 1951), a dull and sloppy adaptation of a Jules Verne novel which pitted five Civil-War-era castaways against natives, pirates, and a small squad of invaders from Mercury. Weak though the serial was, Wescoatt acquitted himself well as Moley, the first mate of the pirate crew; he looked the part of a tough 19th-century seaman to perfection, and turned in an appropriately swaggering and stubbornly aggressive performance which contrasted nicely with the more laid-back and crafty acting of Gene Roth as the pirate captain. Wescoatt’s last henchman-pack serial role came later in 1951, in the chapterplay Captain Video. This silly, gadget-crammed outing devoted much of its time to its title character’s (Judd Holdren) clashes with alien invaders in outer space, and thus Wescoatt and the serial’s other earthbound thugs were relegated to only a handful of scattered appearances–little more than cameos–throughout the course of the serial.
Wescoatt’s final serial, King of the Congo, was not one of Katzman’s stronger efforts, but it gave Rusty his single most colorful role and resulted in his most entertaining performance. This chapterplay starred Wescoatt’s frequent screen antagonist Buster Crabbe as Roger Drum, an US Air Force captain who came to Africa to investigate Communist activities there and became the Tarzan-like champion of a surviving Stone Age tribe called the Rock People. Wescoatt played Kor, the savage leader of a rival tribe of stone-agers called the Cave Men; this tribe’s repeated attacks on the Rock People complicated Drum’s struggles against a gang of Communist agents (led by Leonard Penn). The Communists subsequently attempted to exploit the feud between the two tribes, and armed Kor and his followers with modern weapons. However, when the Reds refused to abide by the outcome of a one-on-one combat in which Drum fairly bested Kor, the caveman’s primitive sense of honor caused him to turn on the villains, and he finished the serial in the good guys’ camp, even making peace with the Rock People. Wescoatt cut loose completely in this very unusual role, and went consistently and hilariously over the top–laughing and grimacing like a maniac when pleased, roaring and growling like the Wolf Man when displeased, and engaging in amusing bits of physical business whenever he got the chance (such as abruptly poking Penn with his stone axe in order to remind him of his promise to provide new weapons). His wild performance felt perfectly suited to his wildly uncontrollable character, and allowed him to steal every scene in which he appeared, particularly the sequence in which the Communists unwisely tried to teach him how to use rifles and hand grenades.
After appearing in a few more Columbia-Katzman features, Wescoatt departed the Katzman outfit towards the end of 1952. Throughout the rest of the 1950s, he worked principally on television, playing henchmen, lawmen, fighters, and other similar types on numerous Western series, including Adventures of Kit Carson, Sky King, and Death Valley Days, as well as a few non-Western shows such as Gang Busters and Perry Mason. He also played a regular role as the bartender on the late-1950s TV Western Trackdown. He only took occasional feature film bits during the 1950s–chiefly at Universal, although he also appeared in a few independent films, as well as one more Katzman feature, during the latter half of the decade. The 1960s found Wescoatt making increasingly infrequent television appearances on shows such as Maverick and Lawman, and playing small parts in about eight more features, almost all for independent producers. His last screen appearance was in a 1965 episode of the Legend of Jesse James TV show, after which he retired from the screen to operate a small Los Angeles-San Diego food market chain. He spent the rest of his life in California, passing away in Los Angeles in 1987.
Rusty Wescoatt was so picturesquely rough and tough in appearance that his mere presence in a serial henchman pack would have strengthened the gang’s intimidation factor without his having to act at all. However, he was never content to be just another ugly face; instead, much like Al Ferguson and Bud Geary in earlier eras of serial-making, he was a reliable scene-stealer even when serving as a background thug, and could always be counted on to deliver a memorably boisterous performance whenever he was given a more prominent role. One of the last new henchmen to enter the serial scene, the vigorous, sometimes flamboyant combination of overbearing thuggery and humorous stupidity that he brought to his characters made him more than worthy to follow in the footsteps of the many serial henchmen who’d preceded him to the chapterplay screen.
Above left: Rusty Wescoatt grapples fiercely with an apparent Batman in Batman and Robin (Columbia, 1949). Above right: Rusty Wescoatt watches complacently as the masked Atom Man threatens off-camera victims in Atom Man vs. Superman (Columbia, 1950).
Acknowledgements: My principal sources for this article were the federal census records and an enormous array of newspaper articles, largely from Honolulu papers, retrieved via Newspapers.com. These many short news articles provided me with nearly all of my information on Wescoatt’s high school and college athletics, his wrestling career, his wartime shipyard work, and his post-Hollywood supermarket business. I also had recourse to the Australian newspaper archive site, Trove.