It was approaching 4 AM and as usual I was trying to get home before the sun rose for the day. I still remember seeing Carl Gordon standing outside with other festival actors at the National Black Theater Festival in Winston Salem N.C. as I passed by the Marriott. It would be the last time that I would see Carl, Virginia Capers, and Barbara McNair.
Capers and McNair passed away in 2004 and 2007 respectively. On last Tuesday July 20, 2010, at the age of 78, Carl joined them. Mr. Gordon died at his home in Jetersville, Va. According to his family, the cause of death was non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Four decades ago, nearing midlife and feeling trapped in a series of dispiriting jobs, Carl Gordon heeded a surprising call and became a successful character actor on television and the stage.
To television viewers, Mr. Gordon was best known as the patriarch on “Roc,” a situation comedy about a working-class black family in Baltimore, broadcast on the Fox network for three seasons starting in 1991. In a highly unusual move, Seasons 2 and 3 were televised live, an approach to sitcoms that had been attempted rarely if at all since the 1950s.
The show starred Charles S. Dutton as Roc Emerson, a sanitation worker, and Mr. Gordon as his proud, irascible father, Andrew. So proud was Andrew Emerson that he seeded the family home with pictures of Malcolm X and maintained that a certain member of the Boston Celtics was far too good a basketball player to be a white man:
“Larry Bird was born and bred in Harlem,” Andrew declared in one episode. “His real name is Abdul Mustafa.”
On Broadway, Mr. Gordon originated the part of Doaker, the upright uncle in “The Piano Lesson” (1990), by August Wilson, one of two Pulitzer Prize-winning installments in the playwright’s 10-part cycle about black life. He reprised the role in the television adaptation, broadcast on CBS in 1995.
Rufus Carl Gordon Jr. was born on Jan. 20, 1932, in Goochland, Va.; he later jettisoned the “Rufus.” When he was a child his family moved to Brooklyn, where he grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. As a young man he spent four years in the Air Force, serving as an airplane mechanic during the Korean War.
Afterward, Mr. Gordon attended Brooklyn College but left to work before graduating. By his late 30s he had reached a low point. He was twice divorced and seemed consigned to unfulfilling jobs, including sheet-metal worker and department store stockroom clerk.
One night, as he recounted in interviews afterward, Mr. Gordon fell to his knees, weeping. “Lord, tell me what I need to do,” he said. From somewhere within him, an answer arose: “Try acting.”
To Mr. Gordon, the idea seemed preposterous: he had never considered acting and had barely been to the theater. But who was he to question the Lord? Before long, he had enrolled in the Gene Frankel Theater Workshop.
There, as The New York Times later wrote, Mr. Gordon was the oldest student, the only African-American and the only one without a college degree. But little by little, audition by audition, he built a career.
Mr. Gordon’s other screen work includes the film “The Brother From Another Planet” (1984), directed by John Sayles, and guest roles on “Law & Order” and “ER.”
Among his other Broadway credits are the musical “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death” (1971), with book, music and lyrics by Melvin Van Peebles, and a 2003 revival of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” by Mr. Wilson, starring Mr. Dutton and Whoopi Goldberg. He also appeared in many productions by the Negro Ensemble Company.
When “Roc” went live, interviewers asked Mr. Gordon and his cast mates if they were daunted by the prospect. Not at all, they said, for most, like him, were veterans of the stage.
“It feels good,” Mr. Gordon told The Chicago Sun-Times in 1992. “It’s like going back to Broadway.”
Mr. Gordon is survived by his third wife, Jacqueline Alston-Gordon; a son, Rufus Carl III; five daughters, Gloria Gurley and Candise, Demethress, Yvette and Jasmine Gordon; nine grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
What’s Your Take On The Matter? Register and/or sign in and sound off!
You can also twitter the febone_blog