by Nicole Wolverton
Carl Gordon is an ordinary name, but Gordon, who died in 2010, achieved something far from ordinary. For most of us, every day life is somewhat monotonous, and perhaps we’re not satisfied or challenged. Oh, sure, we think, “I need to change my life, do something different.” How many of us actually do it, though? Gordon—unfulfilled—not only escaped that life well into his adult years, he became an award winning actor.
Gordon was born in Virginia in 1932, and he grew up in Brooklyn. He didn’t stand out or seem like someone interested in the arts. He spent four years in the Air Force, where he served as an airplane mechanic during the Korean War. Afterward, he enrolled in college but dropped out in favor of full-time employment and got married. But after two divorces and a series of boring jobs that promised nothing but a lifetime of drudgery, he had an epiphany. Or, rather, a religious experience. Some people see Jesus in a piece of toast, and some folks might see the Virgin Mary in a sheet of glass, but Gordon claims that God told him to try acting. According to his obituary in The New York Times, “[H]e had never considered acting and had barely been to the theater. But who was he to question the Lord?” He enrolled in the Gene Frankel Theater Workshop, where he was not only the oldest student, but also the only African-American and the only one without a college degree.
As it turns out, God had the right idea.
Gordon started getting small parts in Broadway productions and even appeared briefly in a 1969 episode of Sesame Street—he was 37 at the time. By the time he was 39, he’d snagged a role in the 1971 Melvin van Peebles musical “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death.” Additional parts in film and television followed, as well as more Broadway parts, such as the part of Doaker in “The Piano Lesson” (1990), by Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson. However, Gordon’s big break came in 1991, when Gordon was 59 years old: he got a featured role on the television show “Roc,” a sit-com starring Charles S. Dutton as the eponymous lead. Gordon played Roc’s father on the show, which ran until 1994.
Afterward, he continued to act in television and film, and on Broadway, including a 2003 revival of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” starring Charles Dutton and Whoopi Goldberg. He also appeared in many productions by the Negro Ensemble Company. Gordon worked up until his death from non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2010: he was 78, presumably more fulfilled than if he’d ignored the call of God, and certainly having lived a life less ordinary.
Homepage image courtesy The New York Times