A distinguished veteran of countless radio and television shows, Gale Gordon, has one of the most familiar faces and voices in show business. Mention his name and people invariably smile. Gordon, who often plays the ultimate, overbearing authority figure, is usually cast as someone's comically cranky boss, principal or landlord.
Gordon is a master character actor, and a genius at the art of comic timing. We all remember him bellowing at stars in the shows he's been featured on. However, he can also get a laugh without uttering one word. His facial expression conveying complete exasperation says it all.
There was one great scene in the "Lucy's Substitute Secretary" episode of The Lucy Show that refers to "Mr. Mooney's" slow-burning explosive temper.The scene has Lucy telling a temporary secretary (Ruta Lee) about her banker boss "Mr. Mooney."
Lee: What kind of boss is your employer Mr. Mooney?
Lucy: Let's put it this way, he's more boss than employer. He yells a lot.
Gale Gordon was born into the theatrical profession. Both of his parents were actors. His father was Charles T. Aldrich, and his mother was Gloria Gordon.
"My father was a vaudevillian, and my mother was principal boy in pantomime among other things such as light musical comedy. She was also in television years ago with Marie Wilson in My Friend Irma. My mother played the landlady "Mrs. O'Reilly."
Many will also remember Gloria Gordon from Jack Benny's radio program where she played one of his fan club members who happened to have a crush on him. As you might remember, Benny's fan club on the show consisted of a group of sweet, little old ladies who were all enamored of him.
Although the child of actors, Gordon's first ambition was not to be an actor but a dancer.
"Actually, I wanted to be a toe dancer," he laughs." My mother did an act in London. She had two girls who did a little ballet number while she changed gowns between the songs she was performing. And when the ballet slippers wore out, she brought them home to me. I put them on and could walk all over the house on my toes, up and down stairs and everything else. The toe dancer phase lasted only for a short time, as long as my mother was doing the act with the ballet dancers."
Gordon would later utilize his dancer's dexterity in some hilarious physical,comedy bits with Lucille Ball. Who could forget the sight of stuffy, impeccably dressed "Mr. Mooney" turning cartwheels, dancing the cha-cha or falling down a trap door?
"The last thing in the world I should have done was go into the theater because was inordinately shy as a young man. I couldn't open my mouth. At a party, I was the one stuck up against the wall. I was embarrassed about talking. I felt that I couldn't talk well," explains the modest actor whose resonant speaking voice and impeccable diction are instantly recognizable to audiences the world over.
Amazingly, there was a time when doctors thought Gale Gordon might not be able to speak at all.
"My voice, I have to say, is kind of miraculous because I was born with a cleft palate," he confides. "As a matter of fact, my first trip to England was when I was 18 months old. My mother knew of a doctor in London who specialized in repairing cleft palates to a great extent with children. It was a very, very serious thing in those days. So my mother, being English, took me back to England for the operation to repair the split roof of my mouth which almost developed into a hair lip but was prevented by this operation. The fact that I can talk at all is a miracle. I don't have anything in the back of my throat, there's no uvula. The doctors look at it and they get dizzy. It's a bottomless hole. It's only by the grace of God that I can talk at all."
Remembering his early days in theater, Gordon continues, "I started out at the bottom, by the way. I didn't have a speaking part and made just $15 per week in a play off-Broadway. And then as I got into it, and began to learn lines and get parts, I found that when I knew what I had to say, I had absolute confidence. Everybody I knew as a young man used to say, 'This man has no nerves!' Well, I was as nervous as anyone else but I had the confidence of knowing what I was going to say. That confidence helped me through a great many trials and tribulations, and finally made the nervousness worthwhile."
Through the twenties and thirties, Gordon continued acting on stage both in Los Angeles and in New York. He performed on Broadway with Maria Ouspenskaya in The Daughters of Atreus in 1936. A film, Death Valley Days, followed his Broadway performance. Gordon proposed to a lovely actress, Virginia Curley, who appeared with him that film. The couple married in 1937, and still act together on stage every year together at the Stage West Dinner Theaters in Canada.
Many long-running radio roles followed his film and Broadway work, including "Mayor La Trivia" on Fibber McGee and Molly, as the sponsor on The Phil Harris and Alice Faye Show and as the banker "Mr. Atterbury" on Lucille Ball's My Favorite Husband. He also had the title role in Flash Gordon.
One of his radio roles which would later become a popular television character was "Osgood Conklin", affectionately known as "Old Marblehead", the blustery high school principal on Our Miss Brooks, a series which starred Eve Arden.
"Eve Arden was a dear, dear woman. That part came on radio in 1946. I remember that it was 1946 because it was a year after I had gotten out of the service," points out Gale. "My wife, while I was gone, had decided that since I had missed out on so much during the years I was in the service that I ought to establish a fee, a salary, and not do any show for less than that certain fee. As it happened, I had left in the middle of doing Fibber McGee and Molly, and had come back to that show. They paid me $150 a show, and that was a lot of money in those days. I was grateful that my job was waiting for me when I came back from the service. So I went to work for them and got my $150 a week. And then other people would call and offer me $50 or $25 a show, which as a salary was very small even in those days. I turned them down. When I'd tell people that I wanted $150 they almost fainted," he chuckles, "they thought I was an upstart and an egomaniacal idiot. Months went by, and I was terribly depressed. Finally, a man called from CBS. He said, 'We're doing a summer replacement show with Eve Arden, and there's a part we'd like you to do.' I said, 'That's very nice.' And they said, 'How much do you want?' I replied, '$150 a show.' He shouted, '$150 a show!' and almost fainted. I'm sure he had a mild stroke. He said, 'CBS cannot pay that amount of money.' So that was that.
"My wife and I went on a brief vacation at Santa Ysidro Ranch near Santa Barbara, California. While we were there, we heard the first radio show of Our Miss Brooks. We both looked at each other when the show was over and Virginia said, 'Thank God they didn't pay you the $150 because that's the worst show I've ever heard.' They had a high school principal on there who was barking like a dog, and speaking in improper English, which is one thing that just drives me crazy. were just congratulating ourselves when the producer called the next day and said, 'Alright, we'll pay you the $150. We want you to do the part.' They
hadn't liked the man who played the role. And that was how I got the role on Our Miss Brooks. The only episode I didn't do was the first one."
Gordon's wife Virginia played the original "Mrs. Conklin" on Our Miss Brooks. "She played the role on radio and for the first year of the television series," says Gordon. "But we were in an automobile accident, we were rammed by a truck while we were on vacation. She had a whiplash and had to give up the role. She never went back to it. However, she was the original 'Mrs. Conklin.’.
Quite often, both adult viewers and teenagers actually thought of Gale Gordon as the principal he played on Our Miss Brooks, as well as his other bossy characters.
"Very often people would stop me on the street and ask 'Why are you so mean to Miss Brooks?' The audience took it very literally. People still do that today. They expect you to be funny on a moment's notice or, in my case, get angry. Once I had a woman stop me and say, 'Please, yell at my children!,' he laughs heartily. "People forget that it's all put on. We're pretending! In those days, many people thought that all the comic dialogue was said on the spur ofthe moment. They couldn't believe that people rehearsed this, that writers actually wrote those lines for someone else to say. They thought we just made it all up as we went along."
Gordon remembers the set and people involved with Our Miss Brooks with great warmth.
''The whole troupe was like a family. Gloria McMillan, the girl who played my daughter 'Harriet'... her father died when she was quite young. When she got married, I stood up for her, and gave her away," he remembers with tenderness. "Also, Eve had a Christmas Party every year just for the cast. To avoid buying presents for everyone, we'd draw names out of a hat, and buy a gift for the person in the cast whose name we had drawn. This made shopping very exciting trying to figure out what to get for Dick Crenna or Janie Morgan. The holidays were very important to Eve. She'd bring a Christmas tree down to the studio during Christmas week. We'd have treats and goodies.
"I went to her services, of course," he added quietly "It was for me like losing a very close and dear friend, which, of course, she was. I feel very fortunate to have worked with such delightful people like Eve and Lucy. Great talent and great ladies. It's extremely rare to find talent and friends like they were."
Gordon is filled with admiration for many of the actors he's worked with over the years.
"I've had high regard for a great many actors. I started out as a serious actor. I didn't start out as a comic actor at all," admits Gordon. "That just developed because I happened to be louder than anyone else. If they wanted a blowhard character, they called on me. I've had innumerable people that I've respected and venerated. As a matter of fact, in later life, 'got to play with some of them which delighted me.
“I remember a Here's Lucy we did an episode with Richard Burton. Lucy and I were both thrilled to work with someone of his caliber. He was utterly charming and delightful and so was Liz Taylor. I had admired Richard Burton for years and years before I had ever worked with him. He was a great, great actor. It was a joy to get to know him as a person.
“I also worked in several scenes with Basil Rathbone in the Sherlock Holmes radio series he did with Nigel Bruce. And that was wonderful, because here were two English gentlemen... and Basil Rathbone had this wonderful ability as an actor. But they were both like two school kids at play when it came to the radio show. They were getting paid, they thought, to do something that was terribly, terribly amusing-reading off of a piece of paper instead of memorizing lines. But they were both like two naughty boys. It was a complete revelation for me to see Basil Rathbone who was the epitome of dignity, class and charm, acting like a kid! They (Rathbone and Bruce) were unequally delightful!"
Certainly one of the people Gordon has admired the most was his dear friend Lucille Ball. He worked with her on The Lucy Show and Here's Lucy for a total of 11 years. Gordon's distinguished bearing and Lucille Ball's wild antics meshed perfectly together. They were an unbeatable team. One of the things that impressed Gordon the most about Lucille Ball was her perfectionism, and her ability to work harder than anyone else.
"Lucille would never allow anyone to double for her. If she had to learn how to ice skate, she'd ice skate. If she had to go down a staircase on skis then that's what she'd do," elaborates Gordon with admiration. "She wouldn't allow a double to do it because the cameras were very close. She thought it would be ridiculous to use a double. None of us ever had doubles do stunts for us. If I fell in the mud or got stuck in a hunk of cement or fell down a trap door then that's what I did.
"Lucille didn't care about messing herself up. A lot of stars of her stature wouldn't do physical comedy because they were afraid they'd get their hair messed up or they'd look bad. I remember once she fell into a vat of green dye. She came out with not only her hair green but everything was green! It was tremendously funny to see her come out all green, but it took hours to get her cleaned up and her make-up put on to do the rest of the show. But things like that were important because they looked real. And this is very, very important when you're doing comedy. You've got to believe that it is happening and it has to be real.
''The secret of comedy, if I may be so bold as to make a statement like this, is that for comedy to be good it has to be played straight. And again, the greatest example of this is Lucy Ball. No matter how wild the shows were that we did, no matter how bizarre the situations were, they were never played as if they were funny," continues Gordon. "They were played like serious incidents of ordinary everyday life. And that's why they are terribly funny and are still considered classic comedies. What's wrong with most of the comedies nowadays is that actors know they're funny or think they are. That takes away from the comedy right away. The ones who play comedy straight are the great ones-the ones people love to watch."
As much as he is identified with television, Gordon prefers the stage to film and television work.
"I think anybody who has been in the theater, prefers it. Television is a... factory. You turn out things on a revolving assembly line. You don't have time to perfect anything in television. If you're doing a weekly series it's very difficult to make each episode of the series as good as it should be because you don't have the time to devote to it. This was one reason that Lucy was such a hard worker, and many people didn't like going on her show because they worked from the moment they got there until the show was filmed. And that was four days," Gordon explains. "And in those four days we had to learn the show and do all the camera rehearsing, because there were three cameras in each scene all going at once.
"Guest actors had to rehearse with us as performers because each word that an actor might have said might be a cue for the camera to move or turn in order to get a different angle. All those technical things that television requires takes away from the concentration that you should be giving the character itself. For that reason, Lucy worked very hard for the four days. The results show. Her work has endured for some.40 years or more because she was never satisfied. She would never say, 'Oh, we can get by with this, it won't matter,' because if it mattered to one viewer- that would have ruined it as far as Lucy was concerned. And that's why television is a sausage factory. Radio wasn't so bad because you didn't have to memorize the lines. But you did have to do everything because your own character was in your voice-that took a little doing. Most people thought that if you could speak English or read then you could be a radio actor. Well that wasn't so. You had to put a great deal into your reading to convince somebody who was just listening that a certain character is speaking."
One memorable role Gordon had in between Our Miss Brooks and The Lucy Show was as the irritable neighbor of "Dennis" on Dennis The Menace. Joseph Kearns had played "George Wilson" on the show previously, and passed away during production. The producers decided to bring in a new character, the brother of "George" whom they called "John Wilson."
"I enjoyed working with Jay North. I've always enjoyed working with people. I've worked with very few that I considered unpleasant. Dennis the Menace was a joy to work on," reminisces Gordon. "Jay, at the time, was 11, playing a nine year old. He was terribly embarrassed about having to wear that little jumper suit. He fretted a little about that. Jay and I got along beautifully. We had fun together. It was great fun and there was a friendly family feeling with that troupe too. And that's terribly important when you see a cast of people who are together for a long time or even a short time. If there's friction among the cast members, I think it shows in the final result."
Although he has a home in the Hollywood area, Gale Gordon has spent most of his time in the Southern California community of Borrego Springs.'We've lived here about 46 years now. We have 100 acres here," says Gordon about his ''Tub Canyon Farm". "I don't have to hear anyone's television or radio.It's what I've always wanted. My wife and I love to read. We're going to have to move out to make room for the books! And we have our dogs... we're very happy here."
Gordon continues to make television guest appearances and is still passionate about his work.
"I've never been bored in my life working," asserts Gordon. "A lot of people get bored after five minutes. They want to go home and pick up their check. That's never been the case for me. I'm always the first to arrive and the last to
leave because I truly enjoy what I'm doing. That's why I've been in show business for so long--I love it!"
Our real-life bosses and neighbors might be cranky, but if only they were as funny as Gordon's characters. Gale Gordon is a warm, familiar friend whom audiences everywhere have enjoyed having in their living rooms for decades. Future generations will continue to delight in his performances through the magic of syndicated television.
Series: Our Miss Brooks (1952-1956)
Role: Osgood Conklin
Series: The Brothers (1956-1957)
Role: Harvey Box
Series: Sally (1958)
Role: Bascomb Bleacher
Series: Pete and Gladys (1960-1962)
Role: Uncle Paul
Series: Dennis The Menace (1962-1963)
Role: John Wilson
Series: The Lucy Show (1963-1968)
Role: Theodore J. Mooney
Series: Here's Lucy (1968-1974)
Role: Harrison Otis Carter
Series: Life with Lucy (1986)
Role: Curtis McGibbon
By: Dina-Marie Kulzer
|From “Television Series Regulars of the Fifties & Sixties in Interview”
McFarland Publishers & Company Inc., Publishers
© 1992 Dina-Marie Kulzer