Researching Lee Marvin Point Blank meant never knowing where the work would lead. Case in point is my interview with actor Don Gordon, who passed away April 24, at the age of 90. I had long been familiar with his work as I was a lifelong Steve McQueen fan and Gordon and McQueen were close friends.
Steve McQueen (left) as Det. Frank Bullitt with his partner Delgetti (Don Gordon) in a scene cut from the final version of BULLITT (1968).
(L-R) Steve McQueen, Don Gordon, Billy Mumy and Dustin Hoffman disembark for Devil’s Island in 1973’s PAPILLON.
(L-R) Norman ‘Woo-Woo’ Grabowski, Don Gordon and Steve McQueen as firemen confer on how to handle THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974).
I had not thought of interviewing Gordon, that is until a mutual friend suggested I should, as he may have worked with Marvin on some early live television. The interview was arranged and we spoke briefly about the subject of my book. The interview proved to be full of revelations, despite the fact that Gordon didn’t think he had worked with Marvin. The follow-up interview proved otherwise. As readers of Lee Marvin Point Blank discovered — along with the author– many of Marvin’s unheralded TV performances proved his versatility more than most of his films and I owe a debt of gratitude for that to Don Gordon. He helped to set me on the path of discovering Marvin’s TV work and proved to be quite an eye-opener. Like Gordon himself, if you take the time to watch his work, despite the fact he wasn’t that well-known to mainstream audiences, he (and conversely, late life success of Lee Marvin) made an impression in whatever he did. Below is the full, unedited transcription of our phone conversation. It was brief, yet enlightening. He had no reason to be, but you’ll see that he was friendly, honest, forthcoming and insightful. Rest in peace, Mr. Gordon. You will be missed.
Initial Phone Interview, 11/6/94
Dwayne (Call being returned): Hello?
Don Gordon: Hi Dwayne, it’s Don Gordon.
Dwayne: Don, thanks for calling me back. Listen, I don’t know what your schedule is like but you had mentioned you knew Lee Marvin casually and knew Michelle Triola, as well. I was wondering if maybe I could ask you a couple of questions about that now?
Don: Well, I don’t know how much I could tell you. I never worked with Lee but I knew him. I was friendlier with Michelle. I knew Lee years ago. He was a terrific guy. I had heard that he was known to have a bit of a temper but I never saw it.
Dwayne: Really? I never heard that. Where did you hear it?
Don: Well, you know, you read things about that kind of shit but I never saw it. He was always a great guy, as far as I’m concerned.
Dwayne: When would you see him?
Don: Well, mostly at different social functions. I would bump into him at those black tie affairs.
Dwayne: You said you knew him years ago. Was that in New York?
Don: No, no. Hollywood. We were both starting out playing heavies and then he eventually became a big star, which he rightfully deserved. You know, we were all young in those days. We’d see each other kicking around at Schwab’s when there was still a Schwab’s. I might see him at a friend’s house and we’d talk. “Hey, you’re really good. I saw you in such-and-such and you were really good.” You know, that kind of thing. Believe it or not, Hollywood really is a very small town. I suspect it’s still that way, but I’ve been out of the loop for so long, I wouldn’t know.
Don: Yeah, it’s partly by choice because I’m writing (Children’s books) now and doing some other things, so acting really doesn’t hold my interest anymore. Don’t get me wrong, if the right part came along..
Dwayne: Do you remember the first time you met Lee Marvin?
Don: No, I really don’t. I just remember bumping into him every now and again. We were all young and full of energy in those days, that’s what I remember. He was just a terrific guy.
Dwayne: Having know him over the years, did you see any change in the man over those years?
Don: Absolutely not. No change whatsoever. He was the same guy from the day he had no money to the day he was one of the biggest stars. And there’s very few people you can say that about.
Dwayne: Well, you just gave me a good quote I can use.
Don: (Laughs) Good. See, the thing is, I knew Steve much better. Not just at work, because we did work together a lot but we used to go and do things outside of work. We were friends.
Dwayne: You mentioned that you knew Michelle Triola much better. Why is that?
Don: Well, we got to know each other and found out we share a birthday. Not the same year because she’s a little older than me. But we had that in common and became good friends. In fact, we still are.
Dwayne: Could you put me in contact with her?
Don: I could ask.
Dwayne: I’d really appreciate that. I could provide references, if you need it.
Don: Well, let me ask her first and see what she says then we’ll take from there.
Dwayne: Thanks, that would be great.
Don: I could call you in a couple of days
Follow-up Phone Interview, 11/10/95
Don Gordon: Got your message Dwayne. What’s up?
Dwayne: Well, I was recently in New York at the Museum of Television and Radio and I remember you telling me you had not remembered working with Lee Marvin. I viewed a tape of a “Studio One” called “Shakedown Cruise.” I realize you did a lot of work in those days and it’s hard to keep track but does any of this sound familiar?
Don: Boy Dwayne, I’ll tell you it really doesn’t. I’m sure you’re right but I just can’t recall.
Dwayne: I can understand that because it’s not one of the most well known shows like “Marty” or “Requiem for a Heavyweight”….
Don: I was in “Marty.” I had a really small part. I played the guy who didn’t want to stay with an ugly girl and wanted to pay somebody to get rid of her.
Dwayne: Yeah, well in this you played a sailor everyone thinks is a coward and you prove them wrong in time of crisis and if I do say so you were excellent in it.
Don: Thank you, very much. I only wish I could remember it. I haven’t seen any of the live shows I did in those days except for “Marty”. See in those days I did a lot of “Studio One”. It kept me alive. Don’t get me wrong. It didn’t pay that well. Only about $200 but it kept you going. I did one or two a month in those days and it was hard work. You would rehearse for about 10 to 12 days and then go out there live.
Don Gordon (left) tries to pawn off his ugly date for $5 to Rod Steiger’s Marty in the 1953 live TV version by Paddy Chayefsky, later made into the 1955 Oscar-winning film with Ernest Borgnine as MARTY.
Dwayne: I guess you could compare it to local theater only the recognition was much greater.
Don: Oh yeah. The next day you’d be walking around New York and all the cab drivers would say, “Hey I saw you last night in that show and you were great.” So the reaction was immediate. Cab drivers are the best that way.
Dwayne: Sure. they make the best critics because they don’t have an axe to grind and they can be totally honest.
Don: Oh, sure. They wouldn’t have any problem saying, “Hey I saw you last night and you stink!” I love New York cab drivers. Listen, I have your number, so if I remember anything, I’ll give you a call.
Dwayne: Thanks, I appreciate it. When they open the Museum out here next March, you might want to check that show out.
Don: I sure will. Take care. (END)