ABOVE PHOTO: CARL GORDON (L) in a scene from the “Piano Lesson.”
Carl Gordon, who started his acting career well into his adulthood, died on July 20 in his home in Jetersville, Va. He was 78 and the cause of death was non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, according to his family.
Gordon was best known as the patriarch on Roc, the situation comedy about a working-class black family in Baltimore, broadcast on the Fox network for three seasons starting in 1991.
Around 1970, Gordon had been twice married and twice divorced, had been unable to complete college and had only been able to find work as a sheet-metal worker and as a stockroom clerk that didn’t interest and challenge him. As recounted by The New York Times, he fell to his knees one night and cried out “Lord, tell me what I need to do” and received the answer “try acting”.
He enrolled at Gene Frankel’s Theatre and Film Workshop, where he was the oldest student and the only African American. After many auditions, he started getting roles as a character actor on Broadway, in film and on television. He appeared in 1967 in the national tour of Happy Ending / Day of Absence, a pair of one-act plays by Douglas Turner Ward, and performed on stage in 30 productions by Ward’s Negro Ensemble Company.
He appeared on film in the 1984 John Sayles movie The Brother from Another Planet. In 1990, Gordon played the role of Doaker in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, the fourth of 10 plays in his Pittsburgh Cycle. He also appeared on Broadway in the 1971 production of Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, a musical by Melvin Van Peebles and a 2003 production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom with Charles S. Dutton and Whoopi Goldberg. He appeared on television in episodes of ER and Law & Order.
His most notable role was on the Fox Broadcasting Company series Roc about an African American family in Baltimore which aired from 1991 to 1994, starring Dutton as Roc Emerson, in which he Gordon played the role of the title character’s father, an “irascible, sharp-tongued retired train porter”. Reviewer Marvin Kitman in Newsday described Gordon’s character in Roc as a “black Archie Bunker”, he gives portraits of Malcolm X as birthday presents and is offended that his son watches The Simpsons because they’re white and doesn’t watch The Cosby Show and insists that Larry Bird can’t possibly be white and play basketball as well as he does and that Bird was raised in Harlem and his real name is Abdul Mustafa.
Gordon based his character on a strong-willed uncle who owned a grocery store in Philadelphia. Episodes in the second and third season of the show were broadcast live, which didn’t faze Gordon, who described the experience as being “like going back to Broadway”. The decision to air show lives was made as a promotional stunt, but was enabled by the extensive stage experience of Gordon, Dutton and other cast members.
Gordon was survived by his third wife, Jacqueline Alston-Gordon, as well as by five daughters, a son, nine grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.
New York Times contributed to this article