Bruce Gordon: US character actor who found fame in the TV series 'The Untouchables'

Sunday 23 October 2011 06:03

The American character actor Bruce Gordon will be best remembered by television viewers around the world as Frank "The Enforcer" Nitti, the mob boss who was a constant thorn in the side of Elliot Ness (Robert Stack) throughout the entire run of The Untouchables (1959-63). As one of Al Capone's top henchmen, Nitti had been responsible for the syndicate's strong-arm operations in 1930s, Prohibition-era Chicago. In the programme, he and the gangster's other top lieutenant, the financial whiz-kid Jake "Greasy Thumb" Guzik (Nehemiah Persoff), were locked in a power struggle following Capone's imprisonment.

In real life, Ness had disbanded his crime-fighting team after that indictment for tax evasion, but the television series kept the elite band going after hoods, usually in a hail of machine-gun fire and a screech of tyres. The Untouchables attracted criticism from Italian-Americans who felt it unfairly stereotyped them as mobsters, as well as from others for its violence – usually three bloody shoot-outs and many lesser woundings per episode.

"You're dead!" – accompanied by a finger-stabbing action – became Nitti's catchphrase as his victims breathed their last, and the gravel-voiced Gordon subsequently found himself typecast as heavies on screen.

Born in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, in 1916, Gordon was only 21 when he made his Broadway stage debut, taking several small roles in the musical melodrama The Fireman's Flame (1937-38).

Among a dozen Broadway performances, he also acted Officer Klein, alongside Boris Karloff, in the original cast of Arsenic and Old Lace (1941-44), and Ventidius, with Charlton Heston and Katharine Cornell, in Antony and Cleopatra (1947-48). Gordon made his first film appearance in 1948, in the New York crime drama The Naked City. The following year, he appeared with the Marx Brothers and Marilyn Monroe in Love Happy.

But the actor seemed to be more suited to television – and was to be incredibly prolific in it, amassing more than 100 roles. He made his debut in 1951 with A Kiss for Mr Lincoln, the first of many small-screen plays in which he appeared during that decade.

His first regular role was as Commander Matson – also the narrator – in the Cold War counter-espionage drama Behind Closed Doors (1958-59), based on Rear Admiral Ellis M. Zacharias's experiences during his 25 years in naval intelligence. After The Untouchables, Gordon continued to take one-off character parts, in series such as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1966), Tarzan (1968) and Ironside (1969).

But he also played Gus Chernak, the vengeful, alcoholic father of the biochemist Stella Chernak (Lee Grant), through 25 episodes (1965-66) of the soap opera Peyton Place.

Gordon then showed a previously unrecognised talent for comedy when he parodied his Frank Nitti role in Run Buddy Run (1966-67), playing the mobster Mr Devere, chasing the bumbling Buddy Overstreet (Jack Sheldon) across the US.

Unfortunately for Gordon, it did not last. "The network executives had a meeting with the cast and crew in order to pledge their support to the series," he explained. "Next thing we knew, we were cancelled!"

However, it led to similar comedy roles in episodes of The Lucy Show (1966) and Get Smart (1968). It was further proof that Gordon found his Untouchables role difficult to leave behind – he even went on to play a tough guy touting special weekend rates in a commercial for the Bell Telephone System.

His rare film roles included the Earl of Buckingham in the horror picture Tower of London (1962), directed by Roger Corman, who as a producer later cast him as the evil Colonel Waxman in another chiller, the Jaws parody Piranha (1978).

After Gordon's final screen role, in a 1984 episode of the television crime drama Simon & Simon, he retired to Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his wife, Marla. At one time, he owned a dinner theatre called Frank Nitti's place, in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Anthony Hayward

Bruce Gordon, actor: born Fitchburg, Massachusetts 1 February 1916; married Marla; died Santa Fe, New Mexico 20 January 2011.

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