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We all love the Western heavy. If you were casting a movie in the 1950s and wanted a smarmy town boss you’d probably go for Lyle Bettger, or perhaps from a slightly earlier period Victor Jory; if a rascally judge, Edgar Buchanan was your man; crooked sheriff, Ray Teal, probably; ruthless rancher, I’d go for Emile Meyer; wall-eyed baddie, Jack Elam without a doubt; snarling hired gun, Robert J Wilke or Neville Brand; henchman, Lee Van Cleef; villain with hyena laugh, Dan Duryea. We all have our favorites and doubtless you, dear e-reader, will add to the list.
But if you needed pure thuggishness, serious and fearsome menace, and imposing physical presence, then there was really only one choice. It had to be Leo Gordon.
I’ve always been a Leo fan and thought it was time for a Leorama, a retrospective look at his Western career.
Mr. Gordon did huge numbers of TV Westerns. IMDb lists 99 episodes of 49 different series. But it’s on the big-screen that he made most impact. For more than forty years, from three pictures in 1953 to a cameo in Maverick in 1994, he appeared in 32 feature oaters, almost invariably as the bad guy.
Time and again he lost out to the star of the movie in a fist fight. Those who knew Leo would have considered this improbable. He was 6' 2" (1.88 m) and broad-shouldered, and tough as all get-out. He could have whupped most of the actors with one hand tied behind his back. But the bad guy has to lose. Don Siegel, who directed Leo as Crazy Mike Carnie in (the non-Western) Riot in Cell Block 11, said, “Leo Gordon was the scariest man I have ever met." In his youth the actor had served time in San Quentin for armed robbery, and he was entirely convincing as tough-guy.
Leo the man
Yet he was apparently the nicest man in real life. The Wikipedia entry on him says, “In contrast to his screen persona Gordon was a quiet, thoughtful and intelligent man who generally avoided the Hollywood spotlight.” He read widely (it is said he read practically every book in the San Quentin library) and he became a writer. He wrote or co-wrote several novels, including the historical Western Powderkeg (which I have ordered and hope soon to be reviewing), the screenplays of many movies, including the Westerns Black Patch, Escort West and The Bounty Killer, and the scripts for many TV shows too.
Leo said, “When Charles Marquis Warren was directing the pilot for Gunsmoke I told him I had an idea for an episode. ‘Don’t tell me, write it,’ he answered. I went home and the next thing I knew I had 110 pages. I showed it to my agent. Next thing I know, George Montgomery wanted to buy it. That was Black Patch. Gene Corman negotiated the deal. That’s how I came into contact with him and Roger Corman. In writing, conflict is the thing. Take a normal person and put him in an abnormal situation and you got a story. Take an abnormal person and put him in a normal situation and you’ve got a story. Writing is more rewarding than acting, but look at my face. Nobody believes I’m a writer. I should be 5' 8", 142 pounds, wear patches on my elbows and horn-rimmed glasses and smoke a pipe. That’s a writer. (Laughs)”
He was a loving husband who wed the actress Lynn Cartwright (née Doralyn E Cartwright) in 1950 and remained married to her for fifty years, until his death in 2000.
Leo was a great guy.
His early life
Leo Vincent Gordon was born in Brooklyn in 1922. His family was far from prosperous. Leo left school in the eighth grade and went to work in construction and demolition, then joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal agency, which carried out various public works projects. In 1941 he enlisted in the US Army but left after two years with an “undesirable discharge”. In southern California he and an accomplice tried to rob a bar and its patrons with a pistol. He was shot in the stomach by one of the officers making the arrest. Convicted of armed robbery, he served five years in San Quentin Prison.
Undesirable discharge or not, he was able to profit from the GI Bill and on release went to acting school (Jason Robards was one of his instructors for a time) and it was there he met his wife Lynn. They had one child, a daughter named Tara – I hope she may read this tribute to her dad.
He started his acting career, as Leo V Gordon, on the stage and was discovered by a Hollywood agent in a Los Angeles production of Darkness at Noon starring Edward G Robinson (Leo replaced Jack Palance).
Leo said, “I came back to New York and three months later I got another call. They asked if I could ride a horse. I said, ‘If I can’t ride, I’ll carry it.’ I went out and rented a horse in Central Park. I couldn’t walk for two days. Anyway, they put me on a horse and I was there for 35 years. But I have a good foundation for a western background. I was born in the same town as Billy the Kid…Brooklyn.”
His Western debut was in Warners’ Hondo, with John Wayne, in 1953, in which, billed seventh, he played the no-good husband of Geraldine Page who deserts her, and whom Duke is finally obliged to shoot. Leo said, “In the scene where he kills me down by the stream, I reach for my gun and he shoots me. I buckled up and pitched forward. Wayne hollered, ‘Cut! Cut!’, even though John Farrow was directing. Wayne says to me, ‘What was that? When you get hit in the gut with a slug you go flying backwards’. I pulled up my shirt to show him where I'd really been shot in the gut. ‘Yeah? I got hit point blank and I went forward’.
With Duke in Hondo
In September of that year he was uncredited as a minor heavy in City of Bad Men, a Fox picture with Dale Robertson, but in October he was very good as Tom ‘Jess’ Burgess, a stagecoach holdup man who swears vengeance on his gang leader Phil Carey, in Gun Fury, a Rock Hudson picture which Raoul Walsh directed for Columbia. By the end of the story he was almost a goody, which was a bit of a shock, but don’t worry, it would soon be back to out-and-out bad guy. These pictures a very good start in our noble genre.
He had a deep, menacing voice, and an icy stare with those cold blue eyes, all the better in a color picture.
Those steely blue eyes - almost manic
The small screen
He first appeared in a TV Western as outlaw Bill Doolin on a Stories of the Century episode in 1954 (when naturally railroad detective Matt Clark captured him). He was then in three episodes of Rin Tin Tin and three of Frontier.
He was the professional killer Prine in an episode of Gunsmoke that was originally designed as a kind of pilot, but because changes were later made on the series, such as the marshal's office and Long Branch Saloon looking markedly different, and also the relationship between Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty being subtly more formal as well, the episode, Hack Prine, was buried deep in the season in the hope that viewers would not notice, and this apparently worked. Despite dying a dusty death in this one, he would return to Dodge and confront Marshal Dillon four more times.
Hack Prine expires
All through the mid-fifties he would pop up, almost invariably as heavy, on shows such as Cheyenne, Broken Arrow, Zane Grey Theatre, Tombstone Territory, Colt .45 and many more. Some of these he wrote. There was hardly a TV Western he didn’t appear in.
His connection to Maverick became quite strong. From 1957 through 1960 he played the recurring character Big Mike McComb. Leo said, “I liked Jim Garner. I thought he was an honest guy. I would have liked to have gone further with that role, but they brought in Jack Kelly for a sidekick and Roger Moore as a cousin and made it a family affair.” Leo wrote four episodes of the show between 1960 and ’61, and appeared in five, and his contribution was recognized when he was invited, now in his 70s, to do a cameo in Warners’ entertaining Maverick with Mel Gibson and, of course, James Garner.
In 1954 in Universal’s The Yellow Mountain Leo was knocked down no fewer than three times in the course of the movie by Lex Barker, a rather implausible likelihood.
The following year was a golden one for Leo-fans because not only did he appear in three Western TV shows, he also popped up in the excellent number of six feature Westerns. Six! Great.
First he was a fellow-thug of Lee Van Cleef trying to do the dirty on Randolph Scott in Columbia’s Ten Wanted Men (February), then he was Martin White, the nemesis of John Brown (Raymond Massey) in Allied Artists’ Seven Angry Men (March), and that was followed by two releases in May, Republic’s Santa Fe Passage, a Rod Cameron picture, in which he was the half-breed villain McLawery, and then he was one of the henchmen of gang boss Richard Boone in United Artists’ Zane Grey tale Robbers’ Roost, with George Montgomery.
Great badmen both
Then in September he was the sheriff in RKO’s Tennessee’s Partner, out to arrest Ronald Reagan, unfortunately verging dangerously on the tough good-guy, but it was a return to form in October, when he was back at United Artists in Man with the Gun, starring Robert Mitchum: the movie opens with the classic scene of Leo riding into town. A dog escapes the clutches of his owner, a small boy, and barks at the rider. Gordon shoots it. Ooo, that’s bad!
The mid-1950s were the very apogee of the Western movie and Leo Gordon sure played his part.
In 1956 there was a lot of TV but there were also three appearances in big-screen Westerns. In Universal’s Red Sundown, a Rory Calhoun oater released in March, Leo and his gang besiege a cabin with Rory and his pal James Millican in it because in a saloon gunfight the pair had killed Leo’s brother. Millican dies but Rory survives, and hides. Leo & Co depart, thinking both dead. Unusually, however, while we would expect Rory now to ride out on a revenge mission, to gun down Leo and his gang for what they have done, in fact Rory made a promise to the dying Millican that if he got out of this alive he would hang up his guns and get a steady job. So he goes off to Durango and does exactly that, and we never see Leo & Co again. Oh well.
Snarling badman in Red Sundown
United Artists’ Johnny Concho, which came out in July, was a Frank Sinatra Western and therefore pretty bad. Leo was a heavy, billed low down the cast list.
In Columbia’s much better 7th Cavalry, released in December, a captain (Randolph Scott again) recruits the dregs of the army, Dirty-Dozen style, to go on a dangerous mission to recover the body of Custer at Little Bighorn, and guess who is one of the reprobate troopers to go along? Yup, Leo.
Leo was also in RKO’s Jacques Tourneur-directed Great Day in the Morning that year, a Robert Stack picture with Virginia Mayo and Ruth Roman, if you consider that a Western. Some do. It’s Westernish.
So that was another good year.
Strength to strength
1957 saw him in a Scott Brady picture, Fox’s The Restless Breed. Brady has to face off against Leo, not a heart-warming prospect. Actually, the leader of the badmen is Jim Davis but he only appears at the very end to get shot. It’s Leo who is Mr. Mayhem for most of the movie. Very satisfactory.
Then came another George Montgomery Western, Warners’ Black Patch (September), a picture in which he was fourth in the cast list and which he also wrote, as mentioned above. The film, directed by Allen Miner, has tension, interesting aspects of plot and is visually classy. Leo is suspected of bank robbery (so was well cast) and his friend the marshal (Montgomery) is obliged to arrest him, but crooked saloon owner (was there any other kind?) Sebastian Cabot helps Leo escape and then kills him, the swine. It’s interesting that when he got to write the script, Leo played a sympathetic character!
In his own Black Patch
The Joel McCrea Western The Tall Stranger was released by Allied Artists in November. Leo is the ranch foreman and he is all decked out in black with slick holster, so obviously we think he is a gunslinger but surprisingly he turns out to be a goody. He looks a bit puzzled being nice. Not quite sure what to do. Goody wasn't Leo's thing.
By now, any Westernista worth his (or her, natch) salt would by now, as the mid-50s gave way to the late-50s know Leo Gordon as one of the best and most prolific of Western badmen.
And the late 50s were no worse, I can assure you.
The late 50s
Three more feature Westerns followed in 1958, Quantrill’s Raiders in April, Apache Territory in September and Ride a Crooked Trail in November.
In Allied Artists’ Quantrill’s Raiders, Leo, third billed, joined the long list of actors who have impersonated Confederate guerrilla leader William Clarke Quantrill. He doesn’t get much to say in the movie, just grunt and shoot people, but he does it with aplomb. And Leo Gordon sure did aplomb.
Leo as Quantrill
Columbia’s Apache Territory was back with Rory Calhoun. It was a filming of Louis L’Amour’s novel Last Stand at Papago Wells and in it Rory leads a group of unreliable men besieged by Apaches. Leo is a disgruntled demoted cavalry sergeant. Excellent.
And Universal’s Ride a Crooked Trail was Leo’s first Western with Audie Murphy. Sadly, Gordon has a very short part as the trail boss, not a heavy. He only appears long enough for you to say Oh good, Leo Gordon, then he’s gone. Sigh. What a waste.
The last year of the golden decade of the Western saw Leo in two feature oaters, United Artists’ Escort West, Victor Mature’s last Western, in January and Paramount’s The Jayhawkers!, with Jeff Chandler and Fess Parker, in October.
Escort West, which Leo co-wrote, was made by John Wayne’s Batjac company, and Duke brought to the project the best ever Army unit you could wish for: Troopers Leo Gordon, Harry Carey Jr and Ken Curtis were commanded by Corporal Slim Pickens and Lt. Noah Beery Jr. Beat that. Only Ben Johnson was missing – he was busy being a Captain in UA’s Fort Bowie - though Dobe’s character was called Travis in a sort of homage-cum-in-joke.
Leo Gordon gets the drop on Vic. Well, Leo wrote it so he could do what he wanted.
The Jayhawkers! wasn’t too good as a Western really (Westerns with exclamation points in the title rarely are). Evil but charismatic Chandler is a megalomaniac backwoods Napoleon. Leo is a member of his disreputable entourage whom Fess Parker saves from being lynched. But Leo breaks a cardinal rule by bringing Fess to Chandler’s hideout. And rule-breaking is not permitted. So Leo pays the ultimate price. I wonder how many times he died on screen?
Enter the 60s
The 1960s were not the high-water-mark of the Western genre but there were still some good oaters going around and Leo was in a few – a few, I say, not as many as in the 50s.
There was only one in 1960 (unless you count Valley of the Redwoods a Western), when he played Link Roy, the principal henchman of ruthless town boss Barton MacLane in United Artists’ Noose for a Gunman (soon to be remade by Audie as The Quick Gun). Leo has to be beaten up by Jim Davis this time.
Poor Leo loses again
Next up was one of Leo’s famous roles when he was one of the many to go down that mudslide in McLintock! (1963). You’ll probably remember him uttering the famous line "Somebody oughta belt you but I won't. I won't? The hell I won't!" (Belts Duke).
With Duke again, this time in McLintock!
The Bounty Killer in 1965 was something of a curiosity. It featured numerous superannuated cowboy stars: Richard Arlen (54 Westerns, 1926 – 75) plays the father of the love-interest girl. The eternal sidekick Fuzzy Knight (128 Westerns, 1932 – 67) is Dan Duryea’s pal, the sea cap’n Luther. Johnny Mack Brown (131 Westerns, 1930 - 65) is the sheriff and Buster Crabbe (55 Westerns 1933 to 65) is there too. Most amazing of all, GM ‘Broncho Billy’ Anderson is in it, veteran of what many people regard as the first ever Western movie, The Great Train Robbery of 1903. The Bounty Killer was the last of 328 Western appearances by Anderson and his presence alone makes the movie of interest. Leo co-wrote it with Ruth Alexander, the producer's wife, though did not appear in it (probably too young). Producer Alex Gordon said, “Leo wanted to play the Rod Cameron role, but we explained we needed Rod for the foreign co-financing and I preferred Buster Crabbe in the villain’s part. He understood. Leo was a nice guy but slightly intimidating in size and appearance.”
An elderly Broncho Billy
A classic Leo role came in Paramount’s The Night of the Grizzly in 1966. He had famously slugged it out several times with Clint Walker on Cheyenne (their fight in the episode Vengeance Is Mine is legendary). Now he got to do it on the big screen. Clint is a farmer who suffers the attacks of a giant bear. A bounty is put on the bear’s head and Leo is the bounty hunter who comes north to kill the beast and claim the reward. He is a former foe of Clint’s down in Utah and so we are meant to think Leo is as keen to get Clint as the grizzly. At last Leo has two worthy adversaries to grapple with, Clint (6 foot 6 inches with a 48” chest) and the grizzly bear (similar dimensions). Great stuff. Somehow, Leo managed to make his character as sympathetic as he was frightening, and in his final scene he gives his life to save Clint’s son.
Leo v Clint
(photo Getty Images)
Two more 60s Westerns followed, the AC Lyles ‘geezer Westerns’ Hostile Guns in 1967, and in ’68 Buckskin. Hostile Guns, directed by good old RG Springsteen, was led by George Montgomery as a tough lawman, and he still had it, and Leo is the chief bad guy, amusingly called Pleasant. The scene where Tab Hunter goes into his cell and beats him up in a fistfight is patently absurd. In your dreams, Tab. Buckskin had a minute budget but a mega-cast. It was the last of these Lyles geezer pictures. Leo is a henchman of ruthless cattle baron Wendell Corey, who is opposed by brave Marshal Barry Sullivan. These pictures were nostalgia-fests, really, but are enjoyable to Western fans glad of a chance to see their heroes again – especially Leo Gordon. He was still only in his mid-forties, after all.
Leo v George
He only appeared in one feature Western in the 1970s, the perfectly dreadful My Name is Nobody (Il mio Nome è Nessuno) in 1973 with Italian star Terence Hill and a frankly past-it Henry Fonda, 68, wandering about the set as if wondering what he was doing there. It was puerile trash. Sad.
The TV Western was also in decline but Leo continued to appear in episodes through the 60s and into the 70s. Maverick, of course, at the start of the 60s, as mentioned above, but also Tombstone Territory, Tales of Wells Fargo, Bat Masterson, Laramie, The Deputy, Have Gun – Will Travel, in fact pretty well any show you care to name. In the 70s he was in The Virginian, Alias Smith & Jones, Hec Ramsey, Gunsmoke, Barbary Coast and Little House on the Prairie. He was still working.
And even in the 80s he was doing episodes of non-Westerns, things like The Winds of War, Fame, and Magnum PI.
1980s Leo - tougher than ever
His Western swansong came in 1994 when he was a poker player on that riverboat (billed once again as Leo V Gordon) in the amusing Maverick - a fitting tribute to have him there – and his final role was as Wyatt Earp in a 1994 episode of the television series The Young Indiana Jones. He was recognized for his contribution to our noble genre with a Golden Boot Award in 1997. Ah, Leo, we miss you. He died of “respiratory failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease” aged 78 in LA on December 26, 2000.
Leo in 1993
He said, “Westerns are fundamental . . . the morality play. There's a good guy and a bad guy. You know which is which.” With Leo, we sure did.
He also said of being a heavy, “You get more recognition. After all, I look like a heavy. I'm 6' 2", 200 pounds. Got a craggy-ass face.”
He told a nice story: “I was walking down the street in Morocco when a little kid steps out of the alley and looks at me. He runs a few feet ahead of me--turns around and looks again--he puts his hands down like he's drawing two pistols. He goes, "Bip, bip, bip!' Y'know? Like he's shooting. You figure, here you are, a world away from anything you're familiar with, and some little kid in an alley in Morocco recognizes you?”
Also great in non-Western roles, as Dillinger in Baby Face Nelson (with Rooney as Baby Face)…
...and with fellow heavy Neville in Cell Block 11
Another Western heavy, George Keymas, said of him, “I worked with Leo several times. We were in Santa Fe Passage and the remake of Beau Geste then we did another TV show together. He was a gentleman all the time and a hell of an actor. I don’t think people really realize the amount of talent this man had. I say that because he was used primarily as a bad guy all the time, but I remember a film he made where he played a very sensitive kind of character. He was excellent.”
One thing we can all say. When we start a Western and the intro credits roll, listing the cast, if we see the name LEO GORDON, we all say, “Oh, good!”