Rufus Carl Gordon (1932-2010) came home from stocking shelves one night, exhausted, soul-sick, and bereft of hope. He’d soon be on this earth 40 years with nothing to show for it.
He broke down in tears and prayed for guidance. “Lord, tell me what I need to do.” A voice from somewhere deep inside replied, “Try acting.”
It was the most ridiculous idea he’d ever heard. He’d barely set foot in a theater.
Carl had grown up in Brooklyn. He spent four years in the Air Force, serving as an airplane mechanic during the Korean War, and a few years at Brooklyn College. But he couldn’t afford tuition and dropped out. One low-paying job turned into another and decades passed.
Then he received his divine marching orders. What did he have to lose? He enrolled in the Gene Frankel Theater Workshop where he was the only black student, the only college dropout, and the oldest in the class.
Carl studied acting and auditioned constantly while working at the post office. Soon, he won several plum character roles on Broadway and performed in more than 30 productions with the Negro Ensemble Company.
In 1984, Carl appeared in John Sayles’ The Brother From Another Planet. Later, he guested on Law & Order, Felicity, ER, and dozens of other shows. In 1990, he starred in The Piano Lesson by August Wilson, part of a series that won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In 1995, he reprised the role on television.
But he’s best known for the FOX sitcom Roc, about a working-class black family in Baltimore, broadcast from 1991-94.
The show starred Carl as Andrew, the proud, hilariously-outspoken patriarch of the Emerson family. In one sketch, Andrew insists that a certain member of the Boston Celtics can’t possibly be a white guy: “Larry Bird was born and bred in Harlem. His real name is Abdul Mustafa.” Carl based Andrew on an irascible uncle who owned a grocery store in Philadelphia.
Roc broke new ground by televising Seasons 2 and 3 live, something rarely done after the 1950s. Carl reveled in the live format. “It feels good. It’s like going back to Broadway.”
Carl also found time to give back to his community. He served on the board of Building the Fire Within, a non-profit that helps women released from prison. He died of lymphoma in 2010 at age 78, forty years after he acted on divine calling.
I’m a little envious, because I’ve never experienced a calling this strong. What about you? (Although sometimes I hear the muse whisper, which is enough for now.)
Here’s Carl, explaining why stories are so important.
- New York Times: “Carl Gordon, a Late-Blooming Actor, Dies at 78.” (Photo: Jim Wilson/The New York Times)
- New York Times: “From the Ashes, an Acting Career and a Role on Roc“
- IMDB Entry: Carl Gordon