Carl Gordon Acts on Divine Calling

Carl Gordon Acts on Divine Calling

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.

Carl Gordon

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.

Sources

24 Responses

  1. florence fois
    | Reply

    Debra, I think if there was a calling, I might have run from it for most of my life. I always knew I was a story teller but was frightened by the insights and the things I felt when I really looked at people.

    What stirkes me about this is his talk about “stories” and how few concentrate on people of color.

    Thanks so much for this post. It comes at a time when I am once more struggling with what I will do with that inner voice … who like the kid in me … will not take no for an answer.

    • Debra Eve
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      It was amazingly hard to find much on Carl Gordon, Florence, and you’re right — that video is precious. He’s so eloquent about what happens when any group loses, or doesn’t continue to create, their own stories. Thank you!

  2. Brian D. Meeks
    | Reply

    You never cease to amaze me in the late bloomers you’ve uncovered. This, like all the others, was a fantastic piece. Thanks so much for your continued efforts in inspiring me to try harder.

    • Debra Eve
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      I’m a former archaeologist, Brian, and once I decide to dig for something, I’m pretty good at it ;). I’m always digging for late bloomers, and always amazed by my discoveries too! Thanks for your stopping by.

  3. Anne R. Allen
    | Reply

    What an inspiring story. Think how many people get “callings” like that and ignore them, because of negativity from their friends and family or just a general “you’re too old” message our culture gives us. You’re never too old to follow your dreams!

    • Debra Eve
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      That’s our mantra, Anne! I’m wondering how many I’ve ignored, but hopefully this is one place where hearing gets better was you get older.

  4. Gloria
    | Reply

    What a lovely and inspirational post, Debra. Thank you. Your work makes me happy…and I’m finding a very weird synchronicity here because yesterday was the first time I ever remember asking aloud for guidance. I got a few rumblings and I’m tuning in for answers!

    • Debra Eve
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      “Try acting.” Lindsay just pointed out the double meaning there. It’s great advice for just about everything. I’m not particularly religious, but I find that when you ask, you always get an answer from somewhere. Keep us posted, Gloria 🙂

  5. Lindsay
    | Reply

    I like very much the idea of Carl Gordon praying for guidance and God saying “try acting.”

    • Debra Eve
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      Lindsay, I never read the double meaning there until your comment. Hilarious. God just has a stock answer and it’s up to us to interpret it 🙂

  6. Jennette Marie Powell
    | Reply

    I’ve never experienced a calling that loud, although I have tried to quit writing before, and the voices (of my characters!) won’t let me. 😀 Thanks for sharing another wonderfully inspiring story!

    • Debra Eve
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      I think that’s the same thing, Jennette! Who are we to judge where a calling comes from 🙂 Thanks for stopping by.

  7. John Holland
    | Reply

    This is an excellent article about a fine man. I really enjoyed it.

    John Holland

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thank you so much, John. Being a middle-aged woman who came to creativity late, I tend to write about the same :). Making a conscious effort to be more equal opportunity and as you say, Carl Gordon was a fine man.

  8. Lynette M Burrows
    | Reply

    Yes, I have heard the calling and I have ignored it in the past. Sometimes it’s been a weak voice, a yearning – those are easy to ignore because they aren’t ‘practical,’ or they aren’t ‘a real job,’ or my best excuse, ‘I have responsibilities.’ Yet, there’s one calling I have not been able to ignore – writing. Unfortunately I have repeatedly allowed ‘responsibilities’ to over-ride the writing until now. 🙂

    Thanks for another inspiring story, Debra.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      I don’t think of responsibilities as an excuse, but as a reality, Lynette. We do what we have to do and for many that’s not easy. But the good news (hopefully) — sooner or later those responsibilities diminish, especially where say, raising children is involved. Congrats on going for it now!

  9. K.B. Owen
    | Reply

    Hi, Debra –

    Finally got a chance to visit…sorry I’m a little late to the party. Love this; you find the best stuff, and it keeps me going! My problem: having a voice be that DEFINITE! But in retrospect, some of the false starts I’ve had – going into pre-med, then English, then teaching college, and now writing – have all been parts of the process that contributed to what I have to offer as a person and as a writer. I’ve come to learn that, more often than not, how we get to where we’re meant to be is not a straight line!

    Have a great week,
    Kathy

    • Debra Eve
      |

      There’s no such thing as late to the party on this blog, Kathy 🙂 Wow, I didn’t know you were pre-med! I agree with you 100% — life is a spiral! Thanks for your comment.

  10. Patricia
    | Reply

    Another great story, Debra. I love these kinds of inspirational people. Makes me think there’s hope yet for my being a writer.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thanks, Patricia! I know there’s hope, and more.

  11. Karen McFarland
    | Reply

    Please forgive me Debra. I am so behind with everyone’s blogs. I’m so happy to read this one. Although I do enjoy each and every one that you post. You know you find the most interesting people, don’t you? Anyway, when I saw Carl’s picture, I though he looked familar. Then I read your post. Aha! Yes, I was right. I did know him. What a wonderful actor. I did not know that he was a late bloomer. As for a calling, I’d have to say I’ve had several. Some are constant, while others change as I grow older. Life takes us on many roads, doesn’t it. 🙂

    • Debra Eve
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      Please don’t apologize, Karen! I so appreciate your support. I’ve had several callings too, and now I’m starting to see them all weave together. It’s another way of doing things, but just as wonderful.

  12. Tom Harold
    | Reply

    So glad you found this history of Carl Gordon and blogged about it. The fact that he felt led to pursue acting, a discipline completely outside his life’s experience up to that time, speaks strongly to me and is very heartening. I did not discover my passion for kinetic art until 2008, aged 38. I did not allow myself to embrace the possibility of pursuing it full-time until two or three years later. Sometimes if I am struggling I still say to myself, “Really? You’re trying to become a full-time artist? Now? Are you crazy? You went to school for Journalism!” But Mr. Gordon’s story only proves that such a turnaround in life and in life’s fortunes, is indeed possible. It’s been a good bit of reassurance for me today. Thank you! (By the way, I currently work in a sheet metal shop, similar to Mr. Gordon’s past.)

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      What a great story, Tom. I had a hard time finding information on him. Kinetic art sounds like an intriguing field. I just checked out your site. It’s amazing. Good luck!

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