When badass Leo Gordon upstaged Sugar Ray

By Pete Ehrmann on August 12, 2018
When badass Leo Gordon upstaged Sugar Ray
Leo was filmdom’s leading villain thanks to such popular movies as “Riot in Cell Block 11.”

In 1943, he held up a tavern in Los Angeles, took a policeman’s slug in the gut, and did a four-year stretch in San Quentin prison…

When Sugar Ray Robinson defended his middleweight title by knocking out former champion Rocky Graziano in three rounds at Chicago Stadium on April 16, 1952, the fight was broadcast on the ABC-TV network but was blacked out in the Windy City. As a result, the highway between there and Milwaukee was ten times busier than normal that day as Chicago fight fans headed 90 miles north to catch it on the tube in Milwaukee bars and hotels.

Five of them got a fight they hadn’t bargained on—themselves versus a soon-to-be famous actor called by legendary film director Don Siegel “the scariest man I have ever met”—and ended up in worse shape than Graziano.

Leo Gordon was just embarking on the career that would stamp him as one of the most menacing villains in Hollywood history. “In … about 70 films and dozens of television shows,” said the New York Times upon his death at age 78 on December 26, 2000, “Mr. Gordon created a gallery of mobsters, killers and creeps. Tall and broad-shouldered with steely blue eyes, he was one of the most recognized character actors of his time.”

On the big and small screen he exchanged punches and bullets with John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Clint Walker, James Garner and other upstanding white-hatted idols; he terrorized womenfolk and children, incited prison riots—all with a scowl that made Sonny Liston’s look downright cherubic by comparison.

Off camera, Gordon was a devoted husband, doting father, and a talented, prolific writer of screenplays and novels. “Writing is more rewarding than acting,” he said, “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… I’m 6’2”, 200 pounds. Got a craggy-ass face.”

When he accepted a Golden Boot Award in 1997 for his body of work as a badass in Western films, Gordon said, “Thank God for typecasting.”

None of that was foreshadowed by his early life and adulthood. Leo went as far as the eighth grade in school. The Army cut him loose during World War II because he “couldn’t take rules.” In 1943, he held up a tavern in Los Angeles, took a policeman’s slug in the gut, and did a four-year stretch in San Quentin prison.

Some sources say Gordon was a champion boxer in the Army, but that’s news to his daughter Tara, whose Facebook page devoted to her dad is one of the few redeeming things about Facebook.

“I do know he could box,” she says. “Other actors who did fight scenes with him told me he really knew what he was doing. He mentioned that he considered a boxing career before he stumbled into acting. Boxing was the only sport he showed any interest in. He really admired great boxers.”

(In what might have been his only screen appearance in boxing trunks, in a 1960 episode of the TV series “The Untouchables” called “Head of Fire: Feet of Clay” Gordon played “Pops Gantry,” a heavyweight warhorse who splashes in the ring for an inferior opponent on orders from a mob chief and back in his dressing room grouses, “I think I’d rather go out on Michigan Avenue and sell apples.”)

Leo’s life turned around when he enrolled in the American Academy for Dramatic Arts in New York City. He met and married his wife, actress Lynn Cartwright, became a dad, and got rolling as an actor portraying the sadistic character “Gletkin” in the stage drama “Darkness at Noon,” starring another great screen heavy, Edward G. Robinson, as an architect of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia put on trial for treason during the Stalinist Purge of 1938.

Robinson got most of the attention when “Darkness at Noon” opened its five-day run at the Davidson Theater in downtown Milwaukee on April 15, 1952, but that changed two nights later after five Chicagoans who’d driven up to watch the middleweight title fight encountered 29-year-old Leo Gordon on the corner of N. 5th St. and W. Wisconsin Ave. after the fight and his performances at the Davidson were over.

He was standing on the sidewalk with his hands on his hips, Leo later told District Attorney William McCauley, and as he demonstrated his stance for McCauley he said, “I have a feeling that some people look on me as if I were a big dumbo or a big stupe.”

As the group of five passed him, Gordon said, one said to the others, “Take a look at that.”

“It was not what he said that bothered me,” explained Leo. “It was the way he said it.”

When the ensuing fight was over, one of the Chicagoans went to the hospital in a coma, and D.A. McCauley warned Gordon, “The man you hit may die. If he does, you’ll be charged with manslaughter.”

Gordon answered “No, sir,” when asked, “You have a sort of belligerent role in the play, haven’t you? Is that role in the play affecting your mind? Are you oversensitive?”

He pleaded not guilty to assault and battery, and Edward G. Robinson posted his $2,500 bail. In the next evening’s performance at The Davidson, Gordon’s own bruises were covered by extra makeup.

The criminal charges were dropped, but the Chicago man knocked out by Gordon pursued a civil case against him, seeking $50,000 in damages. By the time it finally came to trial in Milwaukee in 1956, Leo was filmdom’s leading villain thanks to such popular movies as “Riot in Cell Block 11” and “Hondo” and a raft of TV work.

The verdict in the six-day trial was not guilty by dint of elementary math, said the jury foreman: “It was five against one.”

During their deliberation, the eight female and four male jurors reenacted the scene when Leo and the Chicago Five met on the street four years earlier. It probably tickled him even more than the verdict itself when it was revealed that the part of the big, tough, scary actor was played by one of the gals.

“Actors—especially tough guy types—all learn that if you even touch someone you will be sued,” says Tara Gordon.

“Two things frightened Leo—lawsuits and the IRS. He learned to keep his cool under tremendous pressure. He also overpaid his taxes.

“It’s called peace of mind.”

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1952-4-16 Ray Robinson vs Rocky Graziano

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  1. Bob 02:47am, 08/14/2018

    This is a classic, Pete. I thought I knew a lot about Gordon, but this story was terrific. He was one of the best on-screen bad guys of all time.

  2. Lucas McCain 12:33pm, 08/12/2018

    Good story.  I’ll have to watch for the guy next time I watch TCM.  Also good to see Robinson-Graziano again.  I still don’t think Rocky knocked him down.  Robbie appears to have been “yanked” to the floor by a punch that goes over his head and pulls him off balance.  Even Rocky joked “He fell over my body.” The KO is something, in the class of Patterson-Johansson II, though not as frightening.

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