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Obituaries

Alex Gordon, 80; Producer and Promoter for Gene Autry

June 28, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Alex Gordon, who produced low-budget exploitation movies in the 1950s and '60s, such as "The She-Creature," "Dragstrip Girl," and "Shake, Rattle and Rock," but devoted most of his professional life to his childhood western screen hero, Gene Autry, has died. He was 80.

Gordon, longtime vice president of Autry's Flying A Pictures and director of licensing for the Gene Autry Music Group, died of cancer Tuesday at a nursing home in Hollywood.

The London-born Gordon was working as publicist for Autry's personal appearance tours when he executive-produced his first picture, "The Lawless Rider," a 1954 western starring Johnny Carpenter.

Linking up with the fledgling American International Pictures, Gordon produced a string of feature films, including "Flesh and the Spur" and "Voodoo Woman." Both those movies featured a young actor billed as Touch Connors, who became better known as Mike Connors.

"Alex was a cheerful, happy-go-lucky guy, always laughing and smiling," Connors, who starred in "Tightrope" and "Mannix" on television, said this week. "He was one of the nicest people I've known in the business in 50 years."

With a laugh, Connors acknowledged that the handful of Gordon-produced, shoestring-budgeted films he appeared in are not prominently featured on his acting resume. The promotional slogan for "Shake, Rattle and Rock," a 1956 film in which Connors starred, was "Rock 'n' Roll vs. the Squares."

"In those days, when you were looking for your next meal, you'd take anything to get credits and experience," he said.

Connors, who also appeared in the Roger Corman-directed 1956 film "Day the World Ended," for which Gordon was executive producer, said Gordon was often on the sets of his films.

"He was one of those guys that just ate, slept and loved to talk movies," Connors said. "If you sat down and started asking questions about old movies, he was in seventh heaven."

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Film Enthusiast

A lifelong film buff, Gordon was known for casting veteran, sometimes forgotten actors in small parts in his movies.

As he told the Los Angeles Times in 1959, "My greatest delight now as a producer is to be able to use in my pictures many of the wonderful character actors I always admired when I was just a plain movie fan."

The most memorable testaments to that are his last two films as an independent producer, the 1965 westerns "The Bounty Killer" and "Requiem for a Gunfighter." Among the many familiar B-western heroes and character players who appear in one movie or the other are Johnny Mack Brown, Bob Steele, Buster Crabbe, Tim McCoy, Fuzzy Knight, Dick Jones and Rand Brooks.

"The Bounty Killer" even boasted a cameo by none other than Gilbert M. "Bronco Billy" Anderson, the silent screen cowboy hero who began his acting career in the landmark 1903 film "The Great Train Robbery."

Both 1965 movies "were just early western-star roundups; there hadn't been anything like that done before," and fans loved Gordon for it, Boyd Magers, editor and publisher of the western film publication Western Clippings, said this week.

"Like a lot of us, Alex remained a fan all his life," said Magers, who was also a friend of Gordon's.

Born in London on Sept. 8, 1922, Gordon saw his first film in 1928 and was hooked. By 1958, the record-keeping Gordon told The Times, he had seen 20,072 films, including serials and earlier silent movies he had later caught up with, for an average of almost 700 pictures a year.

When he met his wife, Ruth, in 1956, one of his first questions was, "Do you remember the very first picture you saw as a child?" She did, and after they were married, she said Friday, they saw six or seven movies a week, although Gordon no longer kept count.

As teenagers, both Gordon and his younger brother, Richard, who later became a producer of horror and science fiction films in England, wrote articles for British fan magazines. By 1939, Alex had founded the British Gene Autry Fan Club, for which he served as president. He also published the Westerner, the club magazine, which was devoted principally to Autry, whom Gordon briefly met for the first time in 1939, when the singing cowboy was on tour in England.

After serving in the British army during World War II, Gordon joined an independent film distributor in London, Renown Pictures, for which he became head of advertising and publicity.

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Hired by Autry

In 1947, the Gordon brothers immigrated to New York City. Alex joined the film booking department of the Walter Reade theater circuit, where he worked until Autry hired him for the first time.

As publicist for Autry's tours from 1950 to 1955, Gordon traveled with the star to every state in the union and to Canada and England. Over the ensuing years, Gordon remained available to Autry for fan magazine, film and promotional work.

In 1968, Gordon accepted a position in television production at 20th Century Fox. He instituted a film restoration program there, locating and restoring more than 30 of the studio's early movies that had been considered lost.

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