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Bernard Gordon, 88; blacklisted screenwriter led '99 Kazan protest

May 12, 2007|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Bernard Gordon, one of the younger screenwriters blacklisted during the McCarthy era whose proudest moment late in life was the protest he led against the honorary Oscar awarded director Elia Kazan, has died. He was 88.

Gordon, who wrote for years under a pseudonym but saw many of his film credits restored, died Friday at his home in the Hollywood Hills after a long battle with bone cancer, said his daughter, Ellen Gordon.

When Kazan stepped onstage in 1999 to accept an Academy Award for lifetime achievement, many in the audience withheld their applause. Outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Music Center, hundreds of demonstrators noisily protested, holding signs bearing such messages as "Don't Whitewash the Blacklist," a result of the campaign Gordon helped orchestrate.

In 1952, Kazan had denounced colleagues as onetime communists before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Gordon had been subpoenaed to appear before the committee but was never called to testify. The exiled screenwriter was forced to work abroad. He made more than 20 films, including penning the scripts for "The Thin Red Line" (1964) and "Battle of the Bulge" (1965).

"Some very, very prominent people had been affected by the depths of that campaign against Kazan. That was Bernie Gordon's handiwork, and he lived long enough to experience some vindication," said Patrick McGilligan, co-author of "Tender Comrades," a 1997 book about the Hollywood blacklist that included a lengthy interview with Gordon.

In an interview Friday with The Times, Ellen Gordon read from the telegram summoning her father to the hearings and remembered how he hid from the subpoena server. Her parents told Ellen, then 2, "not to open the door to the magazine salesman" at their front door.

Unable to find work because of the blacklist, Gordon became "the world's worst plastics salesman" in downtown Los Angeles, he said in a 2000 Times story. His boss was Ray Marcus, a friend whose name he would use as an alias on several scripts. "Raymond T. Marcus" was his original credit on "Hellcats of the Navy" (1957), which starred Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy Davis.

Through a friend, Gordon met film producer Philip Yordan, who would become known for acting as a front for blacklisted colleagues. Gordon moved to France and then Spain to work for him from 1960 to 1973.

As a writer and producer, Gordon made such science fiction classics as "The Day of the Triffids" (1962) and such big-screen spectacles as "El Cid" (1961) and "55 Days at Peking" (1963).

He was proudest of his films, such as "Horror Express" (1973), that had cult reputations, McGilligan said.

Yordan often took the screen credit while Gordon wrote the scripts, but the arrangement allowed Gordon to make movies, and $2,000 a week, in the 1960s.

"The living was good in Spain," Gordon recalled in "Tender Comrades." It led him to title his memoir "Hollywood Exile, or How I Learned to Love the Blacklist" (2000).

"It's ironic but true, because when I escaped and went to Europe, I finally became a success," Gordon said in the 2000 Times story.

Decades would pass before his achievements were publicly acknowledged as his own by the Writers Guild of America.

As of 2000, 10 screenwriting credits had been restored to Gordon, more than any other writer, said Dave Robb, a journalist who covered Hollywood and became a friend of Gordon.

"The action by the guild comes about 40 years too late to help my Hollywood career," Gordon told the New York Times in 1997 after seven credits had been restored.

"I sure am angry at the way I was treated by all the major studios," he said. "They blacklisted me, and I couldn't get any work in this damn town."

Gordon was born Oct. 29, 1918, in New Britain, Conn., to William and Kitty Gordon, Russian Jewish immigrants. His father ran a hardware store.

Growing up in New York City, Gordon developed an early fascination with the movies. He studied English and film at City College of New York, earning a bachelor's degree in 1937.

With his childhood friend Julian Zimet -- who would collaborate on movies with Gordon and also be blacklisted -- he established a film-appreciation group called the Film and Sprocket Society at the college, Ellen Gordon said.

When he arrived in Los Angeles, Gordon had $16 in his pocket and got a job at Paramount as a script reader, the 2000 Times story said.

Active in the Screen Readers Guild, he served as its president and helped negotiate the organization's first contract with the film studios, according to "Tender Comrades."

Gordon joined the Communist Party at 22, when he was just getting his start in Hollywood.

It "was certainly not a path to success," he wrote in his memoir. "Right or wrong, people were there because they were outraged about the existing woes and evils of the world and wanted to do something to correct them."

In 1946, he married Jean Lewin, a fellow activist who ran the Hollywood Canteen, a wartime club for servicemen. She died in 1995.

From 1947 to 1952, Gordon worked as a freelance scenarist, before opportunities started to vanish.

"He was bitterly funny and extremely modest about his screenwriting career," McGilligan said. "He knew the blacklist had kept him from doing great things.... He could be very funny on the subject, but he never forgave his enemies."

Gordon's only survivor is Ellen, a registered nurse case-manager at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Services are pending.

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valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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