Richard Gordon (Part 1)
I interviewed producer Richard Gordon three and a half times. First, in his hotel room at the 1997 Festival of Fantastic Films (Richard flew over to Manchester from New York for the FFF every year while he was still fit enough to do so). In 1999 I submitted this on spec to Tim Lucas at Video Watchdog who said he had been thinking for sometime of a career piece on Richard and asked me to expand the feature with questions about some of the more esoteric aspects of Richard Gordon’s career. This second interview was done over the phone, with some additional material faxed over afterwards.
The combined interview ran to 14,000 words and is the longest magazine piece I ever had published. It ran over 20 pages of VW55 in January 2000. One year later I did another phone interview with Richard specifically about his memories of Bela Lugosi and an edited version of this was published in that year’s SFX Vampire Special. What you see here is the full transcript.
Richard Gordon passed away on Halloween 2011 at the age of 85. He was a sweet, fascinating, enthusiastic, delightful, warm, supportive, busy, loyal gentleman and I never heard a bad word said about him. He spent his life doing what he loved, and who can ask for more than that? RIP, dear friend.
Before you met Bela Lugosi, what was your image of him?
"I thought he would probably be a rather difficult person to get to know, not only from his image on the screen but also because one read interviews and articles that said he was a very private person and that he didn’t mix much with people during the productions. And also he had a language problem, particularly early in his career. In fact it’s always been maintained by many people that when he was doing Dracula on the stage on Broadway he didn’t have full command of the English language and spoke much of his lines phonetically. So I thought that was the sort of person that we were going to meet."
How different was he when you met him?
"He was completely different. He was very warm, he was very friendly. He immediately expressed his appreciation that we had come to see him and that we were going to do an interview, particularly for an English publication. He extended himself in the friendliest possible manner. We went backstage to see him and within minutes he suggested that he and his wife would like to take us out to dinner, and he whisked us off to a rather posh restaurant in the area - the kind of restaurant which certainly at that time in our lives Alex and I would never have come to on our own! And he spent a whole evening with us."
How did you approach him in the first place?
"We saw the advertising in the newspapers that he was coming to the theatre. We telephoned him at the theatre, a day or two before the production was due to open, leaving a message explaining our interest and what we would like to do. And we got a call back - I think it was from his wife - suggesting that we come by on that evening and come backstage to see him."
You did a full interview with him?
"Over the course of the evening, yes."
Were you able to sell that to a British magazine?
"We sent it to a British magazine. There were several British magazines - not the well-known ones like Picturegoer and Picture Show and those - but monthly magazines dealing with films, that were being published right after the war. We had some experience with them in England. Honestly I have to admit that I don’t remember the names. They suggested that we could do some interviews and articles and send them back to London for publication - they would pay us and they would be happy to consider them on a freelance basis."
Presumably this was just after Bela had made Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein?
"I think it must have been. You know, it’s a long time ago!"
Was he still a popular figure who could draw a crowd?
"Yes, he was. Not only to a production like Arsenic and Old Lace but also to the Monogram pictures and serials and old films of his that were still playing around. Because after the Frankenstein/Dracula revival success he, like Boris, had come back into the limelight."
Did he discuss the films ha had done for Monogram, which were very cheap?
"He expressed some regret that during a certain period in time those were the only films that were being offered to him. But at the same time, he was grateful to be working and he did his best in all of them. He didn’t brush them off and sleepwalk through them or telephone in his roles. He was one of those people, being the professional that he was since his early days on the stage - and in this respect he was very similar to Boris Karloff - that once he accepted to do something, he went at it with the same enthusiasm and the same care as if it were a major production. He never sloughed off anything he was doing."
A lot of critics say the only good thing in most of the Monograms is Bela.
"Exactly. He realised that by giving it his all he could make something more out of the pictures than just another Monogram film because naturally they would trade on his name and it was his presence in the films that made them more successful than the run of the mill Monogram product."
Was he a bit of an extrovert and a showman, especially regarding the Dracula persona?
"He was really always on stage, and he loved it. Even when we went to a restaurant. Over a period of a couple of years we spent a lot of time with him in New York. He was always Bela Lugosi, if you know what I mean - and I mean that in a good sense, not a derogatory sense. He was maintaining his image. He was enjoying it. He felt that was what the public expected from him and he was going to live up to their expectations."
He would have been in his sixties. Was he still good-looking and distinguished?
"He was very distinguished looking. For a man of his age, he was also still very impressive and handsome. The women all went for him and young girls were also extremely attracted to him. He was aware of that and he capitalised on that!"
How good was his command of English?
"By that time, when we met him, he spoke English very well. He had the strong accent which he had till the day he died but he was fully fluent in the English language by then."
Did he consider himself Hungarian or a naturalised American?
"He considered himself a naturalised American. He was very pro-America and felt that was where his career really came to a head and that was his home."
At that point, he was at retirement age. Did he intend to ever retire, or did he expect something big to be around the corner?
"It was a combination of factors. He didn’t want to retire because acting was his life. We felt he couldn’t afford to retire because he’d been through some pretty tough times. When he was doing well he lived very lavishly; I don’t think he ever thought much of the future. He was married quite a few times. I don’t think he could afford to retire and also I don’t think he had the desire to retire. He enjoyed the spotlight and he was determined to get back into the spotlight.
“The thing that triggered our representation, you might say, was that right from the start he talked about doing a revival tour of Dracula on the stage. He felt and he thought that if it could be set up in England this might be an entry back to Broadway, because if he went to England and did it on the stage in London and it was a success, there was every possibility that it would then be brought to Broadway and he would come to full circle. I think that from the beginning, his interest in Alex and me - and again I don’t mean this in a derogatory sense - was that, being that we were from England and had connections in England, he saw possibilities that we might be able to accomplish something that the other people around him couldn’t do.
“He didn’t have an agent at the time. He had a manager, a young man we met who was also at Seacliff, who was always around him. The manager wasn’t able to do very much for him, in particular not with regard to anything like setting up a tour overseas, and that’s what prompted Bela at a certain point to suggest to us that if we would take over, so to speak, the management of his career while he was in New York, we might be able to accomplish something."
He had been to England twice before, to make The Mystery of the Marie Celeste and Dark Eyes of London. Did he have fond memories of those?
"He had very fond memories of working in England, particularly Dark Eyes of London which he felt was one of the best things he had done. It had offered him a very good dual role and of course the picture was very well regarded at the time. The Mystery of the Marie Celeste was a bit of a disappointment for him because before he went over there and started making the film, they had promised a much grander production which in the end it wasn’t. But he enjoyed being in England. He was always very well received there, very well liked there, and he felt very comfortable working in England."
What was Lilian Lugosi like?
"She was completely devoted to him, certainly at the time that we spent with him. She looked after him in every possible way, she never left his side. She protected him from and against any kind of criticism and hostility and problems which could arise otherwise. She also acted, in some respects, as a nurse, looking after him with his illnesses and his health problems and everything else."
What was his health like at that time?
"His health was good but he suffered from these pains that came from, I think originally, his injuries in the First World War. At least he always maintained that was where it started, He would have attacks of pain which would make it extremely difficult for him to function and she would take care of him with medication and injections and so on."
Were there areas of his life that he wouldn’t talk about?
"Not that I recollect, no."
What were his favourite topics to talk about?
"About his success as a romantic leading man in Hungary and all the great roles he had played there. He did Hamlet, he did Romeo. He was really a highly regarded classical actor. Then he had some success in Germany too, both in films and on the stage, before he came to America. He talked a lot about his years overseas."
You set up two TV shows at this time, Suspense and The Milton Berle Show. How did those come about?
"Those were actually people who approached Bela and wanted him. We helped to negotiate the terms."
So people were actively seeking him out?
"People were seeking him out, particularly while he was living in New York, because of which he wasn’t so much in demand in Hollywood. They knew he was available in the East."
Was he approached about any other work?
"He did a couple of plays with the hope that they might come into New York, but nothing happened like that. He did some personal appearance tours in movie theatres along with showings of his films. Generally he was busy but not doing anything really important which is what he was looking for."