Bruce Gordon

d. Jan. 20, 2011

Bruce Gordon, the actor of imposing appearance and voice who was best known for playing gangsters such as Frank Nitti in The Untouchables as well as parodying such roles, died Jan. 20 in Santa Fe, N.M., after a long illness. He was 94.

Gordon spent most of his career on stage and then on television. He made his Broadway debut in 1937, and was in the original cast of “Arsenic and Old Lace” in 1941 with Boris Karloff (uncharacteristically, he played a police officer). Gordon, Charlton Heston and Theo Marcuse played Roman soldiers in a 1947 production of “Antony and Cleopatra” that starred Katharine Cornell. Gordon, Karloff, Joseph Wiseman and Christopher Plummer were in the Broadway cast of 1955’s “The Lark,” with Julie Harris as Joan of Arc.

Gordon’s handful of movie roles included an unbilled part as a cop in “The Naked City” (1948), the last Marx Brothers picture “Love Happy” (1949), “The Buccaneer” (1958) with Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston, and “Tower of London” (1962) starring Vincent Price.

He broke into the fledgling New York television industry in the late 1940s, appearing in Kraft Television Theatre, Robert Montgomery Presents, Ponds Theater, Studio One, You Are There, The U.S. Steel Hour, Playhouse 90, The DuPont Show of the Month and even Shirley Temple Theatre. He recreated his stage roles in a 1955 broadcast of “Arsenic and Old Lace” on The Best of Broadway, and in a 1957 production of “The Lark” on Hallmark Hall of Fame.

Gordon became one of television’s most reliable villains from the mid-1950s through the early 1980s in episodes of M Squad, Tombstone Territory, Trackdown, Have Gun–Will Travel, Bat Masterson, One Step Beyond, Riverboat, Bonanza, Tightrope, Naked City, 77 Sunset Strip, Gunsmoke, Maverick, Peter Gunn, Cain’s Hundred, Route 66, The Defenders, Perry Mason, It Takes a Thief, Mannix, Ironside, Tarzan, Banacek, Police Woman, The Fall Guy, Simon & Simon, and more.

He also appeared in the first episode of I Spy, the syndicated half-hour series that first aired in 1956, dramatizing spy stories through the ages. During the 1958-59 season, Gordon was on our side in his first series role in Behind Closed Doors, an NBC spy show based on the memoirs of a U.S. Naval Intelligence officer. Gordon played Commander Matson, series host and narrator, and sometime participant in the stories.

In April 1959, Gordon was seen as Frank Nitti, lieutenant to Roaring 20s Chicago mob boss Al Capone in the two-part adaptation of Eliot Ness’s book The Untouchables on Desilu Playhouse. The story ended with Capone sent up the river, so Gordon as Nitti became the primary nemesis of Ness and his men when The Untouchables series debuted on ABC that fall. Nitti appeared in more than two dozen episodes during the show’s four-season run.

Gordon and Jack Sheldon in “Run Buddy Run.”

After The Untouchables, Gordon continued to play straight villains but also started to appear in roles that kidded his Nitti image in episodes of The Lucy Show, Car 54 Where Are You?, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., He & She, Get Smart, The Flying Nun, Here’s Lucy, The Jackie Gleason Show and The Partners.

Gordon joined the cast of Peyton Place for several months early in 1966, then took another series role, again as a comic mobster, in Run Buddy Run, a CBS sitcom that spoofed the men-on-the-run series popularized by The Fugitive. Jack Sheldon starred as a hapless accountant who inadvertently overhears some criminal plotting in a Turkish bath and has to take it on the lam from the gang headed by Gordon as “Mr. D.” The series lasted only from September 1966 to January 1967.

Gordon even returned to Broadway to spoof his image in “Nowhere to Go But Up,” a 1962 musical in which he played another Prohibition-era gangster. The show, with Tom Bosley, Martin Balsam and Mary Ann Mobley also in the cast, was a flop that closed after nine performances.

His most unusual comic take on Nitti was in a telephone company commercial in the late 1960s, back when the Bell System monopoly touted its reduced weekend rates for long-distance calls. “Is a buck too much for a doll like her in New York to pay to speak with her mother in California?” Gordon growled, gesturing to his moll played by a then-unknown Louise Lasser. The payoff had tough-guy Gordon reduced to tears when the call goes through.

Gordon in “The Round Table Affair,” 1966 episode of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”


Bruce Gordon as natty mobster Frank Nitti in “The Untouchables.”