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Bert I. Gordon, the sci-fi director who aimed to terrify drive-in denizens of the 1950s and ’60s with low-budget films featuring colossal creatures, shrinking humans and radioactive monsters, has died. He was 100.
Gordon died Wednesday in Los Angeles of complications from a fall in his Beverly Hills home, his daughter Patricia Gordon told The Hollywood Reporter.
Highlights (lowlights?) on his B-movie résumé include The Cyclops (1957), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), Beginning of the End (1957), Earth vs. the Spider (1958), Attack of the Puppet People (1958), Tormented (1960), The Boy and the Pirates (1960) and Picture Mommy Dead (1966).
In the ’70s, Gordon directed Vince Edwards and Chuck Connors in The Police Connection (1973) and wrote and directed How to Succeed With Sex (1970), Necromancy (1972), The Food of the Gods (1976) and, starring Joan Collins in the muck, Empire of the Ants (1977).
Perhaps as a way to keep costs down, Gordon’s films often were family affairs: His late wife, Flora, assisted him on the low-grade special effects, and their late daughter, Susan, acted in four of his features.
The budgets for his movies were minuscule, yet Gordon was nicknamed “Mister B.I.G.” (also his initials) and able to get prominent actors to work for him. Some were on the downside of their careers, others on the way up.
Don Ameche, Martha Hyer and Zsa Zsa Gabor manipulated minds in Picture Mommy Dead (Hedy Lamarr had dropped out after a shoplifting arrest); Peter Graves battled giant grasshoppers in Beginning of the End; Basil Rathbone practiced mean wizardry in 1962’s The Magic Sword; and youngsters Beau Bridges and Ron Howard handled mysterious goo in 1965’s Village of the Giants, which featured a performance by The Beau Brummels.
Gordon’s most noteworthy casting was surely Orson Welles, who has a penchant for the occult in the horror flick Necromancy.
Warned about Welles’ habit of thumbing his nose at directors and insistence on working only from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Gordon said he provided the legend with a personal chef, a dressing room on a patio and a refrigerator filled with Chicago ribs.
“It was easy to figure out that he wanted his ego [stroked] … his whole thing was that he was an important man, and he was an important man,” Gordon recalled in 2003. “I treated him like that, and there was no problem with the rest of it.”
Gordon also was told never to ask Welles about Citizen Kane. “Don’t say it’s your favorite film. Don’t ask him how it was with … just don’t mention it.”
The Amazing Colossal Man played off the fear of nuclear proliferation. It featured Glenn Langan as Col. Glenn Manning, who attempts to rescue a downed pilot near a plutonium bomb test site when an explosion occurs. Radiation exposure turns him into a bald, 70-foot menace who terrorizes Las Vegas.
Gordon made a sequel, War of the Colossal Beast, the following year. Manning somehow survived a fall off Hoover Dam at the end of the first film to return, with the giant now being portrayed by Cyclops star Duncan “Dean” Parkin.
All this was fodder for the hosts of the comedy series Mystery Science Theater 3000, which brought the Gordon canon to a new audience. “I watched it one time, and I didn’t like them making fun of [his work],” he said. “I take my films very seriously.”
Bert Ira Gordon was born on Sept. 24, 1922, in Welles’ hometown of Kenosha, Wisconsin. His love of special effects could be traced to the first film camera he was given when he was 9.
“I would do tricks with it,” he explained, “like have someone standing in the scene and then stop the camera and have them walk out so they’d ‘pop’ off. Or I’d do ‘ghost’ things, where I’d wind the film back in the darkroom.”
Gordon graduated from the University of Wisconsin, then made TV commercials before producing and shooting the 1954 adventure Serpent Island, starring Sonny Tufts as a treasure hunter.
He followed that with King Dinosaur (1955), which he wrote and directed on a budget of $18,000. His special effects combined stock footage, rear projection and an iguana — meant to be the dinosaur in the title — that wouldn’t budge, no matter what Gordon did.
“Finally, I went to the Beverly Hills library and looked up Gila monsters and lizards,” he remembered in 2014, “and it said that they live in the desert, and they don’t move unless the temperature is over 110.”
The next day, he brought heavy heat lamps to the set, and those brought the herbivore to life.
Gordon’s flicks were always accompanied by screaming taglines: “Fifty tons of creeping black horror!” was how Earth vs. the Spider was promoted. The film included a scene of a giant tarantula awakened by rock ‘n’ roll.
In Attack of the Puppet People (“Doll dwarfs versus the crushing giant beasts!”), John Hoyt plays a lonely puppet master who shrinks people to one-sixth of their original size. A character played by June Kenney (also in Earth vs. the Spider) applies for a job in his factory after his previous secretary mysteriously vanishes (you can guess what happened to her).
Hoyt has more than 250 credits listed on IMDb — including Blackboard Jungle, Spartacus and Cleopatra — yet for him, nothing could top Attack of the Puppet People, “because he felt a sensitivity, an emotion he could identify with,” Gordon noted.
In 2011, Gordon received a career achievement award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films. He published his autobiography, The Amazing Colossal Worlds of Mr. B.I.G., a year later.
And at age 93, he showed he wasn’t through yet with the release of Secrets of a Psychopath (2015), his first film in 26 years.
He was married to Flora for more than 30 years until their divorce in 1979. She died in 2016 at age 90. Susan Gordon, who also appeared in the 1959 Danny Kaye movie The Five Pennies and on episodes of The Twilight Zone and My Three Sons, was 62 when she succumbed to cancer in 2011.
In addition to his daughter Patricia, he is survived by his wife, Eva; two other daughters, Christina and Carol; six grandchildren; and 19 great-grandchildren.
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