Friday, December 16, 2011

Susan Gordon: A Child Star Makes An Early Exit

How sad to learn that Susan Gordon has left us. Susan — who as a child played Danny Kaye’s daughter in The Five Pennies, starred in a memorable episode of The Twilight Zone, and became a fantasy object for ten-year-old males in The Boy and the Pirates — grew up in my neighborhood. Of course I was aware of Susan’s celebrity, which made me feel slightly jealous. How did this little blonde girl get to make movies?

Years later, I spent an evening with Susan, discussing her life as a showbiz kid. She had taken a brief holiday from her husband and six children to enjoy a whirl of reunions and nostalgia events. She was petite, pretty, and very serious as she explained how her career began by accident: “My parents never wanted any of us girls to be in movies. They thought Hollywood was the wrong place for a child to grow up.” Yet her parents were movie people themselves. Her father, Bert I. Gordon, made low-rent movies in the Roger Corman mold. In 1958, he was shooting Attack of the Puppet People, which contained a small role for a young girl. Though Susan coveted the part, he hired a professional actress, then invited Susan’s Brownie troop to be extras in the scene. When the young pro fell ill, Susan stepped into the breach: “I did the scene, one take—and history began. . . . When the film was released, we got some calls from agents. And finally my parents said, ‘Susan, if you’re really interested. . . .’ But they set some ground rules.”

Rule #1: she was not to make her sisters jealous. Skimpy costumes were out too. And her father announced, "The day that they say, ‘There goes Susan Gordon’s father’ is the day you quit the business." He was joking, but he didn’t want his daughter to outshine him. Years later, though, his pride in her achievement was unmistakable. Still, this was not a case of stage parents pushing their darling toward ever greater success. It was drilled into Susan by both elder Gordons that Hollywood flattery should not go to her head. In protecting her from unrealistic expectations, they helped stave off the despair that hits many child actors on the inevitable day that “you don’t have this adoration any more. You’re off of the pedestal and your balloon is deflated.”

But Susan was so careful to keep her accomplishments under wraps that she ended up short on self-esteem. She told me about a long-ago playground incident: a close pal confided that “when I first became friends with you, it was because you were in the movies, but now I really like you.” Said Susan, “Although I’m sure she meant it as a compliment, it shattered my world.” Her voice dropped low as she recalled thinking, “Well, does everyone — all my friends — want to be friends with me because I’m in movies? What about me?” At this point in our conversation, her eyes filled with tears.

Susan was once up for a film with William Holden that would have taken her to Africa. As always, her parents warned her not to raise her hopes. Her own attitude was different: “Let me dream about it. Let me dream I’m going to be in Africa. And then if it doesn’t happen, . . . . at least I’ve had that moment of being in it.” She added, “I feel that way basically about life. Looking forward to things.”

I’m grieving now that cancer cut a good life short. Susan Gordon, alas, can’t look forward to things any more.


  1. Oh, yeah, 'The Fugitive' episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE! It's not a favorite of mine, but certainly tugs at your heartstrings and the sort of episode I could see Spielberg contemplating for his turn in the 1983 film. This is really an amazing post especially all the info regarding the Gordon's. I wasn't aware Susan was Mr. B.I.G.'s daughter!

  2. Yes indeed, but she certainly moved beyond his kind of movie. "The Five Pennies" was a schmaltzy big studio biopic, starring Danny Kaye as bandleader Red Nichols. Louis Armstrong was featured, and sang a memorable duet with Kaye. And Susan's role was a major one, because in the film she contracts polio, thus temporarily derailing her father's musical career. By the way, Susan also starred in a live TV remake of "Miracle on 34th Street," with Ed Wynn as Santa.

  3. I am a big fan of Mr. BIG - so I was aware of the familial connection. I'm very sorry to hear of her passing. She did move beyond her father's films - much like a Corman graduate. I hope she has found a place where there are still things to look forward to.