Kenosha native and monster movie director Bert I. Gordon brought the world the legendary likes of “The Amazing Colossal Man,” “Village of the Giants” and “Attack of the Puppet People.” He worked with Orson Welles, Ron Howard, Ida Lupino, Joan Collins and dozens of other stars in a sci-fi and horror film career that stretched seven decades.
Andy Turner looks back at the life and career of the man they called Mr. B.I.G., who passed away at 100 in spring 2023.
Director Bert. I Gordon spent his youth in Kenosha, Wisconsin movie theaters, watching the latest horror, gangster and western flicks.
But watching just wasn’t enough.
In his 2009 autobiography, “The Amazing Colossal Worlds of Mr. B.I.G.,” he wrote about becoming acquainted with theater employees, who showed him how to work the projector and splice film. He even befriended the vaudeville stars in one theater, learning about their “life and secrets.” In his book, Gordon wrote about stars like, “The Man Frozen Alive, who was displayed in the lobby frozen inside a long block of ice.”
He would find a similar pull from local carnivals, where he encountered the likes of The Human Skeleton and Alligator Boy.
As a teenager while in Chicago — officially for accordion lessons — he ventured a few times to the city’s burlesque theaters, where armed with a camera and high-speed film, he shot action photos of the dancers. He delighted in seeing, up close, stars such as Sally Rand and Gypsy Rose Lee.
Gordon then attended the University of Wisconsin where he made campus news reels, using university equipment, that ran in Madison’s downtown theaters. He left college early to join the Army Air Corps. After his military service, he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he filmed commercials and documentaries.
But with a love of movies and oddities still pounding in his heart and head, he decided he would try his luck in Hollywood.
Indeed, Gordon stayed busy in the 1950s and 1960s, cranking out creature features of all sorts, especially those featuring unnaturally giant beasts. These creatures — and his initials — paved the way for his nickname, Mr. B.I.G. Eight of his movies from this period have been “honored” — or riffed — in episodes of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” It’s the most of any director, beating out Roger Corman by two.
But for daughter Patricia Gordon, her father’s tenacity, personal touches and —especially — his dedication to being a filmmaker are worthy of admiration. Gordon frequently wrote, edited, orchestrated special effects and more on his movies.
Patricia Gordon is particularly fond of 1958’s “Attack of the Puppet People.”
“The thing about ‘Attack of the Puppet People,’ I would cry every time I would see it,” said Patricia Gordon. “At the end — spoiler alert — when Franz says, ‘Don’t leave me,’ it reminded me of my dad. He hated being alone. I don’t know how I knew this as a little girl. I don’t know, it’s just something that really moved me.”
Patricia Gordon noted that the opening credits of “Attack of the Puppet People” depict the Gordon’s real family as marionettes. Marionettes from the movie would remain around the family house for years.
Patricia is one of three daughters, including Susan and Carol, Bert I. Gordon had with Flora Lang. Lang worked on the crew of many of Gordon’s movies and continued to do film work after their divorce in 1979.
Susan Gordon, who passed away in 2011, starred in several of her dad’s movies, including “Tormented” and “Picture Mommy Dead,” featuring costar Zsa Zsa Gabor. She also had roles in dozens of 1960s shows like “The Twilight Zone,” “Route 66” and “77 Sunset Strip.”
Susan Gordon made her unplanned debut in “Attack of the Puppet People.” The young girl who was supposed to play a role in the movie got sick. Susan’s Brownie troop happened to be visiting the set. Bert I. Gordon turned to his then-wife and told her to get Susan ready and to learn the lines, according to Patricia Gordon.
“He turned her and said, ‘She’s going to do it!’” remembered Patricia Gordon.
Gordon had another daughter, Christina, with his second wife, Eva Marklstorfer.
Patricia Gordon said as a teenager, she helped out on the set for her father’s 1973 movie, “The Mad Bomber,” starring Chuck Connors. One day while filming, Connors threw her the keys to his Rolls Royce and told her to drive it back to the house. Her father, who never let him drive his car, was shocked, she said.
“I’ll never forget the sound a Rolls Royce makes when the door closes. It’s like a perfect fit,” said Patricia Gordon.
In 1972, Bert I. Gordon connected with another famous filmmaker from Kenosha: Orson Welles. Welles starred in “Necromancy” as Mr. Cato, the head of a witches’ coven.
A photograph from the set shows them smiling at each other. Patricia Gordon says directing the movie was a highlight of her father’s career. Her father was good at handling famous people, she said, and had no problems with the famously individualistic actor and director.
“Whatever Mr. Welles would want, he would get because (my dad) wanted him in his movie,” said Patricia Gordon. “They got along great.”
Patricia Gordon said her dad was always proud of being from Kenosha.
“Otherwise, I wouldn’t have even heard of Kenosha. It shaped him as a man,” she added.
In 2015, the year he turned 93, Bert I. Gordon made his last movie, “Secrets of a Psychopath,” starring Kari Wuhrer. It was his first movie since 1989. He again wrote the script.
Patricia Gordon says the best script Bert I. Gordon ever wrote — a subtle anti-war movie — never got made.
She has been touched by the attention her father’s death received and the love from fans.
“I appreciate every single fan and every single person who liked even one minute of his films. Because that’s what he did it for – he did it for the audience,” said Patricia Gordon. “And himself. He loved making it.”