Remembering Stuart Gordon: Sometimes, You Should Meet Your Heroes

Jenelle Riley

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There’s an old adage that says you should never meet your heroes — but whoever came up with that didn’t know Stuart Gordon.

The director known for such cult classics as “Re-Animator,” “From Beyond” and “Dolls” died Tuesday night in Van Nuys, Calif., from multiple organ failure at age 72. He is survived by his brother, David George Gordon, his wife, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon; daughters Suzanna, Jillian and Margaret Gordon; four grandchildren and a countless number of fans and protégés who adored the worlds and characters he brought to life.

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It’s a very strange thing to find yourself friends with a man you grew up idolizing. Usually I don’t recommend it; it’s asking for disappointment. I have no idea what prompted me to first rent that VHS copy of “Re-Animator” with friends in high school; it probably had something to do with the bright green color on the box, the color of the reagent serum that would bring dead bodies (and cats) back to life. And we were probably all too young to be watching something so delightfully sick and twisted, but that was a recurring motif in Gordon’s films — he told stories you felt were made only for you. To this day, Gordon remains the only artist I believe has brought justice to H.P. Lovecraft stories on the screen with the “Re-Animator” movies and “From Beyond.”

Flash-forward about 25 years later and Gordon managed to turn that scrappy, weird, funny, tragic indie movie into a scrappy, weird, funny, tragic musical in a small theater in Los Angeles. “Re-Animator: The Musical” had no business being as good as it was, but the play was a massive hit — winning the LA Weekly Award for best musical, going on to play the New York Musical Theatre Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe festival in Scotland in 2012. I first went to see it, appropriately enough, on Easter Sunday in 2011 and even sat in the “splatter zone” — the first three rows where the audience would often get gore and stage blood sprayed all over them. There’s a photo I love of me covered in goo, my clothes stained red, and I’ve never looked happier.

I had interviewed Gordon two years prior when he was directing his “Re-Animator” star Jeffrey Combs in the acclaimed one-man show “Nevermore: An Evening with Edgar Allen Poe.” They had been funny and charming and I think I had kept my fangirl notions in check. I went to congratulate Gordon on “Re-Animator” and began to reintroduce myself to him — after all, we had only met once, briefly, under professional circumstances. He instantly stopped me, saying, “Of course I remember you. How are your parents in Oregon?”

I’m not sure how a friendship blossomed from there, but it happened very organically as I valued his wisdom, kindness and his awesome restaurant recommendations.  I have long realized that the horror community is made up of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Maybe they get it all out in their work? It’s a cliché to call someone a teddy bear or a gentle giant, but that’s how Stuart felt to me. There were no airs, no pretense, and you were always his equal. He went out of his way to support me, coming to see my play “A Kind of Love Story” when it premiered and calling me the next day with thoughtful, genuine praise and helpful notes. He even came to an evening of horrible short films to see a movie I’d written; a fate I wouldn’t wish on some of my enemies. (For those not in the short film world, this is the equivalent of driving a friend to the airport.)

Then, in 2014 I had the good fortune to work with Stuart on the play “Taste,” which had its world premiere at Sacred Fools Theatre Company. It came about so simply; we were having lunch and discussing another play of his when I said I was looking for a good Halloween show. He told me about “Taste,” penned by Benjamin Brand, which was loosely based on a crazy true story: two men meet alone and agree that one will eat the other.

I remember handing it to my friend Ben Rock, a fellow fan who was on the Artistic Committee of the theater. My exact words were: “This script is amazing and you will never do it.” A day later, Ben made it his mission to get the play mounted at Sacred Fools. I’ve worked with a lot of heralded directors over the years but what I noticed about Stuart is how much he didn’t call attention to himself. He trusted his cast, he knew what he wanted, and he never felt the need to yell or showboat or even raise his voice. Though I ultimately worked very little on the show, it remains one of my favorite experiences in theater. There were so many ways this show could have gone wrong, but it didn’t. What sounds like either a cheap gimmick or outright lunacy turned out to be a complex, beautiful story about loneliness and connection thanks to the script and direction. Among several of the awards the play received, Stuart was named best director by the Stage Raw Awards.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise if you know Stuart’s theater background; he was always pushing boundaries and using art as a statement. In 1968, the Gordons were arrested on obscenity charges over a production of “Peter Pan” they staged to protest the Vietnam War. One of my favorite stories he would tell was about his play “The Game Show,” in which audience members were literally locked inside a theater and made to believe they were in danger. Stuart would laugh as he recalled his favorite review, “It said, ‘This is the most exciting theater I’ve ever seen, and it should be closed immediately.’” (Carolyn was also not a fan; she briefly broke up with him over the show.)

Stuart founded the Organic Theater Company in Chicago, where actors from Dennis Franz and Joe Mantegna thrived and which premiered such seminal works as David Mamet’s “Sexual Perversity in Chicago.” In 2005, Gordon directed a film version of Mamet’s play “Edmond,” starring William H. Macy in the title role, and it remains some of Macy’s best work to date.

On top of being a brilliant artist, Stuart was a dedicated family man, still madly in love with his wife and collaborator Carolyn after more than 50 years — they met when they were 18 and Stuart accidentally drunk-dialed her. He could be a man of few words at times, but not when it came to talking about his three daughters and grandchildren. When you saw him with your family you suddenly understood how the “Re-Animator” guy also made such sweet films as “The Magical Ice Cream Suit” and created the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” franchise.

He was someone who other amazing people flocked to. I’ve met so many remarkable individuals through him and when you meet someone who knows him, it’s like speaking a special code. Graham Skipper, who starred in “Re-Animator: The Musical,” told me there’s a popular expression among his friends: “All roads lead back to Stuart Gordon.” He helped, encouraged, promoted and gave opportunities to so many people.

I know I’m a better artist and a better person because of the time I spent with Stuart. And while I’m sad his unique, wonderful vision is gone, I know his influence will continue on, not only in the films and filmmakers he influenced, but the people he leaves behind.

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