Happy birthday Barry Gordon (b. 1948)! And how perfect that his birthday falls during the Holiday season, for his first claim to fame was singing the 1955 hit song “Nuttin’ for Christmas”, which remains a perennial classic to this day. The wild thing is (and I imagine this is not an unusual experience), as a kid, I experienced several different facets of Gordon’s career without realizing they were all pieces of the same guy. There was this Holiday song; there was his lead role on the 1975 sit com Fish, one of my favorite shows at the time; I’d certainly seen his guest appearances on several tv shows; I’m sure I’d seen the 1967 movie The Spirit is Willing on TV; and he did cartoon voice-overs on Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle and Shazam! But it’s that early career that really made me want to give him a shout-out here today, as it’s very old school.
Gordon was actually second generation show biz. His step father was Bob Manning, a crooner with big bands, who toured and cut records with people like Ziggy Elman, Art Mooney and Tommy Dorsey. It would only be natural for the infant Gordon to imitate his father figure. Barry was only three when he went on Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour and took second place for his rendition of Johnny Ray’s “Cry” (Good Lord! Who took first place?! )
Gordon was all of six years old when he sang “Nuttin’ for Christmas” with Art Mooney and His Orchestra and it became a #6 chart hit.
Next came other records like “Rock Around Mother Goose” and “I Can’t Whistle” (both 1956).
But Gordon wasn’t just a singer, he had an enormous amount of personality, with kind of a droll face and eyes that seemed worldly wise beyond their years. So he immediately got acting roles. He had a prominent scene in Frank Tashlin’s rock and roll movie The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) with Jayne Mansfield; he was on Make Room for Daddy with Danny Thomas; several episodes of The Jack Benny Program; Texaco Star Theatre with Milton Berle; Leave It To Beaver; Jerry Lewis’s Cinderfella (1960), and much else.
He took some time off for college and then returned to television strong in the early 70s. In fact, he often had better luck than the shows did. He was a semi-regular on The Don Rickles Show (1972), and a regular on The New Dick Van Dyke Show (1973-1974), both of which lasted a single season; and a key regular on Fish (1977-1978) which lasted two seasons.
Fish was where I knew him first. He was perfectly cast as an idealistic young sociology student who helps the cranky retired detective Phil Fish and his wife Berenice wrangle a bunch of troubled foster kids. The bespectacled, adult Gordon was more than a little reminiscent of Woody Allen, which I’m sure was not a liable to getting cast. Here is in a 1979 episode of Supertrain:
He guested everywhere: Kolchak: the Night Stalker (1974), The Incredible Hulk (1979), Three’s Company (1980). To prove that television rots the memory he was also in two episodes of Barney Miller, from which Fish had spun off, as characters other than the one he had played on Fish! Then from 1981 to 1983 he was a regular on Archie Bunker’s Place, as Arche’s Jewish accountant.
Increasingly cartoon voice-overs began to be central to his career: Tarzan: Lord of the Jungle ran 1976-1979, then there was The Kid Super Power Hour with Shasam! (1981), Pac-man (1982-1983), Snorks (1984-1988), Teenage Mutant Nina Turtles (1987-1996), Gravedale High (1990), Swat Kats (1993-94), and many others.
He played a Ferengi on Star Trek — very good casting! He played a Rabbi on Curb Your Enthusiasm, also good casting — in fact, some would argue the same casting! (was Larry David never a Ferengi? This must be rectified).
While keeping a hand in acting, gradually Gordon began to get drawn into politics. (Actually, he’d majored in poli sci in college and gotten a law degree in 1991 so he’d always been interested in it). From 1988 to 1995 he served as President of the Screen Actors Guild (its longest serving President, in fact). In 1998 he ran for Congress in the California district that includes Pasadena, and came within a whisker of beating the Republican incumbent James Rogan. For the past dozen years or so he has been that rarest of things, a left-wing talk radio host. Listen to his current show here.