I don't know what Ron Gordon's actual last words were, but I know exactly what his last words were to me. On March 10, 2017, the delightfully irreverent Memphis actor and serial volunteer typed, "By the way, that was improv" — then he ghosted away. If our years long, reliably uplifting conversation had to come to an end, that's as appropriate a closing line as I can think of for such a free, and generous spirit.
Monday morning, April 17, Gordon died of complications related to heart surgery. Don't be fooled by factual detail, or any number of past procedures that turned his chest into a map of old scars. Anybody who ever met this gentle giant of a man knows one thing for certain: There was nothing wrong with Ron Gordon's heart. Unless, like Kilroy, the Everyman boxer from Tennessee Williams' experimental play Camino Real, it was just too big to go on beating.
Whether he was acting, working backstage, building sets, or writing checks, it's hard to think of any one person who contributed so much of himself to so many different performing arts organizations. He worked with our biggest playhouses, and with our scrappiest independent troupes. No role was ever too small. No task was ever too large either.
Gordon was a combat veteran, and loving parent. He's a 4-time Ostrander Award winner and past technical director for Germantown Community Theatre, and Southwest Tennessee Community College. His own life's struggles made him uncommonly sensitive, and quick to aid anybody in need of a helping hand — or a helping guitar. He regularly donated red Epiphones to charity auctions, reflecting another of his other great loves — live music.
So what, exactly, was "improv?" I'd made some comment about Gordon's wonderful nonspeaking role as a hirsute gangster in the 1980's-era Judd Nelson film Making the Grade. In one scene Nelson gives Gordon a fist-sized onion, which he immediately polishes and bites into like it was a delicious apple. It's not a very good film, but it was shot in Memphis and, as a high school student who'd soon be attending Rhodes College, I must have watched it a dozen times or more. I was a special fan of Gordon's onion business and would rewind the taped-from-Cinemax video, to watch his scene over and over again — and wince. I suppose that makes Gordon my first favorite Memphis actor.
As this clip shows indisputably, the man could make one hell of an entrance too. His exit however — if I may be allowed one final review — was far too abrupt. He will be sorely missed.
A memorial has been scheduled for Monday, May 15, 6-7 p.m. at Playhouse on the Square.