Phillip Gordon — sometimes credited as Phil Gordon — began acting and making Super 8 films as a child. Aged eight, he spent time in the chorus of a touring production of Oliver; the experience persuaded Gordon that acting was what he wanted to do.
A keen advocate of living life rather than reading about it, Gordon later left school to join travelling multi-media entertainers Blerta for one of their tours (Blerta founder Bruno Lawrence was his uncle). Gordon makes a brief appearance in Blerta movie Wild Man, as one of the miners who faces off against John Clarke (Gordon appears in moustached close-up, 6.15 into the first clip).
The same year (1977) Wild Man barged its way into local cinemas, Gordon landed a role in new TV soap Close to Home, playing larrakin Hugh Clifford. Gordon was 16. Thanks to a fees grant approved by TVNZ’s John McRae, he joined Auckland’s Theatre Corporate drama school the following year. As with Blerta, multi-skilling was the order of the day — alongside touring with the company, Gordon worked as a stage manager as well.
In his theatre work, “I always got the supportive roles — character parts. That’s been good and bad. It taught me how to deal with characters which is good because the more I work with them the better I am as an all-round actor. But it's frustrating because you get to a point when you really want to be stretched and have demands made on you.”
On screen, supporting roles were also proving the norm — by the end of 1983 he had done bit parts in four features, including Goodbye Pork Pie (in an early scene as a mechanic) and Strata (as a helicopter pilot).
In 1983 he directed a piece of street theatre which explored his mixed emotions about New Zealand. He also won a major lead role in TV series Inside Straight. Set in a Wellington night scene full of characters who displayed a flexible relationship with the law, the show centered around Gordon as the new arrival in town: Steve Keenan, a quick-witted ex-fisherman who is taken under the wing of a taxi driver (Roy Billing).
The show saw the 25-year-old Gordon returning to his home town. His confident performance as the everyman with a glint in his eye would result in a 1985 Feltex Award for acting. Despite solid if unspectacular ratings, the show was replaced by trucker-tale Roche.
Meanwhile actor turned director Ian Mune had begun auditioning “more actors than he knew the country had”. Mune was searching for someone to play Cyril Kidman, one of the central characters in comedy romp Came a Hot Friday, from the Ronald Hugh Morrieson novel.
Gordon got the part of dreamer and conman Cyril Kidman, feeling he had to stretch himself to match the inventiveness of Peter Bland, who played partner in crime Wes Pennington. Critic Nicholas Reid wrote that Cyril “becomes Wes’s constant sidekick in the movie, a sounding-board for Wes’s theatrical oratory, an apprentice con-man following Wes’s assured lead, and a magnificently twitchy presence in Phillip Gordon’s performance.”
Came a Hot Friday was hailed as New Zealand’s first truly assured big screen comedy. Critics praised Gordon’s performance, as well as that of Bland, Billy T James, and Mune and Dean Parker’s screenplay.
In creating a backstory for his character, Gordon theorised that during WWII, Kidman had taken stylistic inspiration from American solders stationed down under. Among other touches, Gordon proposed “a lovely mannerism” (said Mune) of hitching his shirt cuffs, James Cagney-style. Gordon argued that despite his attempts at sophistication, the character was in reality “your number one dawk, but a loveable one”.
Then came Mune’s Hot Friday follow-up, Bridge to Nowhere (1986). Playing one of five teenagers who go into the woods and regret it, Gordon was already the most experienced actor among the leads — apart from Bruno Lawrence, who played the bad guy.
Four years later, after playing a jockey in mini-series The Shadow Trader, Gordon was again centre-stage in feature The Returning. Gordon played a stressed lawyer haunted by visions, after moving into a country mansion. The moody thriller marked the feature debut of cinematographer John Day. The Returning made little splash, though more than one reviewer praised Gordon’s contribution. John Parker (writing for Onfilm) speculated that Gordon had the makings of “a young male hunk star”; Gordon “looks so good on film and has the right softness and vulnerability coupled with an endearing sensuality. Maybe it’s his turn this time.”
Inspired by the input he had been invited to give on The Returning, and worried about local overexposure, Gordon decamped for Australia in 1990. There he began developing his own filmmaking projects, running drama workshops for street people, and acting.
Gordon's Australian television roles included award-winning mini-series Simone de Beauvoir’s Babies, and guest roles on Police Rescue and the Australian-shot Farscape. He also directed episodes of House Gang, a comedy drama involving three intellectually-disabled characters who flat with a bankrupt builder.
By 2003 Gordon was back in New Zealand, where he acted in the final series of Street Legal, spent time playing a Russian on Shortland Street, and headlined opposite Theresa Healey in 2003 short Angel. Gordon’s voice can also be heard as narrator on Peter Wells film The Mighty Civic.
'Phillip Gordon - from bad boy to the street' (Video Interview), NZ On Screen Website. Director Andrew Whiteside (Uploaded 30 August 2011). Accessed 31 August 2011
Megan Jones, ‘Going in the right direction’ (Interview) - Onfilm, February 1991, Page 11
Ian Mune, Mune - An Autobiography (Nelson: Craig Potton Publishing, 2010)
Anonymous, ‘Actor Returns to Old Haunts’ (Interview) - The Press, 27 Aug 1984
Came a Hot Friday Press Kit