Donna Gordon: Prima-Donna
The John Cassavetes cult classic “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” seems like a gangster film but is more of a character-study that involves gangsters, centering primarily on a strip club owner (in debt with the mob) named “Cosmo Vitelli” (Ben Gazzara) who has three favorite dancers, one of them played by the lovely Donna Gordon.
Cassavetes cast real strippers because he wanted realism, and with the help of Donna and her tough, assertive, real-life personality channeling through the character “Margo Donnar”, he got just that.
During the seventies, eighties and nineties, Donna made cameos in several other cult movies including “Truck Stop Women” and “The First Nudie Musical”.
How did you get the role of “Margo Donnar” in John Cassavete’s “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie”?
I was a dancer at a strip club in Hollywood called “The Classic Cat” and a friend of mine – Alice Fredlund – also in the business (and who ended up playing “Sherry” in the film) was working at a club right down the street called “The Body Shop”. On my day off Alice called and said some director named John Cassavetes was coming into “The Body Shop” looking for girls to be in a new movie he was casting. Not really recognizing his name or believing her, since she’d played jokes on me in the past, stuff like: Dustin Hoffman’s agent wanting to see me, etc., I figured what the hell.
When I arrived she walked me over. I introduced myself to some men at a table, and figured if it were a gag I’d at least get a free drink or two. There was John Cassavetes and I think the actor Seymour Cassel too. When John gave me a napkin with his phone number on it, and told me to call him for the movie, I just thought: “Yeah right”. But I took it, shoved it in my purse, said thanks, and went on my way.
A couple days later I was in Las Vegas partying with a few celebrities. Someone asked if I had any pretty girlfriends who might want to join the party, so I called Alice in L.A. She told me she couldn’t come because she was getting ready to be in the John Cassavetes’ movie and if I didn’t return they’d cast someone else. Reluctantly I decided to take a chance. I returned to L.A. and for the first time Alice was telling the truth.
Describe in more detail your initial meeting with John Cassavetes…
If I knew as much about him then as I do now, I’m sure I would have been a lot more nervous or “star-struck”. I didn’t know he was a groundbreaking independent director and I had no idea he was even an actor. I hadn’t seen “Rosemary’s Baby” or “The Dirty Dozen” or any of his other films (that I recalled, anyhow), so to me he was just a director… but unlike most Hollywood types, he didn’t “dress for success”.
When I first saw John he looked as though he’d woken up on a park bench. I even told him he needed to shave and buy new clothes. And I think he liked my candid honesty. I usually call ‘em like I see ‘em. And if you watch “Bookie”, you’ll see my character is very blunt and kind of “bitchy”. At first I didn’t like that aspect of “Margo”, but now I realize it makes her stand out from the others.
Any memories of the rehearsal (pre-shoot)?
We were all reading from the script, going over our lines, and I guess to John it seemed very contrived. He came over to me, took my script, threw it across the room, grabbed my shoulders and shouted: “I want it to be real… I want the real you!”
Although intense, John was very sweet and we understood each other. He knew I’d been through a lot in my life; had a lot of pain and was tough as nails because of it. And I think he realized my intense life would channel into my character.
How was it working with Ben Gazarra?
Ben is a beautiful man and a great actor. He was wonderful to work with, and funny. And by funny I mean he was very spontaneous… and genuine.
A classic “Margo Donnar” scene takes place in the limo on the way to the casino… What do you recall of this?
I remember John with a handheld camera on top of the limo, pointing the camera down on us through the sunroof. Also, he told me to tell Ben (“Cosmo”) to not light his cigar because it already smelled like perfume inside the limo. I hated this line, and at first refused to do it. But John insisted. And when I watch the film now, the line cracks me up, and is another thing that separates “Margo” from the other dancers.
The casino bathroom scene is very memorable…
Yes, I’ve been told that’s one of my most memorable scenes, telling Alice “That’s your line honey, not mine” after she says the men only want me for my body, and I meant it too – I was more than just T&A. And that wasn’t “Margo” speaking in the bathroom, it was me!
Or the scene where you all walk to the Chinese Restaurant and then go to the movie?
Well… What I remember is… We went to a restaurant, then to a movie. That was it. If you watch the film it seems very real. They way John worked, it was like he was filming a documentary – I didn’t feel like an actress under heavy lights and all that. I mean, there are lights shining on you and everything but it doesn’t seem typical “Hollywood” or anything.
Oh, and I fell asleep in the theater, and Ben’s character throws my hat at me as we’re leaving, because I’d left it inside the theater after crashing out, which is one of the examples of John keeping real life situations in his films. He was very much into “spontaneous reality”.
Your thoughts on “Mr. Sophistication” (played by Meade Roberts)?
I first thought: “What is this guy doing on stage with us?” I was hired to dance and even though I didn’t want to be filmed naked (or as little as possible) I thought at least it would be a realistic movie about strippers and strip clubs. No strip club I’ve ever worked in had a fat goofy bald guy singing songs out of key and upstaging the strippers and getting applause. I worked in some that had magicians and strippers, or comedians and strippers, but this guy was like something out of the Twilight Zone. In a real strip club a guy like that would get tarred and feathered.
Through the years I’ve gotten used to “Mr. Sophistication”. I feel he’s John secretly making a statement. The viewer (and the fictional audience in the film) has to “suffer through” Mr. Sophistication the same way a casual viewer (not used to art house films) has to get through the quirkiness of John’s movies in order to realize how truly original they are in the end. Because whether you like his stuff or not, you have to admit: they are original.
Any recollections of the legendary Timothy Carey (who plays a gangster named “Flo”)…
I had no idea who Timothy Carey was, just like I didn’t know who John was originally. I thought Timothy was just a buddy of John, and didn’t realize he was in so many classic films. I thought he was very strange, but in a cool sort of way, different. And he didn’t really have much to do with any of the strippers.
But Seymour Cassel, who I’ve also learned is another great character-actor, hung out with us a lot. He was fun. I’ve seen him in many films since “Bookie” came out... And he has such great hair! I’ve never met a man with better hair than Seymour… And it still looks terrific!
Is there a reason that your character “Margo” has the last name of “Donnar”, which is very much like your first name?
Ben would slip up and call me Donna while filming and John realized it and instead of stopping Ben he made my last name “Donnar” so that when Ben said “Donna” it could be mistaken as a last name. And no other stripper-character in the film had a last name.
You and Ben appeared on the Merv Griffin show to promote the film…
Now this I remember. John picked me of all the dancers to join Ben Gazzara for Merv Griffin (one of Johnny Carson’s more successful competitors), and the way it turned out, Ben was really the one who joined me. I was what I always am, myself, and the crowd seemed to love it. All the questions were about stripping. One question was: “Who are the best tippers?” And I answered “Japanese tourists”, and got a big laugh (although I wasn’t making a joke, they were the best tippers).
I even got write-ups about my appearance. And to this day I cannot find that episode; I tried but I was told that many of the Merv tapes are gone. So if there’s anyone out there with some old dusty footage of Ben Gazzara with myself on Merv, email cultfilmfreak dot com (which you’ll find an email link on the home page), please!
What was it like seeing your image (from the original poster)…
I was driving along and saw the mural of myself from the original “Bookie” poster on the corner of Westwood and Gayley on the side of the National Theater building, and the feeling I got is impossible to describe. The image was the size of the entire side of the building. I mean, even big-named leading actresses would have to share their image with a leading man. And here I was, not even the leading actress, really just a co-star, and the poster was all me.
And that poster was the only one at first, till they made some others with Ben Gazzara. And call me bias, but I still think the original is the best!
What were your thoughts of the movie when it first came out?
Okay, I’m going to be honest. When I first saw the original cut in an opening night theater in Westwood, I was embarrassed. I felt like I was watching a home movie or something: bad lighting and way too much talking. I ran out of there but had to sign a few autographs, and didn’t know why anyone would want my autograph for that film. And I wasn’t alone; it was only in theaters a week.
A few years later John made a recut, and I own it and the film has grown on me. The original, which I now also own on DVD, does have its merits: one being – I’m in it more! A scene that was in the original has me asking “Cosmo” if I still have a job after returning from the casino. And there are other scenes where “Cosmo” and I chat in the dressing room. All in all though, I prefer the re-cut because I feel the story flows much better.
Any memories of your cameo in “Truck Stop Women”?
Well, it’s a Mark L. Lester piece starring the late Claudia Jennings. An ultra low budget drive-in flick about women and trucks, and trucks and women… and I appear as a girl who is making out with her boyfriend, then a truck crashes down a mountain, and I stand up and point to the crash, and I am topless. That’s it. It was my first film, I think, and I don’t remember much, because there’s really not much to remember.
“The First Nudie Musical”?
I don’t know of too many people who, when looking back at their life, will be able to say: “I danced naked next to several men dressed as dildos”. As for the film itself, there were a few big names, like Cindy Williams from “Laverne and Shirley” and Diana Canova from “Soap”… And it’s currently a “Special Edition” DVD, so it must have a lot of fans. And it’s really not as dirty as the title implies.
And in the eighties you were in the Chuck Norris film “Hero and the Terror”…
That’s right, I appear in the very beginning (in a dream sequence) as a corpse – a dead body sitting on a barrel in a warehouse. I was made up like a dead person who’d been dead a few days. I hated looking this way. I begged the director to not use the scene. They wanted me for another flashback where my character comes to life, sort of a zombie type of thing, and I refused to do it.
In 1979 you co-starred in the animated Tom Wait’s video “The One That Got Away” (part of “Tom Waits For No One”), where they traced a cartoon character after your form, doing your moves, etc… What was that shoot like?
I vaguely remember dancing with Tom and him being very nice, shy and quiet. He was short, smelled a lot like cigarettes and booze. And I have a faint memory of wanting to get it over with. Funny thing, I saw that cartoon/video on youtube recently, and my friend James (who runs this site) followed it up and found the director, an Oscar winning animator (who used “Rotoscoping” for the vid) named John Lamb, who I got in touch with recently and he showed me some footage of Tom and I dancing, and some original animation cells of myself in cartoon form. Pretty cool.
What have you been up to lately?
For the past fifteen years I’ve kept busy with various jobs, including working at the Barbizon institute, but excelled mostly in the Insurance Industry. I haven’t danced since the nineties, but I’ll tell you something, I kept at it longer than most, and I was still sought after, even in my forties, as a dancer in clubs, but I wanted to retire rather than be put out to pasture like so many other old… I mean: “mature” strippers.
And just recently I got my SAG card reinstated – so if anyone wants me in a film, I’m back in the biz.
Oh and also, throughout my career, I did appear in some print ads and a few commercials and TV shows and in some other b-movies, including “Number One with a Bullet” [with Robert Carradine] as a mud wrestler and “Fugitive Rage” as an inmate in a women’s prison. But that’s all in the past. And what a past it was!
One day, when my life flashes before my eyes, I’ll be quite entertained.
Interview by James M. Tate
THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE fan page
TRUCK STOP WOMEN fan page
TOM WAITS VIDEO W/ DONNA
Donna Gordon and Tom Waits (rehearsal for “The One That Got Away”)
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