Charles Gordone was born Charles Edward Fleming on October 12, 1925, in Cleveland, Ohio to parents William and Camille Fleming. He took his stepfather’s surname of Gordon when his mother remarried when he was five years old. The family moved to Elkhart, Indiana, his mother’s hometown, when Charles was very young. After graduating from high school in Indiana, Gordon moved to Los Angeles. In 1942 he enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) where he spent one semester before joining the U.S. Army Air Corps. Gordon served two years in the Air Corps’ Special Services where he was an organizer of entertainment.
He returned to Los Angeles after his discharge in 1944 and studied music at Los Angeles City College before moving on to California State University, Los Angeles where he earned a B.A. in drama in 1952. Upon graduation, he moved to New York City to pursue a career in acting. It was in New York that Gordon added the “e” to his surname because he spotted another Charles Gordon on the Actors’ Equity membership list. During the late 1950s, Gordone began directing as well as acting. He founded his own theatre, Vantage, in Queens, New York in the late 1950s. In 1962, Gordone also founded the Committee for the Employment of Negroes, an organization designed to lobby for more employment opportunities for blacks in theatre.
Charles Gordone won an Obie (an award given to off-Broadway productions) for his performance in an all-black production of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in 1964. Between acting and directing jobs, Gordone worked as a waiter in a Greenwich Village tavern. His experiences there inspired him to write his most famous play No Place to be Somebody. The play opened off-Broadway at the New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theatre in May of 1969 to rave reviews and made Gordone an instant celebrity. Over the next two years, the play would be performed over 900 times off-Broadway, before moving to the Morosco Theatre on Broadway in 1971. No Place to Be Somebody won the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for drama, making Gordone the first African American to win the coveted award. It also won the New York Drama Critics Award and the Vernon Rice Award in the same year and holds the distinction of being the first off-Broadway play to win the Pulitzer.
Gordone continued to write and direct during the 1970s and 1980s but was never able to repeat the success that he enjoyed with No Place. In the mid-1970s he was involved in the Cell Block Theatre Program in New Jersey which used theatre as a rehabilitation tool for inmates. Gordone remained active in community theatres around the U.S. until accepting a teaching position with Texas A&M University in 1986. Gordone died of cancer on November 13, 1995, in College Station, Texas.