Robert Anson Jordan, Jr. was born in New York City, to Robert Anson Senior, from Boston and Constance Hand-Jordan, from New York. His maternal grandfather was Learned Hand, judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and one of the most respected jurists in the United States. In 1942 when Jordan was five years old, his parents divorced. His mother married Newbold Morris, president of the New York City Council. The marriage was performed by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia at Gracie Mansion, the first marriage to be enacted there. Following his graduation from Harvard University in 1958, Jordan began his acting career in earnest.
He was an American stage, screen and film actor. A long-time member of the New York Shakespeare Festival, he performed in many Off Broadway and Broadway plays. His films include Logan's Run, Misérables, Raise the Titanic, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Yakuza, The Bunker, Dune, The Secret of My Success, The Hunt for Red October, Posse and Gettysburg. In 1961, he appeared on Broadway with Art Carney and Elizabeth Ashley in Take Her, She's Mine. He also began working in television productions, appearing in episodes of The Defenders, Naked City, Empire and Wide Country. He performed with Joseph Papp's Public Theatre in productions of Shakespeare's plays, such as The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice and As You Like It. In 1966 Jordan returned to Broadway, appearing in Generation with Henry Fonda.
Beginning in 1970, Jordan turned from television to feature film work. He co-starred in Lawman (1971) and Valdez Is Coming (1971) with Burt Lancaster, and appeared opposite Robert Mitchum twice, in The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), as the informant-Coyle's handler, a pragmatic U.S. Treasury agent; and in The Yakuza (1975) as the bodyguard of Mitchum's friend George Tanner. He played a host of villains and mixed good guy-villains in films such as Hawk in Rooster Cogburn (1975), Logan's Run (1976), and Interiors (1978). There was also the occasional "good guy", as in Old Boyfriends (1979), in which he played the father of his own daughter, Nina.
Jordan also continued on the stage, joining Ralph Waite in the L.A. Actor's Theatre. He also wrote, directed and performed in plays such as Venus of Menschen Falls (1978). In 1976 he starred as Joseph Armagh, an Irish immigrant who fights his way to power and wealth but loses his soul along the way, in the television miniseries Captains and the Kings. Jordan earned a Golden Globe award, and an Emmy nomination for the production.
In the 1980s, Jordan performed in films including Raise the Titanic (1980), Flash of Green (1984), Dune (1984), The Mean Season (1985) and The Secret of My Success (1987). He also co-starred in an acclaimed television production of The Bunker (1981), playing Albert Speer to Anthony Hopkins' Hitler. In ten episodes of the popular television series The Equalizer (1987–1988), he helped fill in while the star, Edward Woodward, recovered from a heart attack. Meanwhile, Jordan continued on the stage as well, winning an Obie award for his appearance in New York in the Czech playwright Václav Havel's A Private View (1983) and an L.A. Drama Critic's Award for directing another Havel play, Largo Desolato (1987).
In 1990, Jordan directed a production of Macbeth in New York. He played national security advisor Jeffrey Pelt in The Hunt for Red October. He also starred in a television production of Three Hotels (1991) and the "Deadline" episode of Tales from the Crypt (1991) TV series. In Posse (1993), Jordan portrayed Bates, a racist sheriff who has his own plans for land on which the Negro town of Freemanville stands.
His health began to fail and he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He was filming The Fugitive in April 1993 when his terminal illness forced him to withdraw. He died on August 30, 1993, cared for by his daughter Nina and his companion Marcia Cross.
Jordan's last film to be released was Gettysburg (1993), which was filmed during the summer of 1992. He portrayed Confederate Brig. Gen. Lewis "Lo" Armistead, who was one of the leaders in the doomed Pickett's Charge against his friend from before the war, Union Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock. Producer-Director Ronald Maxwell dedicated the film to Jordan and to author Michael Shaara, whose novel The Killer Angels was adapted for the film.