Gossett, Louis Jr. 1936–
Louis Gossett, Jr. 1936–
Louis Gossett, Jr., is an actor known for the depth and diversity of his own character as well as for the varied roles he plays. He has performed in more than 60 Broadway and Off-Broadway productions, a score of feature films, nearly two dozen television movies and miniseries, and four television series. Gossett gained notoriety for his roles in the motion pictures A Raisin in the Sun, The Deep, and the 1982 hit An Officer and a Gentleman, for which he won a best supporting actor Oscar. Many critics contend, however, that he will be best remembered for his work in the 1977 television miniseries Roots, based on African American writer Alex Haley’s epic story of his enslaved ancestor Kunta Kinte. Gossett’s supreme performance as Fiddler, Kunta Kinte’s most trusted friend and elder, earned the actor an Emmy Award.
Having dabbled in acting only briefly as a high school student, Gossett had no idea that he would one day pursue a career in the performing arts. A star athlete at New York City’s Abraham Lincoln High School with three varsity letters to his name, he had one main ambition as a teenager: to be a professional basketball player. When a leg injury kept him on the bench for a whole season, Gossett was asked to audition for a part in his school’s production of You Can’t Take It with You. He easily landed a role in the play and seemed a natural on stage.
About a month and a half later, Gossett’s drama teacher, a former Broadway director, gave him a hot tip on an open audition for the role of the young black protagonist in Louis S. Peterson’s Take a Giant Step, which was being staged on Broadway. Four hundred and fifty other hopefuls tried out for the lead in the coming-of-age drama, but Gossett—without any professional acting experience— won the role.
Gossett was born in Brooklyn in 1936 and grew up in a six-unit apartment house—with his large extended family nearby—in a Jewish section of New York’s Coney Island. Strong friendships among the neighborhood children cut across racial lines. “It was very New York,” Gossett told Ira Peck of the New York Times. Gossett’s mother, a community activist who made a lasting impression on her son, worked for years as a domestic before returning to school for her nursing degree. His father, who had worked his way up from porter to administrator at the local gas company, was frustrated by an ongoing battle with alcohol
Born May 27, 1936, in New York City; son of Louis. Sr., and Helen (Wray) Gossett: married and divorced three times; children: Satie (son from second marriage); Sharron Anthony (adopted son), Eduction: New York University, B.A., 1959; studied acting under Frank Silvera, Nola Chilton, Eli Rill, and Lloyd Richards.
Actor. Made stage debut in Broadway play Take a Giant Step, 1953; appeared in productions on and Off-Broadway, including A Raisin in the Sun, 1959; The Blacks, 1961; Carry Me Back to Morningside Heights, 1968; Murderous Angels, 1971; and The Charlatans, 1974. Film appearances include roles in screen adaption of A Raisin in the Sun, 1961; The River Niger, 1976; The Choirboys, 1977; The Deep. 1977; An Officer and a Gentleman, 1982; Jaws 3-D, 1983; Enemy Mine, 1985; iron Eagle, 1986; Iron Eagle ll, 1988; Diggstown, 1992; Aces, lion Eagle III, 1992. Appeared in television movies, including The Big Story, 1954; Roots (miniseries), 1977; Don’t Look Back, 1981; Benny’s Place, 1982; A Gathering of Old Men, 1987; The Father Clements Story, 1987; Roots: The Gift, 1988; Sudre and Simpson, 1990; The Josephine Baker Story, 1991; Father and Son: Dangerous Relations, 1993; Return to Lonesome Dove, 1993; Ray Alexander: A Taste for Justce, 1994; also starred in four network series. Spokesperson for antipoverty/antihunger organization CARE.
Awards: Donaldson Award for best new actor, 1953; Emmy Award for best actor. 1977, for Roots, Academy Award (Oscar) for best supporting actor, 1983, for An Officer and a Gentleman. Also received Los Angeles Drama Critics Award, NAACP Image Award, and Martin Luther King Humanitarian Award.
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abuse. Lou Gossett, Jr., would later struggle with his own drinking problem.
Gossett won the leading role in the Broadway production of Take a Giant Step while he was still a senior in high
school. His performance brought him critical acclaim and the Donaldson Award for best new actor of the year; it also helped him secure an athletic-drama scholarship to New York University. Gossett entered NYU in the fall of 1954, majoring in dramatic arts with a pharmacy minor. During his years at the university, he played on their renowned varsity basketball team and furthered his professional acting career on the side.
When Gossett graduated from New York University in 1959, he was drafted by the New York Knickerbockers, a National Basketball Association (NBA) affiliate. His career path seemed clear—until he was offered a role in the 1959 Broadway staging of Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun. Torn between sports and acting, Gossett ultimately decided to join the production of A Raisin in the Sun, leaving his short-lived professional basketball career behind.
A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry’s theatrical masterpiece, centers on a black, working-class family’s struggle for equity and dignity on Chicago’s South Side. The production opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on March 11, 1959, and ran for 530 performances. Credited with changing the very face of American theater, A Raisin in the Sun received outstanding reviews, won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play of the season, and helped to fuel Gossett’s entry into show business.
Gossett made a name for himself on the New York theater circuit throughout the sixties while launching his film career in the 1961 adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun. By the mid-1970s, he had become a major player in the motion picture industry, appearing in The River Niger, a highly acclaimed examination of a black family; The Choirboys, the raucous adaptation of Joseph Wam-baugh’s bestselling cop novel; and The Deep, based on Peter Benchley’s tale of undersea treasures, drugs, and voodoo.
But Gossett earned his greatest fame of the decade—and some might say of his entire career—on the small screen. His role in the 1977 miniseries Roots proved to be a pivotal one that propelled him to stardom, bringing both popular success and critical accolades. Roots chronicles Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alex Haley’s Gambian heritage, his forebears’ agonizing journey to the New World, and the brutal system of slavery that flourished in the United States between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Gossett’s powerful, heart-rending portrayal of Fiddler—mentor to Haley’s “furthest-back” ancestor, Kunta Kinte—garnered him the 1977 Emmy Award for best actor. As the great-grandson of a slave, Gossett reportedly approached the role as a celebration of his own heritage.
Five years later, Gossett was cast as Sergeant Emil Foley— a hard-nosed drill instructor at a naval officer training camp—in An Officer and a Gentleman, which also starred Richard Gere and Debra Winger. Gossett prepared himself for the strenuous role by spending ten days at Camp Pendleton’s school for drill instructors in California; he even survived their rigorous “iron-man” training before joining the film’s cast and crew for shooting. Gossett’s portrayal of Foley, a role modeled largely after actual D.I.s at Camp Pendleton, earned him an Academy Award for best supporting actor—and made him only the third African American to receive an Oscar.
With an Oscar and an Emmy in hand, Gossett expected to receive numerous film offers. Anticipation turned to disappointment; the offers didn’t come. Gossett slipped into a deep depression and turned to drugs and alcohol for comfort. In an interview with Glenn Collins of the New York Times, Gossett explained: “I expected a lot more to happen—I mean, the first black since Sidney Poitier to win an Oscar. Well, nothing happened. I let myself become bitter, resentful. I was my own worst enemy.… I started to self-destruct.… I had an Oscar, an Emmy, and yet I had this big hole in my soul. I was in a pit of self-pity and resentment.” Gossett entered a residential drug treatment center, attended Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings, and slowly regained control over his life.
The dearth of good film offers for actors of color continued throughout the mid-1980s, so Gossett accepted several mediocre roles in movies like Jaws 3-D and Enemy Mine. Around the same time, however, his personal life took a momentous turn. Gossett had always been concerned about the plight of the poor and the homeless in the United States. One reporter called him “Prince Charity, Hollywood style.” “I’d write checks,” Gossett told Mark Goodman of People, “and we’d all hold hands in our tuxedos and feel wonderful because we’d done something for the needy.”
In 1985, while watching a morning news segment on poverty and children, Gossett was especially touched by a profile of young boy about 8 years old. The child’s face reflected a loneliness that Gossett himself was experiencing—especially in light of his recent rehabilitation from drugs and alcohol. Moved to action, Gossett began a search for the young boy and found him several weeks later in St. Louis, Missouri.
Gossett’s meeting with the child—a street youth named Sharron Anthony—changed both their lives. Gossett had planned to provide young Sharron with monetary support for food and clothing; he ended up asking Sharron’s mother, an impoverished single mother with two other children, to surrender his custody. Gossett legally adopted Sharron in 1989. The actor considers his role as a father—to both Sharron and his own biological son, Satie, from his second marriage—to be the biggest and most important role of his life.
On the acting front, Gossett finished off the ’80s with several feature and television film roles; the recurring character of Chappy Sinclair, the tough retired Air Force officer in 1986’s Iron Eagle, is probably the most memorable. Iron Eagle teams Gossett’s larger-than-life Sinclair with a spirited teen who’s trying to rescue his kidnapped father from vicious Arab captors. Though panned by movie critics for its comic-book premise, Iron Eagle drew a large enough audience to warrant two sequels: Iron Eagle II and Aces: Iron Eagle III. Gossett reprised the role of Sinclair in both of them.
In 1994 Gossett made a guest appearance in the Emmy Award-winning television series Picket Fences and starred as a café owner turned private eye in the NBC-TV whodunit Ray Alexander: A Taste for Justice. He also continued his involvement in community service; as national spokesperson for CARE, Gossett worked throughout the mid-1990s to raise social awareness and to help end world hunger and poverty among children.
Ebony, December 1982, p. 142.
Jet, August 30, 1993, p. 61.
New Republic, September 21, 1992, p. 32.
New York Times, February 20, 1966; February 19, 1989, p. 33.
Parade, July 17, 1988, p. 4.
People, March 18, 1991, p. 8; May 6, 1991, p. 22; September 30, 1991, p. 14; April 19, 1993, p. 11.
Philadelphia Magazine, January 1991, p. 73.
TV Guide, April 8, 1978, p. 10.
Upscale, April 1994, p. 36.
Washington Post, August 23, 1982, p. C-1.
—Paula M. Morin
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