Oscar Award winning Actor and Author, Louis Gossett, Jr.
Born May 27, 1936 in Brooklyn, NY, Lou has a flair for projecting quiet authority and has scored well personally in astring of diverse and occasionally challenging roles.
The aspiring actor caught a break at his first Broadway audition for “Take A Giant Step” (1953), where, beating out 400 other candidates, the then 16-year-old landed the lead.
His acting career soon flourished and his work in the stage and film versions of the groundbreaking drama about African-American family life in Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” (1961) proved a watershed. This led to numerous appearances on network series in the 1960s and 70s culminating in 1977, when he picked up an Emmy for his eloquent portrayal of Fiddler in the landmark ABC miniseries “Roots”.
Meanwhile, his big screen reputation grew with critically acclaimed work in such comedies as “The Landlord” (1970) ”The Skin Game”(1971) with James Garner, “Travels with My Aunt” (1972) and the film adaptation of the Tony Award-winning drama “The River Niger” (1975). A riveting performance as a drug-dealing cutthroat stalking Nick Nolte and Jacqueline Bisset in “The Deep” (1977) catapulted him to wider popularity, but the tough by-the-book drill sergeant in “An Officer and a Gentleman” (1982) won him a Best Supporting Oscar that consolidated his place in the Hollywood hierarchy.
Following his Oscar, he made numerous big screen and television appearances ,being singled out for his work as Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in “Sadat”(1983), the sci-fi adventure “Enemy Mine” (1985) where his lizard-like makeup won kudos, and in the action adventure series “Iron Eagle” (1985,1986,1992,1995) which introduced him to a whole new generation of moviegoers.
The recipient of every known acting accolade, including multiple Golden Globes, Emmys, and People’s Choice Awards, Lou’s performance has connected him with his fans on a global scale. Organizations such as the NAACP, CARE, and the United States Armed Forces have used his likeness to add validity and integrity to their causes.
Lou has also developed the Eracism Foundation, a nonprofit organization aimed at creating entertainment that helps bring awareness and education to issues such as racism, ignorance, and societal apathy.
I remember his Emmy Award winning performance as Fiddler in the mini series Roots as life altering and his acceptance of the Oscar for his performance in An Officer and a Gentleman as a proud and historical moment.
Lou Gossett, Jr. is an American treasure and his stories as captured in his new book An Actor and a Gentleman are generously revealing and a reflection of a life well lived.
It was an honor and a pleasure to talk with him.
DR: Tell me about your new book An Actor and A Gentleman.
LG: I had to get stuff out of my system to be able to get new stuff in there. That took a lifetime. I was full of information; fragments and pieces of things that I have done in my life that informed who I am today.
I guess it was during prayers, or whatever, that it came to me that maybe I should just get this stuff out. People kept saying that I should write my memoirs because I had lots of stories to tell. It takes a lot of courage to tell the truth and so I had to think about it.
It was time to get it out. It was time to talk about my life...
I told my story by becoming rigorously honest - things that I might have been guilty of or proud of and the book has been very well received.
I had the greatest ghostwriter there is, Phyllis Karas, who is a little-housewife-looking-little-tiny-thing. She just has this gift of listening to the man writing the book and after a couple of intense sessions, becoming that person. I wrote the book orally to Phyllis and she got my voice and started putting it on paper...
DR: That’s interesting because the feeling that I had when I was reading the book is that you are talking to a good friend. I felt like I knew you intimately and that you were sharing a few stories after a nice long dinner together.
LG: Absolutely. I couldn’t type fast enough. It took extensive long distance phone calls from California to Massachusetts. Sometimes Phyllis would have to force me to speak because it was so painful. I would get tired and I’d want to get off of the phone and she’d say, “We have to do another hour. We have a deadline”.
DR: She did a fantastic job. It is clearly your voice.
LG: Yes. I began to trust her and I started revealing more and more and more stuff to her, stuff that I thought I would take to my grave.
DR: And what did that feel like?
LG: It was like taking a bath, honey. It was like taking a bath. It was like an exorcism like Roots was. Roots was an exorcism.
We find in our lives that there are some things that we would just rather not talk about. That definitely affects our personality. Until we do something about it we can’t grow.
Finally it got good to me and two thirds of what I said on the telephone is not in the book so there are a couple of more books coming out then.
When I finished the book and I read it myself it was very emotional. It brought tears to my eyes. I giggled...I looked at it and at how many times have I gotten close to death and here I am sitting here to tell the story of how many continents that I have been on where I have met some of the greatest people in history who shook my hand or hugged me. From Paul Robeson to Jackie Robinson to Adam Clayton Powell to Nelson Mandela to Barack Obama...
I realize how grateful I am to be here and to be able to tell my stories to the next generation.
Now I am on a speaker’s tour talking about my life and the book and it feels really good. Now new information has come into my mind, now that there is room.
I am on the planet to be a mentor, to continue acting whenever that happens and maybe to be a professor which might be in Savannah. That’s being negotiated. And, I will continue to tell what I have learned to young people.
I have learned a lot. I speak out and then I am relaxed.
DR: Your life has been filled with extreme highs as well as extreme lows. Would you compare your highest high with your lowest low?
LG: My highest high was winning an Emmy Award for Roots and then winning an Oscar for An Officer and a Gentleman. My contemporaries being people who also won Oscars like George C. Scott and Paul Newman and Marlon Brandon and James Dean, God rest his soul, and so many others that I grew up with – poor – on Broadway. They got their Oscars. They got what I thought was the key to the kingdom. They had these wonderful wives and these homes. They were able to do what they wanted. They got to go on these wonderful vacations and they were able to do one part after another of their history from Napoleon to the Romans to the Greeks to the British to the Vikings, and they were flourishing. We know all about the European culture by the movies that they did. So I thought that when I won my Oscar I would be able to do the same thing. But that high became a false external high almost like drugs and of course I got into drugs because I was disappointed and hurt. I didn’t know I had that disease in my system but it came from generation after generation of denial. Denial of opportunities...
DR: So you had the expectation that when you won the Oscar that new doors would just open and then life would just be great...
LG: The learning lesson is:
Expectation is the architect of disappointment
You can’t go there. You just have to do what you do today and the motives cannot be “What do I get”?
DR: Well if you could go back and live that moment again, what would you do differently or how differently would you be, knowing what you know now?
LG: I would be much quieter and just accept the praise.
I just should have been grateful that I had gotten as far as I did when it was supposed to have been impossible. I should have been closer to God to find out what the next thing was. I should have enjoyed that flash of success. It went to my head. Big, big disappointed when things didn’t happen.
But then I got to play Sadat! But even there...I didn’t want to do television. I wanted to do feature films like my friends. There was always something in me that said
“It is never enough”
That is a mistake, “Never enough”. How many cars? How many houses? How much money? How much ‘bling bling’ can you have?
Louis Gossett Jr. is one of the most respected African American stage and screen actors, who rose to fame with his Emmy-winning role in the television miniseries Roots and Oscar-winning performance in An Officer and a Gentleman. Now he tells the story of his fifty-plus years in the entertainment world—from his early success on the New York stage appearing with Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier in A Raisin in the Sun, through his long Hollywood career working alongside countless stars, including Marilyn Monroe and Dennis Quaid. He writes frankly of his struggle to get leading roles and fair pay as a black man in Hollywood, his problems with drugs and alcohol that took years to overcome, and his current work to eradicate racism and violence and give our children a better future.
Includes revealing stories and reminiscences involving famous performers, including Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman, Shirley Booth, Sammy Davis Jr., Steve McQueen, Richard Gere, Maggie Smith, Halle Berry, and Gena Rowlands
Spans half a century of American theater and film history, people, and performances
Highlights the problem of racism in Hollywood and the challenges faced by African American actors from the 1950s and 1960s onward
>An Actor and a Gentleman penetrates the celebrity glitz and glamour to offer an honest, heartfelt portrayal of the African American experience both in Hollywood and the New York theater world, as told by one of the nation's most enduring and highly esteemed actors.
DR: That is such an important message for kids to get right now in this “bling bling” culture.
LG: This is the “bling bling” culture and the “I got mine, you get yours” culture. That is not the key to happiness. The key to happiness is internal.
We were taught when we were young when families were more intact and extended, when the neighborhoods were multi-ethnic and when everybody helped one another that the bottom line is that we are all one on this planet and the closer we get to taking care of one another the better the planet will be.
DR: It’s like the South African term Ubuntu, ”I am because you are”.
LG: Yeah and everybody was scared when Mandela came out of Robben Island. He came out with this new attitude. If he had not come out with that smile, the World Cup would not have been as spectacular as it was.
The lessons continue...
It’s never going to be over. But as we grow closer and closer to the light, we pass the message on to the next generation the way it used to be in the old days and then the kids have some pattern or framework or blueprint to base some of their values on.
At the end of the book I talk about the creation of the Eracism Foundation. I hope that the Eracism Foundation is a gift to young people. The way I was raised, kids had to learn some basic things:
- Self respect
- The knowledge of the Elders
- Dress code
- Hygiene and Physical fitness
- Ability to speak with someone who is not like you with love
When you teach kids at a young age then they are armed with a survival instinct that helps them live a longer life.
The other thing is,
“Each one teach one.”
It is the responsibility of the ten year old to teach the seven year old some things that will keep them straight in a positive way. Quiet as it’s kept, when kids learn this stuff and they are responsible for their families and their neighborhoods, after a few years they get to vote, don’t they? Guess who I hope they vote for?
DR: Do you think the things that you have gone through, the tough times, almost dying, do you think that is what has equipped you to be able to dispense such wisdom?
LG: Absolutely. Once you survive stuff like that, you learn. Everybody’s great grandmother has said the same thing:
“A hard head makes for a soft behind”.
My behind was pretty soft. My head was pretty hard. Not anymore, I’d like to think. I feel like I am in place now so that I can offer something as an elder, with love, and without asking for anything in return.
DR: You talk in the book about the moment that you met President Obama...
LG: I met him before he was President...
DR: When he was a Senator. The thought that you had when another Senator shared that, then Senator Obama was going to run for President was that it would never happen...
LG: I shook his hand and wished him well but I said to myself “Fat chance”.
DR: In hindsight, what do you think about having had that thought?
LG: Well, that was a natural thought for all of us. As a matter of fact I was with him all along. Some of my contemporaries were with Hillary because it was more realistic that she would win. She would have been a great President but God had other plans.
He started to run and I would campaign for him, sometimes in front of ten people sometimes in front of a room full of people sometimes in an auditorium but I did the hard work. I did stuff in Arizona and South Carolina.
DR: Do you remember when you felt the shift that this could really happen?
LG: Yes. When he won Iowa. When he won Iowa I said “Wow! This could really happen!
Then I knew again when I saw the CNN debate between him and McCain and halfway through that debate, I saw McCain give up. His energy said that he had had enough.
DR: You also talk about how you felt watching President Obama, along with Cicely Tyson, take the oath of office at the inauguration and that at that moment you felt that his election proved that there is no second class. I am wondering then, what you think that this Tea Party movement is now saying to us?
LG: Well people want things to be the same. They want their stuff back. I don’t blame them but if they would just look inside and know that things must change and that they are not in charge of the change.
Things are going to change for the better whether we like it or not and I would suggest that we adjust ourselves and go with the flow. God or Allah or Buddha – whatever you want to call Him – is trying to get our attention here about the planet. With our oversized hurricanes, Tsunamis, the volcanoes erupting, the air is getting thinner. We are taking water out of bottles and soon we will have to be taking air out of bottles...
If this planet is dying that should be number one on our agenda. Everybody around the world should adjust their agendas and cooperate with putting fish back in the ocean and cleaning up the air and making sure that everybody eats. That will take a monumental effort for the people on the planet. It’s like everybody is in this 747 airplane at 30,000 feet, the plane is about to crash and people are busy trying to figure out who is going to sit in First Class. The plane is about to crash! It’s stupid...
DR: How do you feel about death relative to the kind of life that you have led?
LG: I am not in charge of it. I have to take care of myself and I do. I write and I try to stay close to fresh air...
My energy is younger than ever which might be an indication that maybe, maybe I am on the right track. I have had cancer twice and I don’t have it anymore. Cancer is more than physical. I think it is spiritual and emotional.
DR: If you were to grade yourself would you say that you have lived a life well spent?
LG: Oh very well spent. On a scale of 1-10 I would say that it is a good 7, going on 8.
DR: What would make it a 10?
LG: Nothing. There is no such thing as perfection.
DR: A hundred years from now what do you want to be remembered for?
LG: I would like to be remembered as somebody who might have touched somebody for what I did or said or acted.
To be remembered at all is good enough...
Thanks Mr. Gossett!
THE ERACISM FOUNDATION
Eracism Foundation Inc. is a 501c3 Nonprofit Public Benefit Corporation that was founded on January 5, 2006 by Oscar Winning Actor Louis Gossett Jr., who upon envisioning the organization, has committed the last quadrant of his life to an all out conscious offensive against racism, violence, and ignorance relative to the role and significance of history in positioning individuals and collective communities for the future.