Louis Gossett Jr: king of Hollywood’s strong, silent types, from Roots to The Color Purple

Louis Gossett Jr: king of Hollywood’s strong, silent types, from Roots to The Color Purple

Preparation went out the window when Louis Gossett Jr became the third Black person to win an Oscar, in 1983, for his supporting role in An Officer and a Gentleman. He had planned to accept the award with his seven-year-old son, Satie – but the boy got stage fright at the last minute and stayed rooted to his seat. The speech Gossett had in mind? “It’s no use,” he told the capacity crowd at LA’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. “It’s all gone.” So he kept things short and sweet, thanking his family before pivoting to his fellow nominees – a tough crowd that included James Mason and John Lithgow. “All you other four guys,” Gossett said, raising his statuette, “this is ours.”

That was Gossett in essence: magnanimous, dignified, always hitting the mark. After the announcement of his death on Friday, at age 87, Gossett was remembered as a trailblazer who never hesitated to share his spotlight with equally deserving people and causes. Wendell Pierce, of HBO’s The Wire, saluted Gossett as “one of the great American actors of our generation”, while the Oscar-nominated Rustin star Colman Domingo called him “open and generous” and “kind beyond measure”.

With more than 200 screen roles to his credit, Gossett worked pretty much nonstop for more than a half century, including as Ol’ Mister – Domingo’s father in the remake of The Color Purple. But what really distinguished him, besides being 6ft 4in, was the dignity, class and humanity he brought to each part. Perhaps that’s because Gossett had experienced so many personal lows even as he appeared to have established himself as a Hollywood star. In his 2010 autobiography, An Actor and a Gentleman, Gossett said he had dealt with his career frustrations by drinking and drugging to excess, to the detriment of his relationships and marriages, before finding purpose in social activism. Over the years, Gossett has spoken out for HIV/Aids awareness and urban violence. His Eracism Foundation has the ambitious goal of eradicating racism full stop.

That commitment to service, along with his quiet magnetism on screen, would make Gossett as respected as Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier – co-starring with the latter, his idol, in the celluloid and Broadway productions of A Raisin in the Sun.

gossett points a finger while on red carpetView image in fullscreen

Gossett’s singular knack for putting his stamp on roles was especially prominent in Roots, the slavery-to-civil rights TV miniseries that ABC wasn’t even sure it could show in the deep south in 1977. Gossett had considered turning down the role of Fiddler, insulted to have been pegged for the submissive Uncle Tom character. But upon further review, he came to see Fiddler as someone who was doing all he could to survive an oppressive plantation regime and imbued the character with a humanity and regality all his own. The role became Gossett’s onscreen breakout (no mean feat in a deep ensemble that included LeVar Burton, John Amos and Ben Vereen), and Gossett went on to earn an Emmy for outstanding lead actor for a single appearance in a drama or comedy series.

For his Oscar-winning role as the drill instructor Emil Foley in An Officer and a Gentleman, Gossett bunked with a company of marines miles away from set while Richard Gere, Debra Winger and his other co-stars stayed with the production in Washington’s Port Townsend. “They put the steel in my butt, so that when I’d walk on the set and shout, ‘Get down and give me 50’ to the cast, by God, they’d do it,” Gossett told the Los Angeles Times.

He expected his hard work to pay off with meatier offers, perhaps some even as a leading man. Before the Oscars ceremony, four Black picketers carried a large white sign outside the pavilion that read: “Academy Awards, a racist affair for 54 years, here goes the 55th.” But after following Poitier and Hattie McDaniel into Oscars history, Gossett said he hoped good Black acting roles would “catch on like the measles”.

“You shouldn’t call anything racist if it’s improving,” he told reporters. “I think [the protesters] should lighten up, if you’ll pardon the expression. I hope Blacks will get more of a chance to show their wares. I’m going to give [the Oscar] to my son.”

He pushed his agent to seek out respectable roles as physicians, police chiefs and involved fathers – “anything but those stereotypes reserved for Black actors”, he said during an interview with the Television Academy Foundation. And while the roles failed to resonate on the same scale, they did run the gamut – from the Negro Leagues legend Cool Papa Bell to the Egyptian president Anwar El-Sadat. For millennial gospel TV hounds, he’s the sinister patriarch on the BET+ church music soap opera Kingdom Business. To gen Xers who came of age during Reagan-era war games (ahem), he is fondly remembered as Chappy – the lionhearted F-16 pilot from Iron Eagle, AKA the poor man’s Top Gun. (This one’s for you, Chappy.)

It didn’t matter if Gossett was slumming it in some bloated production or sharing scenes with Hollywood heavyweights; he had an uncanny way of elevating the experience. To lose him now, and so soon after the deaths of Andre Braugher and Lance Reddick, in some ways feels like a special class of Black acting nobility faces extinction. Gossett – dean of the strong, silent types who do their best work on the fringes – leaves behind a void Hollywood wasn’t prepared to fill.

Source: theguardian.com