Lou Gossett, Jr “The Grace Card” Interview
By Kam Williams
Sentinel Contributing Writer
Louis Cameron Gossett, Jr. was born in Coney Island, Brooklyn on May 27, 1936 to Helen Rebecca Wray, a nurse, and Lou, Sr. a Pullman porter. Lou’s stellar career started in 1953 while he was still in high school, when he landed a role in the Broadway production of Take a Giant Step.
One of a select group of actors to win both an Academy and Emmy Award, he is best known for his Oscar-winning performance as a gunnery sergeant in the film classic, An Officer and a Gentleman and for his Emmy-winning portrayal of the character Fiddler in the historic TV-miniseries “Roots.”
In 2006, Lou decided to devote his energies to fighting social ills, so he founded the Eracism Foundation, a nonprofit designed to create a “conscious offensive against racism, violence and ignorance.” Toward that end, the organization has sponsored programs focused on youth mentoring, anti-gang violence initiatives, and diversity sensitivity training sessions at its Shamba Centers.
Last year, Lou published his aptly entitled autobiography, “An Actor and a Gentleman.” Here, he talks about his new movie, “The Grace Card,” a faith-based tale of reconciliation and redemption.
SENTINEL: What interested you in The Grace Card?
LG: Actually, The Grace Card’s aim is the same as that of the foundation, the elimination of racism. How synergistic and opportune is that? It seems to me that if we can create a society where racism just can’t thrive, it’ll go away. My concept is to teach children everything from self-respect to respect for elders and the opposite sex to a dress code to how to conduct themselves and how to live in harmony with the planet. When you start teaching kids these things at a young age, even before they start school, it sticks. It’s our responsibility to teach our children and to prepare them for the next level, just like Jews do in temples and synagogues.
That’s not happening right now, and you don’t see it onscreen often. But The Grace Card is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. The magic word is “forgiveness.” And from forgiveness comes healing. We have to do the best that we can, with God’s help, to clean up our act, and to eliminate the negatives which prevent us from seeing the “Sunlight of the Spirit,” and then let the kids copy that. They have nothing to copy right now. Some of the decisions they’re making are antisocial and illegal. The culture currently glorifies womanizing, drinking, using drugs, bling-bling, and making babies they don’t take responsibility for. And it has them believing that that sort of behavior makes them a man. It’s irrational.
It’s coming from a society that’s not healthy. Consequently, this generation is a lost generation. But you can’t blame them, because that’s all they know. When they look for role models to pattern their lives after, all that’s available to them is what they find on TV, in the movies and in the rap videos. My foundation is showing them another way. If minority kids think they can’t make it, it is our responsibility to help prepare them for the opportunity to be full-blown Americans right now. But they have to do it with grace and forgiveness, not with anger and resentment. In my program, they practice that from a young age, including morality and concern for our fellow human beings. We’re talking about the uplifting of America. The bottom line is that we need to be more responsible for ourselves and for each other. Every child should have shelter, healthcare, education and clothing. We all need each other to survive. That’s the reality.
SENTINEL: Editor/Legist Patricia Turnier asks: What has the feedback been like about your lovely autobiography?
LG: It’s amazing, when I visit churches and schools to speak about the book and about the work that I just discussed, the audience is like a sea of bobble-head dolls. Everybody agrees that we have to take the responsibility for ourselves and for raising, mentoring and teaching our children so they have appropriate role models to imitate. That’s the natural function, and the way it used to be. It seems like we abandoned our responsibilities when times got hard.
SENTINEL: Patricia also says: I was stunned when I once heard you say that despite the fact you received an Oscar, it took you a year and a half to find another interesting movie to work on and that you never made more than one million dollars for a picture.
LG: I still haven’t.
SENTINEL: She asks, what advice do you have for aspiring minority actors or actresses to negotiate the optimal movie deal?
LG: The optimal movie deal depends on how important you are. You need to get some performances onscreen to prove your worth, so that there’s an advantage when you negotiate. That’s when leverage comes into play. If you know that you have a name that’s bankable, then you can get some money for yourself.
SENTINEL: Dante Lee, author of “Black Business Secrets,” asks: Is it important for an actor to also be an entrepreneur?
LG: Oh, it’s absolutely necessary. It’s very important for each successive generation to push the envelope further than the previous one.
SENTINEL: Attorney Tim Plunkett asks: Did you really fly in the fighter jet in Iron Eagle?
LG: I did. I knew Tom Cruise had lost his lunch when they put him in the cockpit. And I was warned by the Israeli Air Force, which has the best-trained pilots in the world, not to eat, because they fly like darts. So, I didn’t have any breakfast. After we landed, I felt kind of woozy when I climbed out of the plane. After I assured everyone that I felt fine, I walked fifty yards to my dressing room, closed the door behind me, and lost my meal from the night before. Nobody knew. That ride was exciting but, boy, you have to be in shape for that one. I’d never do it again.
SENTINEL: Children’s book author Irene Smalls asks: What makes you get up in the morning with a smile on your face?
LG: Meditation and prayer. I have a checklist for the beginning of the day, and another one for the end of the day. It’s also very nice to be this age and to wake up every morning with something to learn. School is never out. There’s always something new to learn.
SENTINEL: Irene also asks: What is the one skill an actor must have to be successful today?
LG: First of all, an actor’s aspiration has to be the art, not the job. Then he has to be relatively naked to be able to take onto himself aspects of the character and to make everything look like it’s happening for the first time. Easy to say, hard to do, but that’s the aspiration. I never want to see an actor acting. I want to see him being.
SENTINEL: Harriet Pakula Teweles asks: How did you arrive at the name “Shamba” for your Eracism Foundation Centers. Can you speak to the origin and meaning of the word and to its special significance in your choice?
LG: “Shamba” comes from Azim, a friend born in Kenya, who’s on the board of directors of the foundation. “Shamba” is a Swahili word meaning farm. That’s a place where you plant seeds which yield fruit. So, Shamba Centers are where you plant seeds in the minds of children and all people really about how to live better.
SENTINEL: Harriet also asks: How do the roles you and other African-Ameican actors play in the movies and on TV contribute to Eracism’s conscious offensive against racism and violence–and how do these roles conflict with those goals?
LG: I certainly don’t do anything conflicting with those goals any more.
And I don’t think I’ve done any in the past either. I pick and choose those roles which educate, uplift and entertain. By way of example, Iron Eagle, An Officer and a Gentleman, The Choirboys and Enemy Mine are all uplifting, informational, educational movies. I wouldn’t play a villain unless the film’s overall message is positive. There’s a responsibility not only to entertain but to educate and to pick roles carefully, especially after you’ve become famous. I’m not going to exploit my audience.
SENTINEL: Patricia asks: What needs to be done in Hollywood to create more non-stereotypical roles of substance?
LG: It’s happening, even though you don’t see much diversity among this year’s Oscar nominees. They did wonderful jobs, but diversity is essential, otherwise Hollywood will lose its fan base slowly but surely, if audiences don’t see representation that they can identify with.
SENTINEL: The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?
LG: I’m always afraid. But I have a philosophy: Where there’s no fear, there’s no faith. When fear comes up, I have to pray to turn that fear into faith.
SENTINEL: The Columbus Short question: Are you happy?
LG: I’m very content and spiritually happy. And very, very grateful.
SENTINEL: What is your guiltiest pleasure?
SENTINEL: What is your favorite dish to cook?
LG: I like lamb chops when they come from a farm where they don’t put chemicals in the meat. But my favorite dish is always whatever’s the freshest fish I can find. And I love all fruit. I think eating food from the ocean, from the ground and from the trees are the keys to a long life. That stuff was put on this planet for us to thrive on.
SENTINEL: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
LG: The Audacity of Hope.
SENTINEL: The music maven Heather Covington question: What are you listening to on your iPod?
LG: I like Michael Franks, a great, great poet who turned to music. I like him.
SENTINEL: The Uduak Oduok question: Who is your favorite clothes designer?
LG: Me. I have a new line coming out in about six months called Afro Fusion. I hate ties, so I created a suit similar to the Nehru that doesn’t need one.
SENTINEL: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
LG: An ugly Negro! [LOL]
SENTINEL: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
LG: 100% optimum health: physically, mentally and spiritually.
SENTINEL: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?
LG: I can remember screaming at the feeling of oxygen rushing into my lungs for the first time at birth.
SENTINEL: The Flex Alexander question: How do you get through the tough times?
LG: With the faith that they’re going to get better. And they do.
SENTINEL: The Rudy Lewis question: Who’s at the top of your hero list?
LG: Sidney Poitier. I wish I saw more of him nowadays. But he was very influential in my life, especially on my acting.
SENTINEL: He was the first African-American actor to win an Oscar. You were the second.
LG: Well, actually, I was the first African-American actor to win one. Sidney’s Bahamian.
SENTINEL: I forgot that. What was it like the night you won?
LG: I didn’t believe it when they opened the envelope. My agent had to poke me in the ribs and say, “They said your name!”
SENTINEL: What has been the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome?
LG: Drugs and alcohol, and they’re overcome on a daily basis.
SENTINEL: I won’t mention any names but I got an email from someone who knows you from a 12-Step program.
LG: My 12-Step group has given me the keys to the kingdom. It makes us the Chosen People, when we really adhere to a self-help philosophy that makes us heal. So, a negative has been turned into a great positive. Our noses are to the spiritual grindstone. Everybody on this planet needs some sort of guidance from a higher power in order to uplift their lives. And now we’ve become the ones who humbly help others.
SENTINEL: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
LG: There’s no such thing as impossible. Don’t follow so much in my footsteps. Just go for it!
SENTINEL: The Dulé Hill question. To what do you attribute your success?
LG: God runs it all. That’s my filling station. And I have to do the right thing with the message.
SENTINEL: The Dr. Cornel West question: What price are you willing to pay for a cause that is bigger than your own self interest?
LG: The price I want to pay is my life. But because my life is devoted to it, I don’t have to pay with it.
SENTINEL: The Tavis Smiley question: How do you want to be remembered?
LG: As the first bald, African-American in movies. [Laughs] No, I don’t know. I’d just like to be remembered.
SENTINEL: Thanks again, Lou, and I hope to speak to you later this year when your next faith-based film, The Lamp, is released.
LG: I look forward to it, Kam.