An Actor and A Gentleman: Â Louis Gossett, Jr.
By Joy Childs
This year marks Louis Gossett, Jr.’s 60th year in the entertainment business. Â His new book, “An Actor and A Gentleman,” chronicles in painstaking detail his first days in Hollywood-from the persistent racism-including being handcuffed to a tree by Beverly Hills police-to the perks, convertible vehicles and fancy hotels. The book explores everything from his personal life struggles with drugs, alcohol and women to his trials and tribulations with “playing the game” in an industry that rejects and loves as the same time.
Although Gossett started out as a star basketball athlete worthy of an NYU scholarship, and even briefly played for the New York Knicks, a sports injury fortuitously led him to an acting career at the age of 16-and to awards that run the gamut from the prestigious Donaldson Award in 1953 as the year’s best newcomer to theatre (for which he bested his buddy James Dean), to Emmys, Golden Globes and the Oscar. His story includes revealing stories of his experiences with Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Halle Berry and others.
In a recent interview, we focused on the early days-from the mostly halcyon days of his youth on Coney Island to the horror of his early days in Hollywood. Â These were the days long before all the awards for “An Officer and A Gentleman” and for Fiddler in “Roots” and long before the drugs-and the prostate cancer, from which Gossett had just gotten a clean bill of health when we sat down to chat at his Malibu home of 27 years.
Q. Â First of all, congratulations on the success of the book. Â [It was rated in the top 20 when it debuted on The Los Angeles Times Bestseller List.] Â It was actually pretty gut-wrenching and hard to read. Â I can’t imagine what it must have been like to write this, especially the incident with being handcuffed for hours to a tree by Beverly Hills cops. . . I do understand the accolades because it was told in excruciating detail.
A. Â In total honesty . . .
Q. Â Absolutely. . . So you were born in Sheepshead Bay/Coney Island. . . Â So an amusement park with a Ferris wheel provided the backdrop of your life!
A. Yeah, and Nathan’s Famous (hot dogs)!
Q. And you were an athlete back then?
A. Â Yes, I played basketball and I played baseball. . . . But I also was a professional actor at the age of 17. Â That distracted me from sports.
Q. Â I believe it was a Mr. Blum who turned you on to acting?
A. Â Gustav Blumberg. He changed his name because he ran from the Communist thing. . . All of the intellectuals-the cream of the crop, from science, politics, education and theatre-ran from the top universities and came to New York. And the man who was in charge of the board of education back then sent them to the boondocks to hide-and they came to mostly Brooklyn. And those teachers were college teachers and their children went to school with me, and they ended up in the same neighborhood right after the Depression. We kinda rubbed elbows so it was very ideal. Â There wasn’t a lot of money but there was a lot of love, a lot of camaraderie.
I couldn’t identify with any blacks on television. So our imaginations took off on Saturday afternoons at the movies watching “The Lone Ranger” and “Hopalong Cassidy” and “Tarzan.” Â My friends they were of all ages, mostly Jewish.
Q. There must have been something in the water: Neil Diamond, Mel Brooks, Harvey Keitel-all from your neighborhood!
A. Â All of us! It was those teachers who created a society where-I’ll give you a small example: small to them, very large to me. We played Captain Marvel, Superman, but instead of me having a complex that I can’t play him because I don’t look like him, they’d say, ‘No, you play Superman’!
I wish Hollywood was like that! But it planted a deep seed. They didn’t realize what they were doing for me and some of my African American counterparts. Â . . not many of which decided to join their world-they stayed in the black ghetto. Â And I didn’t. Â I was in a melting pot. Â But they said it was so important for them to include me because we grew up singing together, playing ball together. And I’ve got photographs of all of us. Â I’m in the only black on the team. Â I didn’t realize I was the only black on the team.
Q. So did you feel that you were a true equal of theirs?
A. Yeah, they made me feel that way. And that feeling continued all the way through Broadway with all the actors in New York and all the parties we had . . . There was racism-cuttings and the zip guns-but that wasn’t so huge. If we wanted to join, we could swallow the marble and join, and we knew we were minority . . . And when I was 17, those people had crossed that line, like the great Paul Robeson. . . Â I had no idea who that was but he hugged me and broke my back almost, he was so happy to see me!
Q. I also read about that someone else who took to you: Frank Silvera.
A. Â Great actor. He made me realize how great I could be. He freed me.
Q. Â Freed you from . . .?
A. Â Yes. Freed me from any restrictions of being African American and being afraid of what’s gonna come out of my mouth. It alters your performance if you’re afraid of being your full character. . . Â so I could be free in front of that camera or on that stage, but I could not be free after work.
Q. Â After the play “Take a Giant Step” in 1953, there was “A Raisin in the Sun.” The movie version represented your first trip to Hollywood in 1961?
A. And the only place we could stay then-unless you were Sidney Poitier-was on LaBrea and Stocker. Â It was good-looking outside but they had flying cockroaches inside!
Q. Â But eventually you moved to the Montecito Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard, where the rest of the “Raisin” cast was staying.
A. Â Yeah, and the cockroaches there were just baby cockroaches! . . . That’s when I discovered Hollywood and met and hung out with my theatre contemporaries-Brando, Dean, Newman.
Q, Â And you beat out James Dean for Best Newcomer to Theatre!
A. Â Yes. Me and James Dean were the closest of those guys.
Q. Â I have to ask: Â If you were deserted on an island, which movies would you have to have with you . . . that you were not in?
A. Â “Shawkshank Redemption.”
Q. Â Were you up for that role?
A. Â I think I was up for that role but for some reason they didn’t wanna pay the money. That’s when I started losing roles but that’s the way history goes. Â By the time I asked for my money after winning those awards . . . my contemporaries were getting theirs but not me . . . but we’ll get to that part. . .
In the near hour that we talked, Gossett revealed that he’s never made a million dollars for any movie; and more, astonishingly he added that despite his numerous awards, he’s had few acting opportunities of late (for reasons he doesn’t know with certainty), saying that he’s on the brink of deciding whether to chuck Hollywood for Savannah, GA, to establish a Sundance-type festival there. The one role he’d love to play “before he gets too old” is Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya.
In addition to his role in Tyler Perry’s “Why Did I Get Married Too,” Gossett co-executive produced the brilliant documentary “For Love of Liberty” (see related article on page ___) and, in 2007, he founded Eracism, an organization dedicated to eradicating racism, violence and ignorance.
To really get a sense of how this actor and gentleman endured, then overcame, extraordinary inequalities, his autobiography is a must-read this summer.