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A Poet of an Actor: Louis Gossett, Jr. (1936-2024)

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In processing the news that we have lost Louis Gossett, Jr. it is striking that the part that won him the Academy Award in 1983 is not the only role of his that comes to mind. With a whopping 200 credits to his name and a career that spans 70 years, it is impossible to reduce him to one iconic part. And that says as much about the roles offered to him in his time as it does the care that he took in picking them. 

Gossett, who died today at age 87, leaves behind a body of work that any actor would envy. As always, so much of what made him was the chance of timing. Born in Brooklyn, Coney Island to be exact, he began acting at 17 thanks to the encouragement of a teacher. He made his Broadway debut before he finished high school. Gossett said in many interviews that the blacklist had forced many brilliant minds out of academia to stations they might not have otherwise found themselves. He believed he benefited from this misfortune, and gained mentorship from people he might never have met in more enlightened times. 

Gossett found his way to Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio, where he described himself in interviews as “the kid in the back of the room.” In the front of the room there was Marilyn Monroe (she took a liking to the young Gossett and took him under her wing), Julie Harris, Lee Grant, and Sidney Poitier. Remarkable to consider how Gossett and Poitier’s paths crossed so early given that his career was destined to follow the trail blazed by Poitier. The times did not permit Gossett to aim for the leading man roles that Poitier engaged, but Gossett always seemed at peace with juicy supporting parts. Gossett would become a movie star, but at his core, he was always a New York stage actor. 

His breakthrough came in 1959 when he originated the role of George Murchison, the smug, pedantic, self-hating suitor to Beneatha Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun alongside Poitier, Ruby Dee, Ivan Dixon, John Fiedler, Diana Sands, and Glynn Turman. He then began working in television and film doing the usual parts you’d expect for a young Black man in that era. 

Gossett began the next decade with one of his most outstanding performances in Hal Ashby’s 1970 directorial debut “The Landlord,” adapted by the late Bill Gunn (whom Gossett had replaced on Broadway when he was a teenager in the cast of Take a Giant Step) and produced by Norman Jewison. It was an auspicious cast for Gossett, occasioning a reunion with his Actor’s Studios classmate Lee Grant and his Raisin in the Sun castmate Diana Sands. 

A biting racial satire that shames most contemporary attempts to similarly expose the metastatic madness of American racism, Gossett has the pivotal role of Copee Johnson, a young Black nationalist who is initially presented as a figure of menace from the nightmares of the white middle class. But the more we get to know Copee, the revolutionary stance falls away and we see the man’s vulnerability and fragility underneath. Gossett’s craft as a performer and grace as a human being was essential for the film’s sleight of hand. Copee is himself a performer, at one point even donning a headdress and bow and arrow, becoming a movie Indian as both an act of solidarity and an acknowledgment of the daily defiance his choice to merely exist represented to the white world. Copee breaks when he learns that the titular character, who represents the system trying to smother him, has cuckolded him in a cruel echo of the past. At a time when Black audiences were understandably hungry for larger-than-life folk heroes who could put The Man in his place, Gossett showed us the human cost of shouldering so much painful history and the toll it takes on one’s mental health. In that way, Copee was both of his time and way ahead of it. 

He explored that cruel past in the landmark 1977 television miniseries “Roots”. Gossett won a Primetime Emmy for the role of Fiddler. It wasn’t an easy part to play. Fiddler, an enslaved person, is tasked with helping to break the younger Kunta Kinte, played by LeVar Burton, and make a proud young Mandinka into an American slave. Gossett had to use his gifts to find the humanity in a character charged with being a tool of an unspeakable process of dehumanization. 

There’s a certain poetry in Gossett’s major roles. He played the walking embodiment of assimilation in Hansberry’s play, then a man crushed by the mental and spiritual pressures of resistance for Hal Ashby. Fiddler in some ways was the first of the mentor figures that Gossett would spend the rest of his career playing, notably U.S. Army Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley in Taylor Hackford’s 1982 hit “An Officer and a Gentleman“. The part was not written for a Black man, but Taylor Hackford saw the potential in letting Gossett play this character who is tasked with brutally conditioning wild young men into disciplined soldiers. It won Gossett the Academy Award, making him the first Black actor to win Best Supporting Actor, and the second Black male actor to ever win an Academy Award, trailing, of all people, Sidney Poitier.

An Oscar usually leads to bigger parts and bigger opportunities. Alas, the times didn’t offer Louis Gossett, Jr. much in the way of parts equal to his vast talent. But he kept working, turning in memorable roles as an alien in Wolfgang Petersen’s “Enemy Mine,” a sci-fi riff on “The Defiant Ones” alongside Dennis Quaid with a fascinating gender twist; and in the four “Iron Eagle” films (the first film in the series came out months before “Top Gun” even though we will always think of them as knockoffs) as a Vietnam vet pilot who has to mentor the son of a fellow pilot.

Gossett was a consummate professional, always delivering excellence whether it was one day on a television movie, a thin part in a faith-based project, or voice work for a video game. In an era when bad behavior was tolerated, he was known for his kindness and his craftsmanship. His final act gave him a critical part in Damon Lindelof’s HBO series “Watchmen,” and his last part in a major studio release as Old Mister in last year’s “The Color Purple”. 

Timing is everything, and Gossett was forged in the times he was born in, as we all are. Of all the lessons his life has to offer young artists, Gossett stands tall for his commitments to craft, to his humanity, and to bring both of those to bear on parts that were sometimes dangerously close to cliche. His gifts and his commitment to his craft made everything he did into something so much more.

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