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Louis Gossett’s work in iconic films and early Black theatre not to be ignored

LOUIS GOSSETT, JR., and in a still photo from “An Officer and a Gentleman.” Paramount, via Everett Collection

The Black community is still celebrating Oscar wins, but we sadly have to note the death at age 87 of the first Black man to win a Best Actor in Supporting Role Oscar for “An Officer and a Gentleman,” Louis Gossett, Jr.

Gossett won the golden statue for his turn as the abrasive, no-holds-barred Sgt. Emil Foley, when he scared the white off of Zack Mayo (Richard Gere), a new member of the U.S. Navy, who has a bad attitude.

When Mayo signs up for the Aviation Academy, he is met with the strict leadership of Sgt. Foley, who gives him a rude awakening in terms of relating to other people. Through Sgt. Foley’s guidance and stern leadership, and an unexpected romance with Paula (Debra Winger)—an outsider who hangs around the naval base—Mayo learns some tough lessons and discovers what he truly wants out of life.

The New York Times’ Vincent Canby described Sgt. Foley as a cruel taskmaster “recycled as a man of recognizable cunning, dedication and humor” revealed in “the kind of performance that wins awards.”

Gossett told The Times that he had recognized the role’s worth immediately. “The words just tasted good,” he recalled.

The director, Taylor Hackford, originally was going to cast a white man for the role, but he learned that many of the drill instructors in Pensacola, Florida, were Black men. Hackford told The Hollywood Reporter, “At that moment I changed the casting profile for Sgt. Foley and started meeting actors of color, and Lou Gossett came to see me – I knew and admired his stage work. He told me that he’d served in the U.S. Army as a Ranger, so in addition to being an accomplished actor, he knew military life, and I hired him on the spot.”

But Gossett had other great movie roles, among them as the long-suffering college preppy boyfriend of Diana Sands named George Murchison in the 1961 “A Raisin in the Sun;” in the 1977 “Roots the series,” where he won an Emmy as Fiddler, the mentor of the lead character, Kunta Kinte, played by LeVar Burton. Fiddler was a musician and an enslaved man on an 18th-century Virginia plantation.

Other films were the 2019 “The Cuban,” where he played an elderly Cuban musician who reignites a pre-med student’s love of music and changes her life forever.

The most recent role that fans have enjoyed one of Gossett’s performances was in 2023 “The Color Purple;” and among other earlier great roles, Gossett’s work in Broadway plays with predominantly Black casts is not to be glossed over.

In the 1960s, the American Negro Theater in Harlem was the answer to the segregated theater scene in that city at that time.

After that in 1967, playwright Douglas Turner Ward, actor Robert Hooks and theater manager Gerald Krone founded The Negro Ensemble Company. Gossett was an alumni of NEC.

Gossett was cast in a few productions. There was the 1959 play “A Raisin in the Sun,” the 1961 “The Blacks,” the 1963 “Tambourines to Glory,” where he played a Harlem hustler, and the 1965 “The Zulu and the Zayda,” about a Jew and a Black man bridging the racial gap in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Another Gossett role in 1966, “My Sweet Charlie,” saw him as a lawyer who had killed a white man in a civil rights demonstration, as well as the Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba in 1971 “Murderous Angels.”

These performances and more prompted folks from all over to pay tributes on social media, praising his work.

Actress Debbie Allen was overjoyed with appreciation. She posted: “LOU LOU LOU!!! Thank you for the love and inspiration. We will always speak your name with great Pride and Respect.”

Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz posted: “Lou Gossett was a real mensch: a brilliant actor, an even finer man. He told great stories, including this gem: ‘As a teenager, Lou hit against Sandy Koufax, the best ballplayer he ever saw. Lou also played basketball against Koufax, the best basketball player he ever saw.’”

Actor and entertainer Ben Vereen, who worked with Gossett on the “Roots” series, added: “Lou was/is my friend. So, in his passing, let us celebrate his life with all of our hearts. That’s what my friend would want.”

Colman Domingo, who played Gossett’s son in the recent release of “The Color Purple,” wrote: “Was able to capture my ‘dad,’ the legendary Louis Gossett Jr. He was open and generous. Kind beyond measure. Regal. We owe so much to him.”

Activist and author Kevin Powell posted: “REST IN PEACE AND POWER LOUIS GOSSETT, JR. He was 87, and one of my favorite actors since I was a child. An Oscar winner, I was struck by his performance in ‘Roots,’ for which he won an Emmy. He was a true gentleman, AND one of our giants of theater, film, and tv.”

Such a stellar film and television career for a man of great stature who loomed large on screen without saying a word.

Louis Gossett, Jr., died on March 29 in California.

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