“I had come face-to-face with racism, and it was an ugly sight. But it was not going to destroy me. As long as I understood the rules of the game, I would win. The ultimate prize the game had to offer would be mine” – Louis Gossett Jr.
LOS ANGELES – Growing up in a tight-knit family in Brooklyn, Louis Gossett Jr. recalls fondly the loving counsel of his great-grandmother Bertha Wray, a stern but loving matriarch who had a penchant for plain talk and Railroad Mill snuff.
Bertha couldn’t read or write, but her homespun remedies and wise insights had a profound influence on Gossett’s life. “She saved me from polio and all that stuff out in the streets and in the backyards,” the award-winning actor recalled recently.
Snuff securely in place – “under her tongue like chewing tobacco” – Bertha would school her great-grandson about the ways of the world in pre civil rights-era America.
“You’ve got to be good. Not just good, but twice as good,” she said, referencing the racial barriers and challenges of the day. “No matter how many awards you win or points you score or high grades you earn, you cannot make a mistake. You have to be the very best there is.”
Many observers would agree that Gossett, now 78, easily reached that plateau and has been “twice as good” on stage and screen for more than six decades, winning several top acting awards, including a coveted Academy Award in 1983 for his depiction as a tough-but-fair drill sergeant in “An Officer and A Gentleman.”
Curiously, his pathway into acting was paved by misfortune.
Sidelined by a basketball injury in high school, Gossett was encouraged by his English teacher to audition for the Broadway play, “Take a Giant Step.” He landed the lead part of Spencer Scott and ended up with a Donaldson Award for the year’s best newcomer, beating out contemporaries James Dean, Ben Gazzara, John Kerr and Anthony Franciosa.
After graduation, Gossett went on to play basketball at New York University and was drafted by the New York Knicks in 1958. His basketball career was short-lived, however, and with acting still in his blood, he soon returned to performing, landing a coveted role in both the film and the stage version of “Raisin in the Sun,” starring Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Claudia McNeil.
Gossett had one of his first encounters with overt racism when he came to Hollywood in 1968 to star in NBC’s first Movie of the Week, “Companions in Nightmare.” After arriving in Los Angeles and picking up a rental car, his 20-minute drive to the Beverly Hills Hotel turned into a four-hour ordeal as he was repeatedly stopped and detained by Los Angeles County sheriffs.
The drive back to the hotel was a humiliating experience, but the worst was yet to come. While taking a stroll later that night near the hotel, Gossett was stopped again, this time being picked up and put in a squad car by the Beverly Hills Police.
“There’s a law that says you’re not supposed to be walking around residential Beverly Hills after nine o’clock at night,” the policeman explained. “You broke the law.”
Gossett was ordered to “hug the tree.” The officer brought out a chain and handcuffed his arms around the tree. Three hours later, he was released with the warning, “Get out of here. And make sure you don’t make the same mistake twice.”
Gossett said the ordeal was so sobering that he thought about leaving Hollywood and never coming back. His agent Ed Bondy, however, offered a different tact: “The best revenge is for you to get out there and knock their socks off with your work.”
Which is exactly what Gossett set out to do.
He went on to appear on stage and television landing guest spots on hit series such as “The Jeffersons,” “Good Times,” “The Six Million Dollar Man,” “Police Story” and “The Rockford Files.” His breakout role as Fiddler in the 1977 landmark television miniseries “Roots” made Gossett a household name, earning him an Emmy Award and critical acclaim.
But even after winning an Oscar, Emmy Awards, Golden Globes, People’s Choice Awards and numerous NAACP Image Awards, Gossett said he felt both embraced and victimized by a movie industry not quite ready for racial parity.
“I figured when I won the Oscar and an Emmy, I’d get some great [movie roles], but it really didn’t happen,” said Gossett, who now lives in Malibu. “But I don’t have any resentment. The lesson I learned is I can’t devote my livelihood on what I get or do not get from Hollywood.”
In his 2010 book, “An Actor and a Gentleman,” Gossett talks candidly of his struggle to get leading roles and fair pay as a black man in Hollywood, his problems with drugs and alcohol that took years to overcome and his current work to eradicate racism and violence and give our children a better future.
But as challenging as things may be for today’s young performers, he said in an excerpt from the book, things aren’t as bad as they used to be:
“Hattie McDaniel was the first African American woman to win an Academy Award in 1940, for her role as Mammy in ‘Gone with the Wind,’ “ he said reflecting on his 1983 Academy Award. “I was once told that Hattie had to come through the kitchen of the Waldorf Astoria to a small table in the corner of the ballroom where she could receive her award.
“We’d come a long way in 43 years. We didn’t have to come through the kitchen anymore.”