Louis Gossett Jr., 1st Black man to win supporting actor Oscar, dies


Louis Gossett Jr., the first Black man to win a supporting actor Oscar and an Emmy winner for his role in the seminal TV miniseries “Roots,” has died. He was 87.

Gossett’s cousin, Neal L. Gossett, confirmed his death to CBS News. The actor died Thursday night in Santa Monica, California, The Associated Press reported. No cause of death was revealed.

“It is with our heartfelt regret to confirm our beloved father passed away this morning. We would like to thank everyone for their condolences at this time. Please respect the family’s privacy during this difficult time,” his family said in a statement Friday.

Gossett always thought of his early career as a reverse Cinderella story, with success finding him from an early age and propelling him forward, toward his Academy Award for “An Officer and a Gentleman.”

He earned his first acting credit in his Brooklyn high school’s production of “You Can’t Take It with You” while he was sidelined from the basketball team with an injury.

“I was hooked — and so was my audience,” he wrote in his 2010 memoir “An Actor and a Gentleman.”

His English teacher urged him to go into Manhattan to try out for “Take a Giant Step.” He got the part and made his Broadway debut in 1953 at age 16.

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Louis Gossett Jr. poses for a portrait in New York to promote the release of “Roots: The Complete Original Series” on Bu-ray on May 11, 2016.

Amy Sussman/Invision/AP


“I knew too little to be nervous,” Gossett wrote. “In retrospect, I should have been scared to death as I walked onto that stage, but I wasn’t.”

Gossett attended New York University on a basketball and drama scholarship. He was soon acting and singing on TV shows hosted by David Susskind, Ed Sullivan, Red Buttons, Merv Griffin, Jack Paar and Steve Allen. Gossett became friendly with James Dean and studied acting with Marilyn Monroe, Martin Landau and Steve McQueen at an offshoot of the Actors Studio taught by Frank Silvera.

In 1959, Gossett received critical acclaim for his role in the Broadway production of “A Raisin in the Sun” along with Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Diana Sands. 

“I’m fortunate to have worked with Sidney Poitier, Diana Sands, Ruby Dee. What a pleasure,” Gossett told CBS News in 2020. “Showed me what was good and what was bad. They taught me about that. And I fell in love. It’s in my bloodstream.”

Gossett went on to become a star on Broadway, replacing Billy Daniels in “Golden Boy” with Sammy Davis Jr. in 1964. 

Gossett went to Hollywood for the first time in 1961 to make the film version of “A Raisin in the Sun.” He had bitter memories of that trip, staying in a cockroach-infested motel that was one of the few places to allow Black people.

In 1968, he returned to Hollywood for a major role in “Companions in Nightmare,” NBC’s first made-for-TV movie that starred Melvyn Douglas, Anne Baxter and Patrick O’Neal.

This time, Gossett was booked into the Beverly Hills Hotel and Universal Studios had rented him a convertible. Driving back to the hotel after picking up the car, he was stopped by a Los Angeles County sheriff’s officer who ordered him to turn down the radio and put up the car’s roof before letting him go.

Within minutes, he was stopped by eight sheriff’s officers, who had him lean against the car and made him open the trunk while they called the car rental agency before letting him go.

“Something happened to my system. You know, have to look over and be careful. Because that sensation did damage to me,” Gossett said while recounting the incident in 2020. “So, when they say Black lives matter? All lives matter, because not only did they hurt me, but they hurt themselves.”

After dinner at the hotel, he went for a walk and was stopped a block away by a police officer, who told him he broke a law prohibiting walking around residential Beverly Hills after 9 p.m. Two other officers arrived and Gossett said he was chained to a tree and handcuffed for three hours. He was eventually freed when the original police car returned.

“Now I had come face-to-face with racism, and it was an ugly sight,” he wrote. “But it was not going to destroy me.”

In the late 1990s, Gossett said he was pulled over by police on Pacific Coast Highway while driving his restored 1986 Rolls Royce Corniche II. The officer told him he looked like someone they were searching for, but the officer recognized Gossett and left.

Louis Gossett Jr. poses with the Oscar for best supporting actor for his role in “An Officer and a Gentleman.”

AP


He founded the Eracism Foundation to help create a world where racism doesn’t exist.

Gossett made a series of guest appearances on such shows as “Bonanza,” “The Rockford Files,” “The Mod Squad,” “McCloud” and a memorable turn with Richard Pryor on “The Partridge Family.”

In August 1969, Gossett had been partying with members of the Mamas and the Papas when they were invited to actor Sharon Tate’s house. He headed home first to shower and change clothes. As he was getting ready to leave, he caught a news flash on TV about Tate’s murder. She and others were killed by Charles Manson’s associates that night.

“There had to be a reason for my escaping this bullet,” he wrote.

Louis Cameron Gossett was born on May 27, 1936, in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, New York, to Louis Sr., a porter, and Hellen, a nurse. He later added Jr. to his name to honor his father.

Gossett broke through on the small screen as Fiddler in the groundbreaking 1977 miniseries “Roots,” which depicted the atrocities of slavery on TV. The sprawling cast included Ben Vereen, LeVar Burton and John Amos.

Gossett became the third Black Oscar nominee in the supporting actor category in 1983. He told CBS News that at first, he didn’t realize he had won for his performance as the intimidating Marine drill instructor in “An Officer and a Gentleman” opposite Richard Gere and Debra Winger.  

“My agent hit me in the chest and said, ‘They mentioned your name!’ And I had to look at him ’cause I thought I was asleep,” said Gossett, who also won a Golden Globe for the role. “And I looked around and there was applause. Not supposed to be possible. So, that’s a piece of history.”

Gossett said that that win allowed him to choose “good parts” in future movies. In 2020, he told CBS News that he considered his long career “a blessing” and would stay in the business as long as he was able. 

“As long as I’m here, there is a job to do for the benefit of us all, for what it’s worth,” he said.

Gossett appeared in such TV movies as “The Story of Satchel Paige,” “Backstairs at the White House, “The Josephine Baker Story,” for which he won another Golden Globe, and “Roots Revisited.” He played an obstinate patriarch in the 2023 remake of “The Color Purple.”

Gossett struggled with alcohol and cocaine addiction for years after his Oscar win. He went to rehab, where he was diagnosed with toxic mold syndrome, which he attributed to his house in Malibu.

In 2010, Gossett announced he had prostate cancer, which he said was caught in the early stages. In 2020, he was hospitalized with COVID-19.

He is survived by sons Satie, a producer-director from his second marriage, and Sharron, a chef whom he adopted after seeing the 7-year-old in a TV segment on children in desperate situations. His first cousin is actor Robert Gossett.

Gossett’s first marriage to Hattie Glascoe was annulled. His second, to Christina Mangosing, ended in divorce in 1975 as did his third to actor Cyndi James-Reese in 1992.



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