At 6 feet 4 inches, LOUIS GOSSEIT JR is a towering figure. His nearly 60-year career in stage, television and film looms even larger.
From His historic Broadway role in A Raisin in the Sun to his Emmy-winning television role as Fiddler in Roots to his Oscar-winning role in An Officer and a Gentleman, Gossett has been a solid actor since High School, when an injury sidelined the basketball star and an English teacher urged him to take the lead in a play. Sixteen credits shy of a Bachelor’s Degree from New York University (NYU) but in possession of seven honorary Doctorates, Gossett broke Hollywood typecasting by portraying Judges and Lawyers. This month, a new generation is getting to know him in Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married, Too?
Thrice divorced, the 73-year-old father of two sons recently announced that he has prostate cancer. And, after what he considers a “Necessary Bath,” Gossett reflects on the highs and lows of his career and life in his new memoir, An Actor and a Gentleman
EBONY: Did you think you would be acting this long?
LG: No, I thought I [would] be a pharmacist or a doc¬tor. Too many in my family were sick. I figured I would take care of [hem SO everybody would be healthy.
EBONY: You endured many obstacles in the industry, but you made a choice to a better man and not a bitter man. How did you get to that place?
LG: Faith. In fact, if it wasn’t [for faith], I think I would be dead. Although I did drift away quite a bit, it must have been in my system so deeply that it saved my life.
EBONY: You started on Broadway at 16. Did you realize it was a big deal?
LG: No; I could not wait to get home and play some stoopbaJl or basketball.
EBONY: While attending NYU, were you drafted by the New York Knicks?
LG: I wasn’t really drafted, but I was invited to tryout along with some of the other high school ball players. I probably would have made it, but it was rough. Those young men were desperate. There were fistfights. There were cuttings and all kinds of stuff. I was just deciding to do A Raisin in the Sun with Sidney Poitier. If you’re going to be a professional athlete of any kind, you [must] devote 24 hours to it. My attention was split.
EBONY: I heard you used to put a hurting on folks playing cards.
LG: Yeah, I’d play some poker with Paul Newman and Sidney [Poitier]. They would beat us [other actors] up because they had more money, so they would raise us out of the pot. One time I put in my life savings. There was a great big mountain of money. Then Paul said, “I have a flush.” Sidney said, “I got four nines.” And I said, “Wait a minute, fellas. I have four jacks!” They looked at me like they were ready to lynch me [laughs]. I had to go get a brown paper bag to put the money in.
EBONY: You once mentioned that you thought people would look at you like an Uncle Tom for playing Fiddler in Roots. But during that time, you decided to chage your name Why?
LG: My legal name was Louis Gossett Jr.; before that, it was Lou Gossett. And in doing the research about Roots, [I realized that] my father worked very hard to get me to where I was. He wasn’t around and I had to honor him, so 1 used my full name from then on.
EBONY: How did life change after winning an Oscar?
LG: In very strange ways. I never got the money. People thought I made millions, but I never made a million dollars for any movie and there are [more than] 75 of them. People think I wasted a lot of money. I never had it, but I was able to live very well. I got a boy [adopted son Sharron] off the streets in St. Louis to join my other son [Satie]. I’ve had a very nice life. So I’ve learned that happiness is not about money. It’s about doing things that you’re put on the planet to do. Not many people get the good fortune of making a living at what they love doing.
EBONY: Do you believe that people who win Oscars now have more opportunities avail¬able o them than you did?
LG: Yes, they have more opportunities and get more money, too. They get the money sooner because a buying audience has been identified. My audience was not identified. [Powers that be] were still worried about the South. It was definitely difficult, because it was just me. Sidney had his thing with [director] Stanley Kramer. And some of my other contemporaries were waiting to see me mess up so they could take over. [Powers that be] allowed one [African-American actor to be a star] at a time. When I stopped being perfect and started getting some muscles and saying, “You’re underpaying me,” the word was “Next!” My dream – and it still exists as Tyler Perry gets closer to it – is that [African-Americans] should do movies together. We have a lot of stories to tell.
EBONY: You described the difference between comet and a meteor in your book. Which would you use to describe your career?
LG: I’m a comet. A meteor is a Jimi Hendrix, who comes flashing across the sky and [then] it’s over. Janis Joplin. James Dean. Heath Ledger. All came flashing across the sky. You won’t see them anymore. Other comets are Barbra Streisand, Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones. We are the ones who have been around for a while.
EBONY: Is there anyone you want to work with or still long to do?
LG: If Denzel wants a father or any of those guys want an older brother or a mentor in a movie, I would be honored.
EBONY: What do you wish someone had told you before you entered the industry?
LG: [That] there was no such thing as impossible, but I learned it.