The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Louis Gossett, Jr.
By Mother Brain
Long before Samuel L. Jackson held the distinction of being the hardest working black actor in movies, Louis Gossett, Jr. was considered to be just that when he profile was far bigger than Jackson’s. His Emmy win for the groundbreaking Roots miniseries in 1977 and his Oscar win for An Officer and a Gentleman in 1982 made him one of the most in-demand black actors outside of Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor in the 80s. While many of his post-Oscar choices ranged from classics to low-rent home video flicks, Gossett always sought the most strongest portrayals of black men not only in film but also on the stage. His presence in any movie elevated the cast around him and would always be a welcome addition to any film now matter how good or bad.
The Sheepshead Bay native got his start in acting on his very first audition at age 16 when he beat out 400 actors for the Broadway production of Take a Giant Step. Still a high school student at the time of the audition, Gossett had no prior training in acting. It would become beginner’s luck as Gossett won the Donaldson Award for best newcomer to theatre. He also had an interest in basketball which got him a scholarship offer to NYU and a tryout to join the New York Knicks. He rejected the scholarship to pursue acting studies. Appearing in several productions throughout the late 50s and most of the 60s, Gossett was a star on the rise along with other iconic black actors such as James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson, Godfrey Cambridge, and Roscoe Lee Browne. One of Gossett’s standout credits was in the production of A Raisin in the Sun which would ironically get him his first film credit as George Murchison in the Sidney Poitier film adaptation in 1961. Gossett also worked as a songwriter, co-writing Richie Havens’ anti-Vietnam tune, “Handsome Johnny”.
As Gossett continued to work in theatre, he landed a wide variety of memorable guest spots on television. He appeared as Hurricane Smith in The Bill Cosby Show in 1970, guest starred opposite Richard Pryor in a racially charged episode of The Partridge Family, and played a cop guest starring alongside Bruce Lee in Longstreet. Arguably his most memorable guest spot on television was a 1975 episode of The Jeffersons in which Gossett played a Navy friend of George (Sherman Hemsley) who comes to visit only to sexually harass his wife, Louise (Isabel Sanford). The mix of comedy with drama in a serious situation was well executed during a groundbreaking period in television history. Gossett would soon become part of an even bigger project that changed the course of television as we know it.
In 1977, Gossett was cast as Fiddler in ABC’s Roots. It’s massive ratings and critical success brought Gossett to the attention of families tuning in all across the country. As the elderly slave to teaches LeVar Burton’s Kunta how to speak English and survive under the command of slave traders, his warmth and strength connected with audiences and it landed him not only a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor but he was also celebrated for his performance decades later with a TV Land Award. Gossett reprised the role in 1988’s Roots: The Gift.
While Gossett earned critical acclaim on television, film would often be a struggle to succeed in. After A Rasin in the Sun, Gossett had a standout performance as an activist with an identity crisis who goes berserk on Beau Bridges in Hal Ashby’s The Landlord. After Roots, he played a Caribbean drug lord out to make hell for Robert Shaw, Jacqueline Bisset, and Nick Nolte in The Deep followed by a number of forgettable films. Then came 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman where Gossett played the role of drill sergeant Emil Foley. The part was initially offered to Jack Nicholson who passed and no other choices were available at the time. When the writer of the film did research to find out most drill sergeants in the Navy were black, the part of Foley was rewritten and Gossett got the role without a single audition. He would study with real drill sergeants in San Diego for a month and one of those advisors would be future Full Metal Jacket star, R. Lee Ermey. As Sgt. Foley, Gossett came across as an intimidating force for the cast including star Richard Gere. Staying in separate quarters away from the cast during production added to the tension in the film and never once does Foley show any compassion to Gere or the rest of the recruit characters. Nothing but full discipline and transforming the recruits from boys and girls to men and women in uniform.
Gossett stunned the industry when he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in Officer. A black performer had not won an Oscar in over a decade until that point. Although opportunities opened up for Gossett, the roles made for black actors of his age and acting skill were far and few. He found himself taking anything with a big paycheck including Jaws 3-D, Finders Keepers, and a forgettable short-lived sci-fi series called The Powers of Matthew Star which was shot before the production of An Officer and a Gentleman. Things turned around in 1985 with Wolfgang Petersen’s Enemy Mine where Gossett played a reptilian extraterrestrial stuck on a hostile planet with a human foe (Dennis Quaid) who he eventually befriends and makes the surrogate father of his child. While not a box office success, Enemy Mine found its audience through the years on video and cable. The role was an even bigger challenge for Gossett than Officer because of the extensive makeup which proved to be painful to wear, a six month shoot in Germany, and a change in directors early in the production. Enemy Mine is probably his second or third best remembered role as Gossett often appears at conventions where he’ll do the gargling-like alien voice for fans. No doubt this should have earned him another Oscar nomination.
In 1986, Gossett found himself in an unlikely franchise with Iron Eagle. Released five months before Top Gun, Gossett plated Col. Chappy Sinclair who mentors and helps his friend’s son on a dangerous rescue mission around the Arab states. Iron Eagle was popular enough on video to land three sequels, one more worse than the next. Then he was typecast as the tough black sidekick in films such as Firewalker with Chuck Norris, The Principal with Jim Belushi, the 1989 adaptation of The Punisher and Cover Up both starring Dolph Lundgren, and the role of a headmaster whose school is seized by Columbian terrorists in Toy Soldiers. His last headlining role in film to date was 1992’s Diggstown where he plays an aging boxer pulled into a bet set up by James Woods to be 10 men in one day. While unsuccessful at the box office, Diggstown did give Gossett a chance to work with his wife, Cyndi.
While his film career in the 90s was full of misfires and paycheck jobs, Gossett still managed to land significant television work. He won a Golden Globe in 1991 for his portrayal of Sidney Williams in HBO’s The Josephine Baker Story, headlined a series of TV movies as San Francisco cafe owner and detective Ray Alexander, an angry father seeking justice for the murder of his daughter in the adaptation of the Charles Fuller play Zooman, and various other television roles. Many of these television movies were socially themed and often dealt with race relations in America.
At age 78, Gossett continues to work as hard as he did 50 years ago. Though his Oscar win did not lead to many financially successful films, he still finds ways to be relevant in some fashion or another. In recent years, he’s appeared in movies such as Tyler Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girls and Why Did I Get Married Too. He headlined the independent film Boiling Pot about college campus racism during the 2008 election. On television, Gossett played an alien leader on Stargate SG-1, lent his voiceover talents to The Batman as Lucius Fox, and most recently appeared in the fourth season of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Gossett still remains active in the theatre, created the Eracism Foundation for creating projects to educate the public on racism in society, and was recently a cancer survivor. Who truly knows if Louis Gossett, Jr.’s best days are far behind him or if there will be another Oscar-worthy performance somewhere in the near future. There’s no question he’s a true underrated actor with all the acclaim he has earned over five decades.