‘An Officer and a Gentleman’ and ‘Roots’ star Louis Gossett Jr. dead at 87

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Louis Gossett Jr., the trailblazing actor celebrated as the first Black man to clinch a supporting actor Oscar and acclaimed for his pivotal role in the groundbreaking TV miniseries Roots, has passed away at the age of 87 in Santa Monica, California, as confirmed by his nephew to the Associated Press. The precise cause of his death remains undisclosed.

Reflecting on his illustrious career, Gossett often likened his early journey to a reverse Cinderella tale, where fortune embraced him from a tender age, propelling him towards remarkable achievements, including his iconic Academy Award-winning performance in An Officer and a Gentleman.

Gossett’s theatrical prowess was evident even during his formative years when he earned his debut acting credit in his high school production of You Can’t Take It with You in Brooklyn, while nursing an injury sidelining him from the basketball court. Captivating his audience from the outset, he embarked on a trajectory that led him to grace Broadway stages, making his debut at the age of 16 in Take a Giant Step.

Enrolling at New York University on a dual basketball and drama scholarship, Gossett’s talents soon found expression on television screens across the nation, showcasing his acting and singing skills on prominent shows hosted by luminaries such as David Susskind, Ed Sullivan, and Merv Griffin. His journey intertwined with notable figures like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, while honing his craft alongside revered mentors including Martin Landau and Steve McQueen at the Actors Studio under the tutelage of Frank Silvera.

In 1959, Gossett garnered widespread acclaim for his role in the Broadway sensation A Raisin in the Sun, sharing the stage with luminaries like Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee. His star continued to ascend on Broadway, notably stepping into the spotlight alongside Sammy Davis Jr. in Golden Boy in 1964, succeeding Billy Daniels in a role that further solidified his place in the pantheon of theatrical greats.

Louis Gossett Jr.’s legacy as a pioneering actor and consummate performer resonates across generations, etching an indelible mark on stage and screen alike, ensuring his memory endures as an inspiration for aspiring talents worldwide.

Gossett in The Color Purple.
Gossett in The Color Purple. Photograph: Eli Ade´/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Louis Gossett Jr. ventured into Hollywood for the first time in 1961 to participate in the film adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun. However, the memories of that trip were tainted by bitter experiences as he found lodging in a cockroach-infested motel, one of the few establishments accommodating Black individuals at the time.

In 1968, he returned to Hollywood for a pivotal role in Companions in Nightmare, NBC’s inaugural made-for-TV movie, sharing the screen with luminaries like Melvyn Douglas, Anne Baxter, and Patrick O’Neal. This time, Gossett’s accommodations were markedly different, as he was lodged in the prestigious Beverly Hills hotel and even provided with a rented convertible by Universal Studios. Yet, his encounter with racism persisted when, after picking up the car, he was stopped by a Los Angeles county sheriff’s officer who subjected him to unwarranted scrutiny.

Despite his rising status in Hollywood, racial prejudice continued to plague Gossett. A walk after dinner led to an encounter with police officers who subjected him to unjust treatment, detaining him for hours without cause, a stark reminder of the pervasive racism of the era.

In the late 1990s, Gossett’s fame didn’t shield him from racial profiling, as he was pulled over while driving his vintage Rolls Royce Corniche II. Although initially mistaken for someone else, the encounter underscored the persistent challenges faced by Black individuals in America.

Motivated by his own experiences, Gossett established the Eracism Foundation, dedicated to combatting racism and fostering a world free from its grip.

Born on May 27, 1936, in Brooklyn, New York, Louis Cameron Gossett Jr. emerged as a prominent figure in television and film. His breakthrough role came in the groundbreaking miniseries Roots in 1977, where he portrayed the character Fiddler, shedding light on the harrowing realities of slavery.

Gossett’s illustrious career reached its pinnacle when he became the third Black actor to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in 1983. His portrayal of the formidable Marine drill instructor in An Officer and a Gentleman earned him the coveted award, marking a significant milestone for Black actors in Hollywood. Reflecting on his win, Gossett emphasized its significance as a validation of his craft and a catalyst for securing more substantial roles.

Despite his accolades, Gossett grappled with personal challenges, battling addiction and health issues. However, his commitment to his craft and advocacy remained unwavering.

Louis Gossett Jr. leaves behind a legacy that transcends his on-screen achievements. His enduring impact as a trailblazer and advocate continues to inspire generations, cementing his place as a luminary in the entertainment industry. He is survived by his sons Satie, a producer-director, and Sharron, whom he adopted after witnessing his plight on television, a testament to Gossett’s compassion and commitment to making a difference.

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