May 2017

Louis Gossett Jr.

An Actor and a Gentleman’s Mission to Erase Racism

By Lynn Wexler

Oscar winning actor Louis Gossett Jr.. feels like he’s fifty years old, notwithstanding that he was born on May 27, 1936 in Brooklyn, New York. The physically, mentally, and spiritually fit Gossett is utilizing his roots, success, trendsetting bald-headed good looks, and imposing six-foot-four figure to inspire younger generations through Eracism, his foundation to abolish social ignorance and heal the environment.

“My parents moved the family to a Jewish neighborhood understanding that it was a safer environment for us to grow up in,” says Gossett, who was raised and nurtured by the values upheld in that predominantly Jewish neighborhood, as well as being influenced by his great-grandmother, who had been a slave. “She passed away at the age of 115 years old!” says Gossett.

He credits his six decades of award-winning film, television, and stage fame - and surviving the pain and frustration of racial discrimination along the way - to the kindness and opportunities accorded him by many in the Jewish community.

“Doors there were always open to me. I grew up enjoying gefilte fish and sauerbraten. I learned that family gathered around the Friday night Shabbat table. Deeply held traditions, personal generosity, and education above all are the key values that hold a community together and sustain and elevate a people,” adds Gossett.

While he may be best known now for his numerous award-winning roles; An Oscar for playing Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley in the 1982 blockbuster An Officer and a Gentleman; an Emmy for his role as Fiddler in the 1977 groundbreaking miniseries Roots; and a Golden Globe for his portrayal of army officer Sidney Williams in the 1991 TV movie The Josephine Baker Story, Gossett came from humble beginnings. His acting career began when his Jewish English teacher, Gustav Blum, who had been a Broadway director, saw his stellar performance in a school play and encouraged him to audition to replace the lead in the acclaimed 1953 Broadway production of Take a Giant Step. Gossett got the part, beating out 400 other candidates.

But it was after his work in both the stage and film versions of Lorraine Hansberry’s pioneering drama, A Raisin in the Sun (1961) about African-American family life, which proved a watershed moment.

“I was brought out to Hollywood in 1967 by Lew Wasserman and Ed Bondy from the William Morris Agency,” says Gossett. “A limo met me on the tarmac at LAX and took me to the Beverly Hills Hotel. I was in seventh heaven!”

“Until racism hit me square in the face,” he continues. “I took a stroll on the grounds of the Beverly Hills Hotel only to be nabbed by police and chained to a tree for three hours. Nothing to drink. No way to go to the bathroom. It was horrifying.”

“It got worse,” Gossett says. “I had to rent a car from a location at Crescent Heights and Sunset. The hotel is maybe 20 minutes away. Once I got the car, it took me four and half hours to get back to the hotel. I met every cop in that neighborhood along the way…they weren’t just angry by a black man driving a fancy convertible, they were flabbergasted!”

Gossett continued to experience racism throughout most of his career, even following his Academy Award. “Sometimes I believe that the reason I have been able to do such exemplary work on screen is because it’s the only place I can be free, neither censured nor judged.”

Gossett points out that while he is considered the first African American to win a Best Supporting Academy Award (1982), Sydney Poitier is credited with being the first African American to win a Best Actor Academy Award (in 1964 for Lilies of the Field) even though his parents are from the Bahamas and his father’s ancestry traces back to Haiti.

“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. I was told that Hattie had to come through the kitchen of the Waldorf Astoria to a small table in the corner of the ballroom to receive her award. We’d come a long way in forty-three years since. I didn’t have to come through the kitchen to accept my award,” shares Gossett.

Following his Oscar, he was singled out for his work as Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in Sadat (1983). And Gossett’s 200 plus stage and screen performances have garnered him recognition on a global scale as one of the most respected and honored African American actors. Organizations such as the NAACP, CARE, and the United States Armed Forces have used his likeness to add validity and integrity to their causes.

Still, there was an underlying disquiet.

“I stewed about my plight for years. I wondered how an Oscar-winning actor could have such a tough time landing good gigs and commanding the same big bucks as white actors. I always had to be on my best behavior for fear of losing opportunities. Had I stepped on any toes or burned any bridges over the years?”

He had no clue, and it tore him up inside and out.

“I had become angry and resentful and allowed those feelings to consume me,” he reveals.

Married and divorced three times, Gossett has two sons (and prides himself to this day for doing his best to be a good father and now, grandfather). He had a longtime cocaine and drinking habit and was once so sick, he was told he had six months to live. In 2004, he checked into rehab and has remained clean since. In 2010, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. “Whether the anger is justified or not, that’s where your cancers and high blood pressure and all kinds of health problems come in, and that’s self-defeating.”

Gossett has long since taken strides to conquer those “demons”, understanding that, “the worst resentment we can have is the one we feel justified to keep. And although there are books and poetry and songs to help us feel justified in hanging on to those demons, they do us no good,” he says, “especially if you know that there’s a better way—and that’s to live in this country together, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Meditation and prayer helped Gossett to develop an awareness of, and connection to, G-d, eventually replacing pain and ego with humility and gratitude.

“This process helped me discover what was darkening my soul and allowed me to rid the toxicity from my system…opening a space for God’s light to shine through me to others,” says Gossett, who came to understand that, for him, God’s light is brighter than any light he might have stood in on Broadway and in Hollywood. Following a course in radiation, he was pronounced cancer-free a little over a year after he was diagnosed.

Meeting Nelson Mandela in 1994 while filming A Good Man in Africa also helped. “After spending 18 years in prison, simply for standing up for human rights, Mandela came out with this peaceful, healing grace. That blew me away. My situation paled in comparison to his,” shared Gossett.

Letting go of the pressure and the anger was, for Gossett, an easier way to live. “I soon realized it was time to heal…for me…for the country. But there are some things in the way, and racism is one of them,” he says.

With the same courage, talent, and truth that had come to characterize his life, struggles, and successes, Gossett started the nonprofit Eracism Foundation in 2006 to fight racism through education; initiatives that foster cultural diversity and anti-violence resolutions; and programs for kids that will re-create the values he learned through the nurturing he received growing up.

“I want to help young people in the most distressed urban areas to combat racism, sexism and violence. I want to protect them against the evil of the streets,” says Gossett. “I want them to learn what is expected of them: self-respect, respect for the opposite sex, respect for their elders, the planet, and the importance of education.”

The goal of Eracism is a society devoid of racism, violence, ignorance, and social apathy – a collective responsibility for maintaining the planet.

“We define Eracism as the removal from existence the belief that one race, one culture, one people is superior to another,” says Gossett. “Eracism programs provide projects, philosophy, and leadership training for youth and adults to live and set the example for racially diverse and culturally inclusive lives.”

Charismatic and engaging, with a commanding presence and voice that projects a distinct yet quiet authority, Gossett’s impassioned activism is fueling the success of Eracism.

“One mentality cannot run the world anymore. We need to communicate with each other without resorting to violence to create peace; to care for our planet; and to encourage cooperation between races, religions, and communities,” he says.

“I refer to myself as an American African as opposed to the reverse. I was born here so I’m an American first,” explains Gossett. “My ancestors descend from Africa.” With that in mind, Gossett would like to see more movies made about African culture and history; and stories told about black athletes and military and other heroes. “Our inclusion in history is important for American African children to know whose shoulders they stand on.”

He also believes we must adopt the creeds of forgiveness exemplified by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela. “We must learn from the past but not carry its burden into the future,” he says.

But don’t think he’s forgotten where he came from. Gossett’s ties to the Jewish community have extended well into adulthood. His Yiddish name is Leibele, though he can’t remember who gave it to him. He has greeted Jewish interviewers with Boker Tov (Hebrew for good morning) and Erev Tov (good evening). He was the first American African to deliver the Shabbat morning sermon at the National Synagogue in Washington D.C. He became so interested in the role that black American soldiers played in freeing Jews from concentration camps during the Holocaust, that he hosted reunions between survivors and rescuers in New York City in the 1990s. and, along with Denzel Washington, narrated The Liberators, a documentary on the subject. On June 4, 2017, he will be honored at a fundraising gala for an orthodox shul in Los Angeles.

In his 2010 book, An Actor and a Gentleman, Gossett takes an unvarnished look at the lessons learned and wisdom earned throughout his long life and career, concluding in the end that, “When we look at each other, we’re the same family. We don’t have to see black or white or Latino. That’s America. And that mentality is essential for our salvation.”

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