Actor Louis Gossett, Jr.

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Oscar-winning actor explains his reverse Cinderella story and the challenges for African American actors; he also talks about his new memoir.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Louis Gossett Jr. back to this program. The Oscar-winning star of so many notable films is out now with a new memoir called “An Actor and a Gentleman.” This summer you can also pick up on DVD a couple of his most recent projects, including the film, “The Least Among You.” Louis Gossett, good to have you back on the program.
Louis Gossett Jr.: It’s good to be back again, man.
Tavis: Congrats on the memoir.
Gossett: Thank you.
Tavis: This title obviously jumps out at you – “An Actor and a Gentleman.” This is one of those towns where people don’t necessarily want to be judged by one project. If you’re fortunate in this business you want to be judged, as the saying goes, by a body of work.
Gossett: Yeah, yeah, well, it’s been 60 years, so (unintelligible).
Tavis: It’s been 60 years for you, yeah (laughter), so you have a body of work. But tell me where “An Officer and a Gentleman” for you fits into that body of work?
Gossett: Well, it’s a mutual admiration society with myself and a large enough audience, and I’ve been reunited with that audience, starting with “Roots.” We just kept on coming and here I come again, so that audience was cultivated. So when I did “An Officer and a Gentleman” and got an Oscar, boy, that cemented a nice relationship with me and the world.
Tavis: Obviously it means a lot to you for you to name your book “An Actor and a Gentleman.” That movie must play a special role in your life.
Gossett: Very special, but the publishers did that. They do that. My original title for the book was “Here I Still Stand,” because it was a personal thing. But they said “An Officer and a Gentleman” was best.
Tavis: “Here I Still Stand.” That would have worked as well. Why did you want to name it that, initially?
Gossett: Because of the rollercoaster of an African American star during the course of the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s is a rollercoaster, and if you come out the other end and you’re still standing, then you’ve done something.
Tavis: You have said before, in this book, as a matter of fact, that your take on your career is that it is a reverse Cinderella story. What do you mean by that?
Gossett: Well, I didn’t know anything about acting, I didn’t know anything about theater, but I was just an exceptional student at high school. I wanted to play ball, I’m going after a basketball scholarship and be a doctor. I got injured and my marks began to drop.
My English teacher says, “You need to do something extra.” So I did one performance of “You Can’t Take it With You” (unintelligible) and he says, “They’re trying to get a young boy on a Broadway show called “Take a Giant Step” and they can’t find anybody.”
So me and 1,500 other kids went up there and I got the part. So if I was dreaming about it and I got it, that would be Cinderella. But I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t know – I (unintelligible) I got the part. So I got into show business by some divine gesture, by God, if you want to call it that, because that’s what I should have been doing all along.
Tavis: So you go with 1,500 other people, you try out, you get the part. When did you know, though, that you were going to dedicate yourself, that you really were gifted at this?
Gossett: When I got into The Actor’s Studio some eight or nine years later and I sat there with the Marilyn Monroe’s and the Marty Landaus and the Marlin Brandos and the Sidney Poitiers and I saw how serious they were. So I had to roll my sleeves up.
Hung out with James Dean and all those guys. Then I got it – it gets into your system, it gets into your veins and your approach to different characters, especially since I lost my Brooklyn accent I could play all kinds of characters, and it got really good to me. It’s good to me today.
Tavis: When you said earlier that this (unintelligible) years has been a rollercoaster, I suspect there are a lot of folk in this town who could say the same thing. For those who’ve survived 60 years it’s been a rollercoaster – you’re not always up and you’re not always down.
But I heard you suggest that being an African American actor and on that rollercoaster is a bit different. In what way?
Gossett: Well, it’s a different – for my entire life, up until the age of maybe 25, I was taught by my counterparts before show business and during show business that you can dream anything you wanted to dream. I came from that kind of location or neighborhood in Brooklyn. Those teachers taught me that.
There was no heroes to identify with, but they’d say, “Well, someday you could play Superman, Lou.” So I grew up without that onus, the African American second-class onus. It was not there, which is why I probably was picked to play “Take a Giant Step,” the play, and then on to Broadway with those same people that I grew up with.
We had a wonderful society but it wasn’t until in that first chapter that I came out to California when the guys would handcuff me to trees and tell me to put the top down on my car, and I got this rude awakening. And then the stuff in show business, when you get on the sets and you’re treated like you shouldn’t be there. Those lessons, those racial lessons after Sidney Poitier, who was well taken care of by Stanley Kramer, I didn’t have one of those.
My agent was in New York and I had to overcome a certain kind of treatment from second and third generation Mississippi and Alabama people. They were technicians. Now we’re, of course, all friends, but I had that gauntlet to go through before I even got on the set to say my lines.
Tavis: You went right past this, but it’s a powerful story in the book. I want you to tell me a bit more about how you navigated through that. I remember when I first came to L.A., I remember I get out my first time here, I come out of the airport, I get in a cab, and the car in front of me, I’ll remember this as long as I live, the car in front of me had a bumper sticker that said, “Welcome to California. Now go home.” (Laughter)
Gossett: Oh, boy.
Tavis: And I remember thinking, this place is not very welcoming. If I’m going to make it in California it’s going to be tough. That bumper sticker said it all. That was funny for me. Your story was not funny at all, being put –
Gossett: Being handcuffed to trees?
Tavis: Tell me that story. You were driving a car.
Gossett: Yeah, well, let’s start from New York. They brought me out here to do the first movie of the week on Universal – Lou Wasserman – so I was treated like a king in the airport. TWA – they gave me the first row and the limousine came out to the plane.
They took me to the Beverly Hills Hotel and put me in a presidential suite and they said, “Well, your car is ready.” So we went from the Beverly Hills Hotel to Crescent Heights to pick up the car. It was a white Ford Fairlane 500, the hard top that goes down, with a red interior. I said, “I’m going to put me some Sam Cooke on.” (Laughter)
Tavis: So you put the top down and put on some Sam Cooke.
Gossett: Took me four and a half hours to get from Crescent Heights to Sunset to the Beverly Hills Hotel. I met every policeman on the block because I answered to a description. I got it, right?
So finally, I said, “Okay, I’m back to the hotel, everything’s good.” So I ate a meal and I go outside because I ate so much, because it was delicious. I’m looking at the movie stars’ home, with a pamphlet, and they come and handcuff me to a tree for three hours. “You can’t walk out here after 9:00.”
Tavis: Handcuffed you to a tree for three hours.
Gossett: The first 24 hours in Los Angeles. To go from there to where we’re sitting here now. (Laughter) I called my mother, I don’t know how my father said he’s going to be right there; he was in Brooklyn and I’m in California. (Laughter) “You just stay right there. I’ll be right there.”
Tavis: You stayed there for three hours, at least. How did you – you’re laughing about this now, and you’re right, it’s a blessing to go from being handcuffed to a tree for three hours to being an Academy Award winner. What made you stay with it when you saw how unwelcoming this town was to you?
Gossett: I haven’t the slightest idea. There’s something that was planted inside of me back in that neighborhood, not just a melting pot neighborhood but my family, and this is a point I make at the end of the book. That bottom line stuff that we’re taught when there was segregation, that we had to know, this is self-respect, respect for your elders, respect for the opposite sex, the way you present yourself, your dignity, that saves your life in times of crisis.
So I got to understand why those people act that way. They are the generations of the people who came to build the war planes. They come from Alabama and Mississippi, and of course it’s not natural for them to see a Black man bigger than them. It’s a visceral reaction, which is why I have a foundation called E-Racism. You understand the dichotomy of it. Maybe you can push it aside for a little bit so we can look at each other. But this is retrospect.
But I survived because I knew how to do that and they didn’t. So now some of those people are my best friends today.
Tavis: You were kind enough to send me the manuscript for this book before it came out, and I recall reading it. I’m always pensive when I read people’s work about their own lives, their autobiographies, because for me an autobiography doesn’t work if the person telling the story isn’t going to be authentic.
Gossett: Absolutely.
Tavis: You tell some uncomfortable truths in this book about your own addictions over the years.
Gossett: Absolutely.
Tavis: Why so frank about that?
Gossett: Because maybe people can avoid that trap, and that trap is when you dream about something and you accomplish that thing that you dreamed fulfilled and it doesn’t happen, resentment and frustration hits. Things are set up from one generation to another, from my father and my uncle’s father.
They drank their resentments, and I went back to that disease and I drank my resentments. I used drugs and stuff, trying to – it didn’t work, obviously, but then a disease takes over. One day I’m standing there in South Africa, in Cape Town, looking at Robben Island – it’s in the book – and I realized that Mandela spent so much time in that place.
If anybody had to be resentful, it would be him, and he came out with a smile on his face. I had done more to myself than any White person had done to myself, and it kind of disappeared.
So I needed to have that moment in order to forgive myself, to get back to where I’m supposed to be, and to be free. So those particular people are on the cusp of doing that to themselves or who are doing it to themselves, maybe that’ll help them stop. There’s a bigger, better way.
Tavis: Tell me honestly, not that you would tell me anything other than being honest, but tell me what winning that Oscar did for you and what it did not do for you, and I ask that because we see now, not with the frequency that we would like, but we see more African Americans starting to pick these statues up, whether it’s Jamie Foxx or Jennifer Hudson or now Mo’Nique, we see these African Americans picking up these Oscars every now and again.
Tell me what winning that Oscar did for you and honestly what it did not do for you.
Gossett: Well, it put me on the map. I was on the map with Fiddler and I got a great deal of –
Tavis: Fiddler from “Roots,” of course.
Gossett: Fiddler from “Roots,” yeah, and I got a great deal of pats on the back and handshakes, and I didn’t really work at another movie for a year and a half (unintelligible) reason. It was during that particular time when I started to get that resentment. I (unintelligible) I was hurt because all the guys I’d grown up with, the Brandos and the Paul Newmans and those guys, just see them living out in Malibu with their families and the vacations and some of them got Oscars and some of them didn’t, and I got an Oscar and it just really didn’t mean what I thought it would mean.
I was trained as a young person that if you get to this particular level you’d get the gold. So I had to rethink what value system – a value system to me is not Hollywood but how close to God I am and why I’m on the planet and what my story means to someone else who might be younger than me.
So it did not mean that I was on the map, because I never got the money. Never made a million dollars from any of my 78 movies. People thought I had this fortune, which I never had.
Tavis: Wait, wait – you’ve done (laughter) 78 movies in this town with an Academy Award and have never yet made a million dollars for one film?
Gossett: No. Because the magic word, when you ask for it, is “Next.” So I was by myself. I had no defense for them to come back to me and say, “Okay, we’ll give it to you.” Because now, of course, they have – they’re in a corner now, so if Will Smith says he wants his $20 million, they’ve got to give him his $20 million. The difference (unintelligible) –
Tavis: Yeah, but you were just a greedy Negro.
Gossett: Yeah, yeah, they’d say, “Who do you think you are?” So some African American actor, who shall remain nameless, said, “I’ll do it,” and then if he turns it down then somebody else will come, “I’ll do it.” Because it was tough, so you have to disassociate yourself with those values, and if you’re fortunate enough the values that really mean something replace it. Young people need to know that.
Tavis: Your values notwithstanding, and I know that is the answer, your values, but the values notwithstanding, how do you get to this point in your life and not be bitter?
Gossett: It’s a process. It’s a process of going back to the basics. Back to that early Brooklyn time which was the most valuable. All those things that are written brilliantly, the Declaration of Independence, your prayers, the things that really did work in a childhood, and then Broadway.
The people I did work with that really didn’t care, the David Suskinds, the David Merricks, the (unintelligible) Elkins, the people that I grew up with, which we nurtured one another. Those values should be working here in this country today.
Tavis: Your Academy Award, again, notwithstanding, has this Hollywood journey for you been worth it?
Gossett: Absolutely. Every last minute. It’s even at its best right now. Yeah, right now.
Tavis: The book is called “An Actor and a Gentleman,” by the one and only Academy Award winner for “An Officer and a Gentleman,” Louis Gossett Jr. Louis, good to have you on the program.
Gossett: It’s good to be back, man.
Tavis: Congratulations.

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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm