Obituary

Louis Gossett Jr., 1st Black man to win supporting actor Oscar, dies at 87

Louis Gossett Jr, the first Black man to win a supporting actor Oscar, and an Emmy winner for his role in the seminal TV miniseries Roots, has passed away at the age of 87.

The family of Gossett confirmed his passing in a statement, expressing their gratitude for the condolences received and requesting privacy during this challenging period.

Throughout his career, Gossett wrote about enduring racial discrimination and police harassment, despite his groundbreaking work as an actor.

Starting his journey on Broadway, Gossett transitioned to significant roles in both film and television, although his Oscar win in 1983 did not guarantee leading roles as it does for many Hollywood stars.

Gossett’s nephew informed the Associated Press that the actor died in Santa Monica, California, on Thursday night, with no disclosed cause of death. In 2010, Gossett disclosed his battle with prostate cancer.

Reflecting on his early career, Gossett likened it to a reverse Cinderella story, with success coming early and leading to his Academy Award for An Officer and a Gentleman.

His passion for acting was ignited during a high school production in Brooklyn, where he made his debut while recovering from a basketball injury.

Encouraged by his English teacher, Gossett ventured into Manhattan for auditions, landing a role in Take a Giant Step and marking his Broadway debut at 16 years old.

Despite his lack of experience, Gossett’s confidence shone through as he stepped onto the stage for the first time. Attending New York University on a scholarship, Gossett showcased his talents on various TV shows, establishing himself as a versatile performer.

Gossett formed friendships with James Dean and received acting instruction from Marilyn Monroe, Martin Landau, and Steve McQueen at a branch of the Actors Studio led by Frank Silvera.

In 1959, Gossett garnered praise for his performance in the Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun, sharing the stage with Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, and Diana Sands. He subsequently achieved stardom on Broadway, taking over the role of Golden Boy from Billy Daniels alongside Sammy Davis Jr in 1964.

In 1961, Gossett made his first trip to Hollywood to work on the film adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun. However, he had unpleasant memories of that experience, as he stayed in a motel infested with cockroaches, one of the few places that allowed Black individuals.

In 1968, he returned to Hollywood for a significant role in Companions in Nightmare, which was NBC’s first made-for-TV movie and featured Melvyn Douglas, Anne Baxter, and Patrick O’Neal.

This time, Gossett stayed at the Beverly Hills hotel and Universal Studios provided him with a convertible. However, while driving back to the hotel after picking up the car, he was pulled over by a Los Angeles county sheriff’s officer who instructed him to lower the volume of the radio and put up the car’s roof before allowing him to proceed.

Within moments, he was stopped by eight more sheriff’s officers, who had him lean against the car and inspect the trunk while they contacted the car rental agency. Only after this ordeal did they release him.

“In spite of understanding that I had no choice but to endure this mistreatment, it was an awful way to be treated, a degrading way to feel,” Gossett expressed in his memoir.

“I realized that this was happening solely because I was Black and had dared to flaunt a luxurious car – something they believed I had no right to possess.”

After his dinner at the hotel, he decided to take a leisurely stroll. However, his peaceful walk was abruptly interrupted when a police officer stopped him just a block away. The officer informed him that he had violated a law that prohibited walking around residential Beverly Hills after 9pm.

To his surprise, two more officers arrived at the scene. They proceeded to chain him to a tree and handcuff him, subjecting him to three long hours of confinement. Eventually, his ordeal came to an end when the original police car returned and he was set free.

Reflecting on this incident, he wrote about the disturbing encounter with racism, acknowledging its ugliness. However, he remained resolute in his determination not to let it destroy him.

In the late 1990s, he encountered another incident involving the police. While driving his restored 1986 Rolls Royce Corniche II along the Pacific Coast Highway, he was pulled over. The officer claimed he resembled someone they were searching for, but upon recognizing him, the officer let him go.

Motivated by his experiences, he established the Eracism Foundation with the aim of eradicating racism and fostering a world where it no longer exists.

In August 1969, he found himself in the company of the Mamas and the Papas, partying together. They received an invitation to actor Sharon Tate’s house, but he decided to head home first to freshen up. As he was preparing to leave, he caught a news flash on TV about the tragic murder of Sharon Tate and others at the hands of Charles Manson’s associates that very night.

Born on May 27, 1936, in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, New York, he was named Louis Cameron Gossett. His father, Louis Sr., worked as a porter, while his mother, Hellen, was a nurse. Later on, he added “Jr” to his name as a tribute to his father.

Gossett rose to prominence on the small screen with his portrayal of Fiddler in the groundbreaking 1977 miniseries Roots, which shed light on the horrors of slavery.

In 1983, he made history as the third Black actor to be nominated for an Oscar in the supporting actor category. He ultimately won the prestigious award for his powerful performance as the intimidating Marine drill instructor in An Officer and a Gentleman, starring alongside Richard Gere and Debra Winger. Additionally, he received a Golden Globe for the same role.

In an interview with the New York Times in 1989, he expressed that despite winning an Oscar, his roles remained predominantly supportive in nature. Specifically, in the 2023 remake of The Color Purple, he portrayed a stubborn patriarch.

Reflecting on his career as a character actor, Gossett revealed, “There were instances when I contemplated quitting altogether… Our employment primarily perpetuated Hollywood’s stereotypes about Black individuals, and the overall demeaning attitude of the crews made me consider leaving the industry.”

Following his Oscar triumph, Gossett faced personal struggles with alcohol and cocaine addiction. He sought help through rehabilitation, where he received a diagnosis of toxic mold syndrome, which he attributed to his residence in Malibu.

He leaves behind his sons Satie, a producer-director from his second marriage, and Sharron, a chef whom he adopted after witnessing the young boy’s plight in a television segment highlighting children in dire circumstances.

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