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‘An Actor and a Gentleman’

Oscar winner, Lou Gossett Jr., talks about his long career and why he is now concentrating on faith and family films and helping the youth of America.

Louis Cameron Gossett, Jr. – better known as Lou Gossett Jr. – was born May 27, 1936, in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, New York, to Hellen Rebecca (née Wray), a nurse, and Louis Gossett, Sr., a porter.

Lou Gossett Jr.

His stage debut came at the age of 17, in a school production of “You Can’t Take It with You” when a sports injury resulted in the decision to take an acting class. Polio had already delayed his graduation.

He is best known for his role as Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley in the 1982 film “An Officer and a Gentleman” for which he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting actor, and earlier, his Emmy Award-winning role of Fiddler in the 1977 groundbreaking television miniseries “Roots’ which first brought Gossett to the attention of a worldwide movie audience attention.

In an acting career that spans over six decades, Gossett has also starred in numerous film productions such as “The Deep,” “Jaws 3-D” (as SeaWorld manager Calvin Bouchard), Wolfgang Peterson’s “Enemy Mine,” the “Iron Eagle” series, “Toy Soldiers” and “The Punisher.”

Lou Gossett Jr. in ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’ for which he won an Oscar

This giant of a man – he stands 6’4″ — agreed to talk with me recently about his extraordinary career, his latest movie, “The Grace Card, “ and why he is now concentrating on faith and family films and reaching out to America’s youth.

He began by speaking about “The Grace Card,” a moving drama poignantly illustrating the everyday opportunities we have to rebuild relationships and heal deep wounds by extending and receiving God’s grace. It debuts on DVD Aug. 16 from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and AFFIRM Films/Provident Films.

“I play the role of a grandfather who once ran a church and my grandson is the new minister, but he has two jobs,” said Gossett. “The other job is as a policeman. The other leading character is a white man, a policeman, his partner, who’s had a bad experience. He’s lost his son in a gang shooting, so by accident his son is gone. So now he’s changed his whole philosophy about black people, but these two men have to work together.

“The story is about their interfacing and their problems. My lesson to my grandson is that you have to choose to be a policeman or a minister and he has to tell the story of grace. We have in the story the example of a slave master who freed his slaves and not only did he free his slaves, but not one of the slaves left the property because he gave them each ten acres of land to farm and when he freed them he apologized for slavery not just because of himself, but because of all the people that had slaves. It didn’t go down to well with his fellow men, but he did it because he felt he should apologize and there’s grace in that. There’s forgiveness on the other side of it.”

What attracted you to the part?

Ad for The Grace Card

“It attracted me because I like faith-based movies,” he replied. “The first one I did was part of the ‘Left Behind’ series, and the second one was called ‘The Least Among You.’ Now the one after ‘The Grace Card’ is called ‘The Lamp.’”

He then told me that he has released his autobiography called “An Actor and a Gentleman,” written with Phyllis Karas.

In it he says he relates what it was like to be an African-American actor moving to Hollywood and some of the ups and downs of those early days. He said he described what happened in the first chapter of the book called “The Bubble Burst.”

He said he had a role in a movie of the week and after he arrived in Los Angeles, he got the VIP treatment, but that soon turned into a nightmare for him.

“I was treated like a movie star,” Gossett recalled. “They flew me in first class and in those days they used to carve the meat in front of you in first class. Then a limousine picked me up and took me to the Beverly Hills Hotel and I was put in a magnificent suite. I was told that a rental car was waiting for me and if you know Los Angeles, the Beverly Hills Hotel is on Sunset and I had to go there to Crescent Heights in the rental car. It’s normally about a twenty minute drive — in traffic thirty minutes right? So I get the car and it’s a Galaxy Ford Fairlane 500, convertible, white with red interior. And at the time my favorite singer was Sam Cook so I put Sam Cook on as loud as I possibly could and I started driving down Sunset and it took me four and a half hours to get to my destination.”

When I asked why it took so long, he said, “I answered to the description.”

Dan Wooding interviewing
Lou Gossett Jr

He explained that the police couldn’t believe that an African-American could be driving such a luxurious car and kept on stopping him.

“They were flabbergasted that someone like me would be able to be that blatant driving with the top down and the music up on Sunset Boulevard,” he said. “I got it and it just got boring, but still my feelings were hurt.”

Racism was nothing new to Gossett. “I remember that I was playing a role in Wilmington, Delaware, with Shirley Booth when they told me I couldn’t eat at a New England Restaurant. Shirley then said, ‘We’ll take the show out of here” and then I got invitations to all the restaurants,” he said.

“But this time, I went back to the Beverly Hills Hotel and told them what happened and one of the guys there told me that ‘those guys are descendants of people who came from the depression and worked in the armed forces and worked in the plants all the ammunition plants.’ He stated that they were people that had come from Mississippi and Texas and all those places and ‘that’s what they think.’

“In hindsight, I understand it, but I didn’t at the time. That subsequent night, after having a wonderful meal, I had the map of the movie stars homes and I went out to look at them and saw were Clark Gable lived and all those things and I said, ‘Wow, this is exciting’ and within fifteen minutes I was handcuffed to a tree for three hours.

“So I learned my lesson — not to walk out there. That was by first day in Hollywood and yeah, I still didn’t fit the description. What’s wrong with this picture?”

So how did you cope with situations like that?

Cover of his book

“Well in the book again, I talk about how I went through all kinds of stuff, so I decided to have tunnel vision, just like Jackie Robinson, and go for it regardless of what happened to me,” said Gossett. “What to do when those little things happen on sets with the crews, and when you are in the town where you kind of put a damper on your free personality, I found the only way to be free was in front of that camera.

“But as soon as the man said ‘cut’, I had to swallow it all again, and it led into me doing damage to myself. I got into drugs and alcohol for a short while and then I realized, ‘Hey, that’s doing worse to me than anybody else would.’ So I came out of that. But my feelings still remained when I would think that if I was white, things would be different.

“It takes a while to kind of bring it down so that it doesn’t get in the way of the sunlight of your spirit. So I stepped away from the consciousness of Hollywood. The red carpet — I don’t do too much of that anymore. I’ve successfully succeeded in sixty professional years. I’ve survived cancer and because of it all I now think my calling is to do whatever I can now for my foundation and my personal life. My wish is to educate young people of all races to practice how to live together properly at that age so that when they get older it ceases to be a problem.

Besides the different movie roles that Lou Gossett Jr. has done, he is he is very proud about playing John, the storyteller in “The Word of Promise Audio Bible” which the entire Bible recorded with an all-star cast including Jim Caviezel as Jesus, Richard Dreyfus as Moses, Gary Sinise as David, Jason Alexander as Joseph, Marisa Tomei, Louis Gossett Jr., and over 600 actors contributing to this timeless work.

“It’s a beautiful work and it’s really a reeducation of what’s in that Bible,” he said. “I loved playing the storyteller John. I got a fresh version it’s pretty powerful stuff. It has sound effects and is just wonderful. I had to pay attention to detail it is obviously word for word.”

I then asked the actor if he could ever meet with the Apostle John, what would he would ask him.

“Sit down and tell me some more stories,” he laughed.

What about sitting down with Jesus?

“I wouldn’t even say anything to Him, I would just sit at his feet,” Gossett said.

We concluded our conversation with Lou talking about his foundation, which is called the Eracism Foundation (www.eracismfoundation.org.)It is a 501c3 Nonprofit Public Benefit Corporation that he founded on January 5, 2006.

Gossett said that he has committed “the last quadrant” of his life to an “all-out conscious offensive against racism, violence, and ignorance relative to the role and significance of history in positioning individuals and collective communities for the future.”

He says, “Our mission is to eradicate the systematic impacts of all forms of racism by providing programs that foster cultural diversity, historical enrichment, education, and antiviolence initiatives.

“The organization is grounded in its vision to contribute to the betterment of our society by addressing the negative impacts of racism therein. By addressing these issues, connecting individuals to their history/culture, and empowering them with the appropriate educational and training resources available in our programs, we will position the recipients of these services to improve the quality of life in their respective communities. It is our belief that through this vital connection to such services and a connection to their past, individuals will be better equipped to embark on a positive future for the benefit of their collective communities in the process.”

Gossett says that the foundation’s position is to serve as a vital resource between communities impacted by violence and their access to the tools necessary to improve their current circumstances:

• Engaging youth involved in gang activity with a series of intensive antiviolence camp initiatives and forums designed to promote peace, antiviolence, personal responsibility, and re-entry into positive, productive citizenship.
• Educating the community through after school programs focusing on mentoring and tutorial services to nurture the academic and professional development of children from diverse communities.
• Historically enriching the community and promoting diversity through a series of documentaries, psychodramas, plays, and interactive videos addressing the historical contributions and current relevance of these efforts in improving the quality of life among today’s youth and adults alike.

He concluded by saying, “We may view ourselves primarily as parents, entrepreneurs, children, siblings, mates, or students. But our ideas of who we think we are will shift with time. As we grow, long-held opinions will give way to information gathered from new experiences. We may change political and religious affiliations. Our primary family roles may change from child to spouse to parent. Our professional image may change from rookie to manager to CEO. But our spiritual identity remains the same.

“Our spiritual identity is our soul, our spirit, and it never changes. We can build and enhance our characters. We can grow and develop. But who we are at our core never changes. Indeed, the surface changes that we experience may help us to discover our true identity. We may have to go through several evolutions before we find out who we are and what we have to give.

“We are always children of God. We are always good and valuable people. No matter who you think you are, your real identity is a beloved child of the universe. Keep knowledge of who you are close to your heart, no matter what role you play in life.”

With that, the “Actor and a Gentleman” was off – to continue with his amazing career and outreach to the world.

Note: I would like to thank Robin Frost for transcribing this interview.

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