Louis Cameron Gossett Jr. was born in Coney Island, Brooklyn on May 27, 1936, to Helen Rebecca Wray, a nurse, and Lou Sr., a Pullman porter. Lou’s stellar career started in 1953 while he was still in high school, when he landed a role in the Broadway production of Take a Giant Step.
One of a select group of actors to win both an Academy and Emmy Award, he is best known for his Oscar-winning performance as a gunnery sergeant in the film classic, An Officer and a Gentleman, and for his Emmy-winning portrayal of the character Fiddler in the historic TV-miniseries “Roots.”
In 2006, Lou decided to devote his energies to fighting social ills, so he founded the Eracism Foundation, a nonprofit designed to create a “conscious offensive against racism, violence and ignorance.” Toward that end, the organization has sponsored programs focused on youth mentoring, anti-gang violence initiatives, and diversity sensitivity training sessions at its Shamba Centers.
Last year, Lou published his aptly entitled autobiography, An Actor and a Gentleman. Here, he talks about his new movie, The Grace Card, a faith-based tale of reconciliation and redemption.
KW: …What interested you in “The Grace Card?”
LG: Actually, The Grace Card’s aim is the same as that of the foundation, the elimination of racism. How synergistic and opportune is that? It seems to me that if we can create a society where racism just can’t thrive, it’ll go away. My concept is to teach children everything from self-respect to respect for elders and the opposite sex to a dress code to how to conduct themselves and how to live in harmony with the planet. When you start teaching kids these things at a young age, even before they start school, it sticks. It’s our responsibility to teach our children and to prepare them for the next level, just like Jews do in temples and synagogues. That’s not happening right now, and you don’t see it onscreen often. But The Grace Card is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. The magic word is “forgiveness.” And from forgiveness comes healing. We have to do the best that we can, with God’s help, to clean up our act, and to eliminate the negatives which prevent us from seeing the “Sunlight of the Spirit,” and then let the kids copy that. They have nothing to copy right now. Some of the decisions they’re making are antisocial and illegal. The culture currently glorifies womanizing, drinking, using drugs, bling-bling, and making babies they don’t take responsibility for. And it has them believing that that sort of behavior makes them a man. It’s irrational. It’s coming from a society that’s not healthy. Consequently, this generation is a lost generation. But you can’t blame them, because that’s all they know. When they look for role models to pattern their lives after, all that’s available to them is what they find on TV, in the movies and in the rap videos. My foundation is showing them another way. If minority kids think they can’t make it, it is our responsibility to help prepare them for the opportunity to be full-blown Americans right now. But they have to do it with grace and forgiveness, not with anger and resentment. In my program, they practice that from a young age, including morality and concern for our fellow human beings. We’re talking about the uplifting of America. The bottom line is that we need to be more responsible for ourselves and for each other. Every child should have shelter, healthcare, education and clothing. We all need each other to survive. That’s the reality.
KW: Editor/legist Patricia Turnier asks: What has the feedback been like about your lovely autobiography?
LG: It’s amazing, when I visit churches and schools to speak about the book and about the work that I just discussed, the audience is like a sea of bobble-head dolls. Everybody agrees that we have to take the responsibility for ourselves and for raising, mentoring and teaching our children so they have appropriate role models to imitate. That’s the natural function, and the way it used to be. It seems like we abandoned our responsibilities when times got hard.
KW: Patricia also says: I was stunned when I once heard you say that despite the fact you received an Oscar, it took you a year and a half to find another interesting movie to work on and that you never made more than 1 million dollars for a picture.
LG: I still haven’t.
KW: She asks, what advice do you have for aspiring minority actors or actresses to negotiate the optimal movie deal?
LG: The optimal movie deal depends on how important you are. You need to get some performances onscreen to prove your worth, so that there’s an advantage when you negotiate. That’s when leverage comes into play. If you know that you have a name that’s bankable, then you can get some money for yourself.
KW: Dante Lee, author of Black Business Secrets, asks: Is it important for an actor to also be an entrepreneur?
LG: Oh, it’s absolutely necessary. It’s very important for each successive generation to push the envelope further than the previous one.
KW: Attorney Tim Plunkett asks: Did you really fly in the fighter jet in Iron Eagle?
LG: I did. I knew Tom Cruise had lost his lunch when they put him in the cockpit. And I was warned by the Israeli Air Force, which has the best-trained pilots in the world, not to eat, because they fly like darts. So, I didn’t have any breakfast. After we landed, I felt kind of woozy when I climbed out of the plane. After I assured everyone that I felt fine, I walked 50 yards to my dressing room, closed the door behind me, and lost my meal from the night before. Nobody knew. That ride was exciting, but, boy, you have to be in shape for that one. I’d never do it again.
KW: Children’s book author Irene Smalls asks: What makes you get up in the morning with a smile on your face?
LG: Meditation and prayer. I have a checklist for the beginning of the day, and another one for the end of the day. It’s also very nice to be this age and to wake up every morning with something to learn. School is never out. There’s always something new to learn.
KW: Irene also asks: What is the one skill an actor must have to be successful today?
LG: First of all, an actor’s aspiration has to be the art, not the job. Then he has to be relatively naked to be able to take onto himself aspects of the character and to make everything look like it’s happening for the first time. Easy to say, hard to do, but that’s the aspiration. I never want to see an actor acting. I want to see him being.
KW: FSU grad Laz Lyles asks: Do you still get anxious when starting a new project?
LG: I always do, because I never think I know enough. That’s the impetus to prepare thoroughly and then to trust.
KW: Attorney Bernadette Beekman observes that you’re playing a role with religious significance. She asks: Are you now more religious than when you were younger. Is your faith stronger?
LG: My faith is stronger. There’s more spiritualit