Oscar-winning actor Louis Gossett Jr. has finally landed a lifetime role — his Eracism Foundation
Oscar-winning actor Louis Gossett Jr. has finally landed a lifetime role — his Eracism Foundation
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. Gossett’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, Gossett 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, Gossett published his aptly titled autobiography, “An Actor and a Gentleman.” Here, he talks about his new movie, “The Grace Card,” a faith-based tale of reconciliation and redemption.
What interested you in “The Grace Card?”
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.
It’s our responsibility to teach our children and to prepare them for the next level. That’s not happening right now, and you don’t see it onscreen often. 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.
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. 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, health care, education and clothing. We all need each other to survive. That’s the reality.
What has the feedback been like about your lovely autobiography?
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.
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 one million dollars for a picture.
I still haven’t.
What advice do you have for aspiring minority actors or actresses to negotiate the optimal movie deal?
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.
Did you really fly in the fighter jet in “Iron Eagle?”
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 fifty 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.
What makes you get up in the morning with a smile on your face?
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.
What is the one skill an actor must have to be successful today?
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.
Do you still get anxious when starting a new project?
I always do because I never think I know enough. That’s the impetus to prepare thoroughly and then to trust.
Are you now more religious than when you were younger. Is your faith stronger?
My faith is stronger. There’s more spirituality, and that inside job, that character builder is essential because it’s priceless. They can take all the material things, but nobody can take your spirituality away from you. And faith is most important when things appear to be down.
How did you arrive at the name “Shamba” for your Eracism Foundation Centers. Can you speak to the origin and meaning of the word and to its special significance in your choice?
“Shamba” is a Swahili word meaning farm. That’s a place where you plant seeds which yield fruit. So, Shamba Centers are where you plant seeds in the minds of children and all people really about how to live better.
How do the roles you and other African American actors play in the movies and on TV contribute to Eracism’s conscious offensive against racism and violence — and how do these roles conflict with those goals?
I certainly don’t do anything conflicting with those goals anymore. And I don’t think I’ve done any in the past either. I pick and choose those roles which educate, uplift and entertain. By way of example, “Iron Eagle,” “An Officer and a Gentleman,” “The Choirboys” and “Enemy Mine” are all uplifting, informational, educational movies. I wouldn’t play a villain unless the film’s overall message is positive. There’s a responsibility not only to entertain, but to educate and to pick roles carefully, especially after you’ve become famous. I’m not going to exploit my audience.
Most of your roles have been serious, but you’ve also appeared on several TV sitcoms, and supplied the voice of Sergeant Angryman on “Family Guy” and you’ve even hosted “Saturday Night Live.” How do you feel about doing some more comedy?
I love comedy. I look forward to doing some more. I enjoy telling jokes in real life.
What needs to be done in Hollywood to create more non-stereotypical roles of substance?
It’s happening, even though you don’t see much diversity among this year’s Oscar nominees. They did wonderful jobs, but diversity is essential, otherwise Hollywood will lose its fan base slowly but surely, if audiences don’t see representation that they can identify with.
Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
Yeah, would you like a hundred million dollars? Nobody’s ever asked me that.
The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?
I’m always afraid. But I have a philosophy: Where there’s no fear, there’s no faith. When fear comes up, I have to pray to turn that fear into faith.
What is your favorite dish to cook?
I like lamb chops when they come from a farm where they don’t put chemicals in the meat. But my favorite dish is always whatever’s the freshest fish I can find. And I love all fruit. I think eating food from the ocean, from the ground and from the trees are the keys to a long life. That stuff was put on this planet for us to thrive on.
What are you listening to on your iPod?
I like Michael Franks, a great, great poet who turned to music. I like him.
Who is your favorite clothes designer?
Me. I have a new line coming out in about six months called Afro Fusion. I hate ties, so I created a suit similar to the Nehru that doesn’t need one.
When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
An ugly Negro! [Laughs]
I recently interviewed your cousin, the actor Robert Gossett about his TV show, “The Closer.” How close were the two of you during childhood?
Very. Our fathers were brothers. We fought over the turkey drumstick on Thanksgiving. I was raised with a whole lot of cousins.
How do you get through the tough times?
With the faith that they’re going to get better. And they do.
Who’s at the top of your hero list?
Sidney Poitier. I wish I saw more of him nowadays. But he was very influential in my life, especially on my acting.
He was the first African American actor to win an Oscar. You were the second.
Well, actually, I was the first African American actor to win one. Sidney’s Bahamian.
I forgot that. What was it like the night you won?
I didn’t believe it when they opened the envelope. My agent had to poke me in the ribs and say, “They said your name!”
What has been the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome?
Drugs and alcohol, and they’re overcome on a daily basis.
I won’t mention any names but I got an email from someone who knows you from a 12-Step program.
My 12-Step group has given me the keys to the kingdom. It makes us the chosen people, when we really adhere to a self-help philosophy that makes us heal. So, a negative has been turned into a great positive. Our noses are to the spiritual grindstone. Everybody on this planet needs some sort of guidance from a higher power in order to uplift their lives. And now we’ve become the ones who humbly help others.
How do you want to be remembered?
As the first bald, African American in movies. [Laughs] No, I don’t know. I’d just like to be remembered.