Louis Gossett Jr., trailblazing Black actor who won Oscar, Emmy awards, dead 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 died. He was 87.

Gossett’s nephew told The Associated Press that the actor died Thursday night in Santa Monica, Calif. No cause of death was revealed.

After a lengthy career on stage and screen, Gossett broke through more widely as Fiddler in the groundbreaking 1977 TV miniseries Roots, which depicted the atrocities of slavery. The sprawling cast included Ben Vereen, LeVar Burton and John Amos.

Gossett became the third Black Oscar nominee in the supporting actor category in 1983. He won for his performance as the intimidating Marine drill instructor in An Officer and a Gentleman opposite Richard Gere and Debra Winger. He also won a Golden Globe for the same role.

“More than anything, it was a huge affirmation of my position as a Black actor,” he wrote in his 2010 memoir An Actor and a Gentleman.

One man puts his arm around another at a public event.
Gossett is shown in 2004 in New York City at an event honouring Richard Gere, right, his An Office and a Gentleman co-star. (Evan Agostoni/Getty Images)

After the Oscar win, Gossett would keep busy with roles in film including in Enemy Mine, The PrincipalDiggstown, Iron Eagle and its sequel. On television, he would appear as the Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat in Sadat, as well as in The Josephine Baker Story, for which he won another Golden Globe.

Gossett also had a prominent role as Daddy Moses in the miniseries adaptation of Laurence Hill’s novel The Book of Negroes, which aired on CBC in 2015.

The Canadian production depicted the journey to Nova Scotia of West African-born Aminata Diallo, who was a slave in South Carolina. Gossett said at the time he considered it like Roots, for a new generation.

“It’s time for people to know all the stories about us, to get a picture of who we really are, as some of the stories about us have been taken out of our history books,” he said. “Everybody needs to know about everybody. Our children need to know who they are so they can represent themselves properly.”

More recently, Gossett played an obstinate patriarch in the 2023 remake of The Color Purple.

Early Broadway success

Louis Cameron Gossett was born on May 27, 1936, in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, N.Y. to Louis Sr., a porter, and Hellen, a nurse.

He earned his first acting credit in his Brooklyn high school’s production of You Can’t Take It with You while he was sidelined from the basketball team with an injury.

“I was hooked — and so was my audience,” he wrote in his memoir.

Six African Americans, men and women wearing suits and dresses, pose for a photograph at an event.
Roots cast members pose for photographers at the 59th Primetime Emmy Awards on Sept. 16, 2007, at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. From left to right: Gossett, Ben Vereen, Cicely Tyson, LeVar Burton, Leslie Uggams and John Amos. (Evan Agostini/Getty Images)

His English teacher urged him to go into Manhattan to try out for Take a Giant Step. He got the part and made his Broadway debut in 1953 at age 16.

Gossett attended New York University on a basketball and drama scholarship and then studied acting with Marilyn Monroe, Martin Landau and Steve McQueen at an offshoot of the Actors Studio taught by Frank Silvera.

In 1959, Gossett received critical acclaim for his role in the Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun along with Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Diana Sands. Two years later, he would appear in the film adaptation.

He went on to become a star on Broadway, replacing Billy Daniels in Golden Boy with Sammy Davis Jr. in 1964.

In 1968, he returned to Hollywood for a major role in Companions in Nightmare, NBC’s first made-for-TV movie.

During filming, Gossett was booked into the Beverly Hills Hotel and Universal Studios had rented him a convertible. Driving back to the hotel after picking up the car, he was stopped by a Los Angeles County sheriff’s officer.

Within minutes, he was stopped by eight sheriff’s officers, who had him lean against the car and made him open the trunk while they called the car rental agency before letting him go.

“Though I understood that I had no choice but to put up with this abuse, it was a terrible way to be treated, a humiliating way to feel,” Gossett wrote in his memoir. “I realized this was happening because I was Black and had been showing off with a fancy car — which, in their view, I had no right to be driving.”

Steady work, then breakthrough

Gossett made a series of guest appearances on such shows as Bonanza, The Rockford Files, The Mod Squad and a memorable turn with Richard Pryor on The Partridge Family.

After the landmark event of Roots, Gossett appeared in such TV movies and miniseries such as The Story of Satchel Paige and Backstairs at the White House.

Gossett struggled with alcohol and cocaine addiction for years after his Oscar win. He went to rehab, where he was diagnosed with toxic mold syndrome, which he attributed to his house in Malibu.

He is survived by sons Satie, a producer-director from his second marriage, and Sharron, a chef.

Gossett’s first marriage to Hattie Glascoe was annulled. His second, to Christina Mangosing, ended in divorce in 1975, as did his third to actor Cyndi James-Reese in 1992.

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