EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: LOUIS GOSSETT, JR.
By Abbie Bernstein
PBS explores different genres and honors different luminaries in each episode of its PIONEERS OF TELEVISION series. The last episode of the current season, “Miniseries,” airs Tuesday, February 5. Actor Louis Gossett, Jr. is a part of the “Miniseries” segment, not only because of his role as Fiddler in the groundbreaking ROOTS miniseries, but also because of his long, storied career.
Born in Brooklyn in 1936, Gossett did his first Broadway play, TAKE A GIANT STEP, in 1953. His first onscreen work in the 1957-58 TV series THE BIG STORY. He then played George Murchison in the 1961 film version of A RAISIN IN THE SUN, reprising the role he’d created on Broadway.
Many know Gossett from his Supporting Actor Oscar and Golden Globe-winning turn in 1982’s AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN. He’s also starred as a pregnant alien in the science-fiction drama ENEMY MINE, headed up four IRON EAGLE feature films, played leads in the TV series THE LAZARUS SYNDROME, THE POWERS OF MATTHEW STAR, GIDEON OLIVER, portrayed Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat in the telefilm SADAT, played Teal’c’s Jaffa mentor Gerak on five episodes of STARGATE: SG-1, to name just a few more credits, and has a continuing real-life role as an organizer who works to end racism and to aid children in the U.S. and internationally.
Sitting down on a patio at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, Gossett talks about what he’s done and what he’s doing now.
Given that he’s on PIONEERS OF TELEVISION, does Gossett consider himself to be a pioneer of the medium? He considers the question for a moment before replying. “I guess so, because of ROOTS. If you recall the old days, I was there, back to Steve Allen and THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW. They [the PIONEERS producers] sent me an interview I did with Rona Barrett. So yeah, I was one of the early guys.”
Martin Landau, talking about his appearance on PIONEERS OF TELEVISION in 2012, said he started working as a television actor when there were only a total of twenty-five soundstages across the United States. Gossett brightens at the mention of Landau. “That’s my contemporary, that’s my buddy. We studied at the Actors Studio together. Yes. I was working when all of Hollywood [production] was in New York with David Susskind, all those guys.”
Gossett says that, when he started out, he never envisioned television branching out the way it has. “I had no idea. I just was sad that I had to get on an airplane, a propeller plane, because it makes your ears burn to come out here [to Los Angeles]. I have a book out – it’s called AN ACTOR AND A GENTLEMAN – and the first chapter is ‘The Bubble Burst.’ Because the society on the East Coast was wonderful, very homogenous and very sensitive to one another.”
Unfortunately, Los Angeles in the 1960s proved to be much less racially harmonious than New York at the time. “The first day I got here,” Gossett recalls, “I was handcuffed to trees and sat on curbs [by the police], because the way we acted in New York, they were not on the same page out here. Now this is finally coming together, where we can be in the same place together, drive good cars and act properly, but I guess I was one of the people who, kind of like [baseball great] Jackie Robinson, I had to prepare myself for that, and successfully. Thank God I did. And now things are getting much better.”
Both the performers and the writing of earlier eras still have a powerful place in Gossett’s imagination and heart, he says. “Maybe I’m a little prejudiced, because I revere the Tennessee Williams and the William Inges. I love the FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC, I love A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, THE DEFIANT ONES, from the New York guys, SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER. Some great films came out of New York. I revere the Spencer Tracys and the Frederic Marches and the Lana Turners and the Marilyn Monroes and the Jane Russells and the Rosalind Russells. They came from the theatre. They brought a tradition with them and the stories raised them up and we embraced them. Now we have some very exciting, very beautiful and very talented young actors and actresses, but maybe it’s my age, but I miss the tradition.”
There are contemporary actors who excite Gossett as well, he adds. “Every now and then, a George Clooney will come up and make me right. Maybe the Brad Pitts will come up with something relevant. So it’s there. The Johnny Depps – I don’t call him Johnny Depp, I call him ‘Johnny Depth,’ because he’s a brave actor, a brilliant brave actor, and he’s going to be around for quite a long time. I’ve been watching him on the screen and watching him grow. There are a lot of these young actors and actresses like that. My favorites I go out of my way to see. Cate Blanchett comes out of the theatre. Meryl Streep, obviously. Meryl Streep is just brilliant. You mention her name, even if it’s just the telephone book, I’m going to come see it. Christopher Plummer is another one. So you see the difference. And I pray that some of that rubs off on our young, to revere this as an art, not a business, so that the stuff that they do that’s on the screen can come off the shelf year in and year out and still be relevant.”
Speaking of brave actors, have there been any roles that initially scared Gossett? “Oh, yeah,” he replies. “ENEMY MINE. All the actors turned it down, because they couldn’t see your face. Five or six hours of makeup. But there’s a challenge involved. I like challenge. It brings everything out in you. To fail at something difficult, to survive in something that’s just easy you can phone in. I like to stretch. ENEMY MINE is now a classic, it [has] a cult. But it was as difficult to play a Marine – I was older than [the rest of the cast] were, to get my body in shape for that was difficult. But there’s your success, there’s your stretch.”
In preparing to play U.S. Navy drill sergeant Emil Foley in AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN, did Gossett have anyone yelling at him the way his character yelled at Richard Gere’s new recruit? Gossett laughs. “I had a trainer who was very nice, but he may as well have been yelling, because I couldn’t say no.”
Film and television technology has changed hugely since Gossett began his career. Have the changes helped or hindered him? “Well,” he muses, “there’s a challenge for me in a sense that it’s high-definition, and it’s these little cameras that can see every pore of your face. So it’s a challenge – you can’t act as much. It’s got to be internal and real. You really have to do your homework. It’s got to be real, because people will know whether you’re lying, because you’re so close. It’s in your eyes, it’s in your thoughts. When a camera backs up and you do your action, that’s one thing, but performance-wise, acting-wise, it’s a brand-new style of that.”
The industry itself has also changed, both as a whole and for Gossett personally. How much of that change does he think has to do with technology, how much is the material, and how much is due to his own status within the industry?
“Oh, boy,” Gossett replies. “That’s a loaded question. But it’s changed in all three ways. It’s changed because it’s a business now and it needs to keep its audience. The ratio had dipped a little bit, so we got our audience back, a young audience. We cater to them, especially in the summer, we make it very adventuresome and exciting for them to come [to the movies and the TV screen] and talk about it, so there’s a lot of stuff, especially in the summer, a lot of action and technology. Very expensive. Then it’ll calm down a little in September and October, and you’ll see some relevance. You’ll see George Clooney come out and Meryl and Cate Blanchett and those people. So it’s a bit of both. I think that the industry has grown, but the better explanation is that it has expanded. It’s all on television, it’s a proliferation of all kinds of stuff. I’d like to see more of the history of the minorities, since there are more people in this country than there are [productions about them], just the way it started to be represented, there’s a hunger there to see relevant stories about the African-Americans and about the Latinos, because we have some relevant, important citizens to identify, especially on television. And I think we’re going in that direction. We’re growing. The sensitivity of the artist in the business always wind up after the fact making the right decision.”
As far as his own stature as an actor, Gossett elaborates, “I came from the generation – I call it the Jackie Robinson Generation. I had to keep the door open – I had to do the relevant stuff, thank God. I had to stay interested, but I never really got the money that these young people get. They’re getting so much money. I never got that money, I had to make do and get my satisfaction from the audience. Everywhere I go around the world, they have seen my movies, which I’m very grateful for. I get a chance to be alone for a half-hour with Nelson Mandela, with Bishop Desmond Tutu or President Carter or Warren Buffett. Those are people who might think I have something to say. We’ll sit to talk for fifteen minutes and I’m flattered that they think I might be able to say something to them – and that I don’t ask them for a check,” he adds with a laugh.
What do people like Mandela and Buffett want to know when they talk with Gossett? “I have a foundation called the Eracism Foundation. It started in New Orleans with the Choctaw Indians – now it’s international. It’s my foundation. My primary energy is that, trying to educate our young people, because if there are differences, and we conflict because of our differences, [some people thought] it’s in the DNA. People don’t really think that way any more – it’s just the way it’s been done for years. So in order to interrupt that process, pay attention to the young. Don’t pass any poisons on to them. Let them behave and treat one another the way our Constitution says we should.”
As to specifics of what the Eracism Foundation does, Gossett explains, “Well, [in the second half of 2012], we [had] a Shamba Center, which is a Swahili word meaning ‘farm.’ We plant seeds. I was raised in a very homogenous neighborhood. Before the cell phone, it was the old ladies who said, ‘I’m gonna tell your mama,’ and the neighborhood was intact, and everyone took care of one another. If my parents did not get home in time, we had our choice of having either menudo, gefilte fish, fried chicken, corned beef and cabbage, lasagna – it depends on who was home. We grew up together and we’re still friends today some fifty, sixty years later. That feels like America to me. We’re not doing that any more. At this age, I’m called a mentor, to pass on, for what it’s worth, some information that children have not been given. So the child goes wrong if we’re not taught that. And you can’t blame them if they’re not taught right from wrong. They can’t be left to their own devices. They’re asking for boundaries, they’re asking for discipline, and if we don’t tell them, we can’t blame them. And most of most of the so-called trouble schools I’ve spoken to, they [want] your opinion. So they’re asking, ‘What should I do? Tell me what to do.’ And what we should do is pay attention to [the children], because they’re our future.”
The Shamba Center brings together people of different backgrounds, children of different backgrounds, to work on common hands-on goals. “The parents going to get in there and participate also,” Gossett relates. “I got the idea from the synagogue in Brooklyn, where the kids come out with this information, and a pride, and I identify with that. My churches and the temples, everybody came out with knowledge of who they are and took pride in themselves, and a dress code, and respect for their elders and the opposite sex. They had those basics before they went out in the street. And it doesn’t happen any more, so I think we should maybe go back to those thrilling days of yesteryear. So everything old is not really bad. We need to pull forward some of those rules that made us who we are and incorporate them with the new.”
As for what’s coming next, Gossett says he’d like to return to the theatre in a new capacity. “I’m looking at directing. There is a piece that I’m interested in doing. We’ll see.”
On the feature film front, Gossett says he’s reuniting with director Sidney J. Fury, who helmed him in the IRON EAGLES movies, on PRIDE OF LIONS. Gossett describes it as, “A very cute story – four men and a woman, all grandparents, are tired of what the State Department can’t tell us what happened to our grandsons. We decide to go to Afghanistan ourselves.”
Gossett has also joined the digital age with a new YouTube talk show, FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH. “It’s a combination of a lot of things, pretty much like Larry King, but a little bit more. You can look it up on YouTube, put my name in YouTube, put the name of the show in, and look it up.”
What would Gossett most like to say about his career at this point? “I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to play people of history, very grateful to be recognized and admired by three or four different generations, and internationally. It’s amazing to me, because I live in Malibu, kind of alone – I’ve raised my kids, that’s my solitude. But when I get out to the airport to go around this country, they know who I am, including the babies.” In other words, if you have a television, chances are excellent that you’ve seen Gossett’s work, no matter what age you are, and as Gossett points out of the current generation, “They come from television.”
For ShowTimes Visit The Official PBS Pioneers OF Television Website
Interview by Abbie Bernstein
Abbie Bernstein is an entertainment journalist, fiction author and filmmaker.