Louis Gossett Jr. Dies @ 87 — Trailblazing Emmy, Oscar Winner Worked 1953-2023

March 29, 2024

Louis Gossett Jr., one of the most prolific and honored actors of his generation — and a trailblazer as a Black performer who began working in 1953 and did not stop for 70 years — died March 29, 2024, at 87.

No cause of death was offered by his grieving family, though he had battled prostate cancer, toxic mold syndrome and COVID-19 over the past 14 years.

In a statement, Gossett's family said:

“It is with our heartfelt regret to confirm our beloved father passed away this morning. We would like to thank everyone for their condolences at this time. Please respect the family’s privacy during this difficult time.”

Born May 27, 1936, in Brooklyn, Gossett made his stage debut at just 17 in Take a Giant Step. Running from September 24-November 28, 1953, at the Lyceum, the play was written by Louis Peterson (1922-1998), the first Black playwright with a show on Broadway.

Gossett, at 17, getting an early start (Images by John Erwin)

Gossett continued on Broadway in such important and groundbreaking shows as A Raisin in the Sun (1959), the first Broadway show directed by a Black man (Lloyd Richards, 1919-2006), which starred Sidney Poitier (1927-2022) and Ruby Dee (1922-2014); The Blacks (1961), by Jean Genet (1910-1986), with James Earl Jones (b. 1931), Roscoe Lee Browne (1922-2007) and Cicely Tyson (1924-2021); Tambourines to Glory (1963), by Langston Hughes (1901-1967); and The Zulu and the Zayda (1965), with Ossie Davis (1917-2005).

Making his TV debut on two episodes of The Big Story (which dramatized true stories of real-life newspaper reporters) in 1957, Gossett made his feature film debut in 1969's The Bushbaby, in a leading role.

"Louis was a groundbreaker, a brilliant, kind man, and an incendiary presence on screen," Oscar winner Lee Grant wrote on social media. "Each of us was lucky to have him."

And we had him for so, so long! Gossett's consequential career lasted 70 years, but while he was a fixture on TV (a 1975 episode of The Jeffersons was is fondly remembered as one of that show's standouts) and appeared in such films as Hal Ashby's (1929-1988) The Landlord (1970); Skin Game (1971); Travels with My Aunt (1972) with Maggie Smith (b. 1934); The Laughing Policeman (1973), with Walter Matthau (1920-2000) and Bruce Dern (b. 1936); and The River Niger (1976) with Jones and Tyson; it was a role he initially resented that became his long-overdue breakthrough.

As Fiddler (GIF via GIPHY)

Gossett played Fiddler in the groundbreaking miniseries Roots (1977), but he at first did not like the part, which he saw as that of an "Uncle Tom." He came to understand why Fiddler was so ingratiating, that it was a survival mechanism in an impossible time. He imbued the part with tremendous humanity, winning an Emmy for his work.

He played a villain in the box-office hit The Deep (1977), and continued first-rate TV work on such miniseries and TV shows as Backstairs at the White House (1979), Palmerstown, U.S.A. (1981), Don't Look Back: The Story of Leroy "Satchel" Paige (1981). Then, Oscar came calling.

Gossett nailed it as hard-nosed drill sergeant Emil Foley in An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), a romantic drama starring Richard Gere (b. 1949) and Debra Winger (b. 1955), one of the Top 5 biggest hits in a year that saw the release of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Gossett's Oscar win as Best Supporting Actor was a first in the category for a Black man.

The part of Foley had been written for a white actor, but director Taylor Hackford (b. 1944) had an epiphany while researching the film. He said Friday:

"When I visited the Navy Officers Flight Training Center in Pensacola, FLA, I discovered that many of the Drill Instructors there were men of color. I found it interesting that Black & Brown enlisted men had ‘make-or-break’ control over whether white college graduates would become officers and fighter pilots. At that moment I changed the casting profile for Sargent Foley and started meeting actors of color. Lou Gossett came to see me — I knew and admired his stage work. He told me that he’d served in the US Army as a Ranger, so in addition to being an accomplished actor, he knew military life — I hired him on the spot. Lou Gossett’s Sargent Foley may have been the first Black character in American cinema to have absolute authority over white characters. The Academy recognized his consummate performance by voting him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.  He definitely deserved it.”

Gossett's acclaimed turn in the TV miniseries Sadat as the slain peacemaker was his favorite of his many performances, earning him a Golden Globe nomination.

In Diggstown (Image via MGM)

Some of his other post-Oscar films included Jaws 3-D (1983), Enemy Mine (1985), the Iron Eagle series (1986-1995), The Principal (1987), Toy Soldiers (1991), Diggstown (1992) and Why Did I Get Married Too (2010).

In 2010, Gossett published his memoir An Actor and a Gentleman and embarked on a publicity tour. The book dealt with his personal demons, how he handled systemic racism, and his encounters with a who's-who of famous performers of the 20th century.

More recently, Gossett guest-starred on Boardwalk Empire (2013), The Watchmen (2019) and — in his final screen performances — made two appearances just last year on BET's Kingdom Business (2022 & 2023).

In all, Gossett had one Oscar nomination and win, three Golden Globe nominations and two wins, eight Emmy nominations and one win, three Daytime Emmy nominations and one win, and countless other honors. Perhaps most glaringly absent was a Tony nomination or achievement award.

Jennifer Hudson eulogized him on social media as "a true legend of the stage and screen," thanking him for "paving the way."

Fantasia Barrino of The Color Purple (2023) — his last movie — wrote of Gossett on social media, "Louis Gossett Jr 🥲 what an Awesome Man you were and the stories you told us, I’ll never ever forget. You left behind so many tokens for us and paved the way for Black Actors and Actresses. You will be missed, but Man did you Live a Blessed Life. #WeLoveYouForever 💜💜💜💜."

Colman Domingo, a 2024 Oscar nominee and another of Gossett's The Color Purple castmates, remembered the star on social media, writing, "Was able to capture my 'dad' the legendary Louis Gossett Jr. He was open and generous. Kind beyond measure. Regal. We owe so much to him."

Two of Gossett's three marriages ended in divorce; his first ended in annulment.

He is survived by his sons Satie and Sharron Gossett, and by his nephew, actor Robert Gossett.

Gossett at Chiller Theatre in New Jersey in 2011 (Image by Matthew Rettenmund)

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