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Oscar-Winning Actor Louis Gossett Jr. Dies at 87

First Black man to win an Academy Award for best supporting actor broke barriers in Hollywood


spinner image louis gossett junior against orange ombre background
Photo Collage: MOA; (Source: Tiffany Rose/Getty Images for HollyRod Foundation)

Louis Gossett Jr., the first Black man to win a supporting actor Oscar, died March 28 in Santa Monica, California, the Associated Press reported. He was 87. No cause of death was revealed.

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Louis Cameron Gossett was born on May 27, 1936, in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, New York, to Louis Sr., a porter, and Hellen, a nurse. He later added Jr. to his name to honor his father.

Gossett broke through on the small screen as Fiddler in the groundbreaking 1977 TV miniseries Roots, which depicted the atrocities of slavery. He won an Emmy for the role. The sprawling cast included Ben Vereen, LeVar Burton and John Amos.

Gossett always thought of his early career as a reverse Cinderella story, with success finding him from an early age and propelling him forward. He 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 role.

AARP spoke to the esteemed actor in December about his most recent role as Ol’ Mister in The Color Purple, a screen adaptation of the 2005 Broadway musical based on the Alice Walker novel. He reflected on his extraordinary life and career and shared his Oscar memories and advice for the next generation. That interview follows. 

spinner image louis gossett junior holding an Oscar statuette above his head
Gossett Jr. was the first Black person to win the best supporting actor Oscar.
Everett Collection

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You were discovered by a talent scout when you were still in high school, and made your Broadway debut at age 17. If your life hadn’t taken that unexpected turn, what was your plan?

I was going to play basketball — baseball and basketball. I was very good at it. ... [It was] in Coney Island, which was where me and Sandy Koufax grew up together. We had a little piece of change in our pocket. We worked in the amusement parks in Coney Island. We were very well fed, very well conditioned. And I played on a boardwalk on 27th Street and Surf Avenue.

Is there someone you haven’t worked with that you would still like to?

I wish I had the opportunity to work with Sir Laurence Olivier. That would have been something else. I had fantasies about working with him.

What’s the one piece of life advice you would offer the next generation?

The simpler the better.

spinner image louis gossett junior as ole mister in a still from the color purple
Gossett Jr. plays the role of Ol’ Mister in Warner Bros. Pictures’ new take on, “The Color Purple.”
Eli Ade´/Warner Bros

Have you declined any roles that turned out to be a big deal?

Yes, I did. I turned down the Samuel Jackson [Jules Winnfield] part in the movie Pulp Fiction. I turned it down because the [character] cussed too much. I didn’t want to put that in my mouth, because young people liked what I did in [An Officer and a Gentleman] and this would have torn the image. I didn’t trust myself to say those words in life. I couldn’t say them as an actor. It wasn’t my turn to do that.

Do you have a favorite role after all these years?

So many. I’ve been very blessed. Each part was a lesson in digging into the culture … each job was a lesson, an adventure. [My career] got me around the world some 20 times, got my sons around the world quite a few times.

How was your experience making The Color Purple?

That was a blessing to be counted in by some of my contemporaries, like Oprah and Quincy Jones [the movie’s producers]. It was a great blessing to be in the midst of that talent and those beautiful people, [like costars] Taraji Henson and Fantasia [Barrino]. It was just amazing stuff. They sent me a tape — saying goodbye — on my last day of shooting.

Do you have other projects lined up?

I’m going back to my closet [to] get some stuff I put on the shelf, and let’s see what happens. Two miniseries — one’s all about the history of slavery, and what that history was that’s been taken out of a history book, so we don’t know anything about it. There’s no revenge, no hatred — just information. Because in that information that’s disappeared are the keys to our kingdom, where we mutually will survive. It’s a great example of what the world should be like today.

What did it feel like to win the Oscar for best supporting actor?

It was a dream. I sat there with my son — who was maybe 8 years old at the time — and my agent. I’m looking at the place. Outside of the aisle [are the other actors nominated in the category] Charles Durning and Robert Preston, James Mason, [John Lithgow]. Those guys are great. There are five of us [nominated], and I’m very grateful to be part of the top five. I took a deep breath and almost took a nap until my agent hit me in the chest with an elbow. He said, “That’s your name. Get up there!” So I got up. I walked up slowly. I got a kiss right on the mouth from Susan Sarandon and a handshake from Superman — Chris Reeve. I had not prepared anything, so I said to the rest of the guys, the other four guys, “This is ours,” off the top of my head. And then the rest is kind of history. It’s like a dream. It’s like a Cinderella story. My life has been like that.

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With reporting by the Associated Press

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