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Louis Gossett Jr., 1st Black man to win supporting actor Oscar, dies

Gossett's career spanned about 70 years after he got his started on Broadway in 1953, which led to major TV and film roles.
Louis Gossett Jr., 1st Black man to win supporting actor Oscar, dies
Posted at 8:48 AM, Mar 29, 2024

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, California. No cause of death was revealed.

Gossett always thought of his early career as a reverse Cinderella story, with success finding him from an early age and propelling him forward, toward his Academy Award for “An Officer and a Gentleman.”

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 2010 memoir “An Actor and a Gentleman.”

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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.

“I knew too little to be nervous,” Gossett wrote. “In retrospect, I should have been scared to death as I walked onto that stage, but I wasn’t.”

Gossett attended New York University on a basketball and drama scholarship. He was soon acting and singing on TV shows hosted by David Susskind, Ed Sullivan, Red Buttons, Merv Griffin, Jack Paar and Steve Allen.

Gossett became friendly with James Dean and 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.

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

Gossett went to Hollywood for the first time in 1961 to make the film version of “A Raisin in the Sun.” He had bitter memories of that trip, staying in a cockroach-infested motel that was one of the few places to allow Black people.

In 1968, he returned to Hollywood for a major role in “Companions in Nightmare,” NBC’s first made-for-TV movie that starred Melvyn Douglas, Anne Baxter and Patrick O’Neal.

This time, 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 who ordered him to turn down the radio and put up the car’s roof before letting him go.

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.”

After dinner at the hotel, he went for a walk and was stopped a block away by a police officer, who told him he broke a law prohibiting walking around residential Beverly Hills after 9 p.m. Two other officers arrived and Gossett said he was chained to a tree and handcuffed for three hours. He was eventually freed when the original police car returned.

"Now I had come face-to-face with racism, and it was an ugly sight,” he wrote. “But it was not going to destroy me.”

In the late 1990s, Gossett said he was pulled over by police on Pacific Coast Highway while driving his restored 1986 Rolls Royce Corniche II. The officer told him he looked like someone they were searching for, but the officer recognized Gossett and left.

He founded the Eracism Foundation to help create a world where racism doesn’t exist.

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


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