Academy Award Winner Louis Gossett Jr. Speaks About Racism in Film

Academy Award-winning actor Louis Gossett Jr. discusses race in film at the Rapaporte Treasure Hall.

Nov. 16, 2010

Acclaimed actor Louis Gossett Jr. gave a talk about racism in entertainment on Tuesday in the Rapaporte Treasure Hall in a thought-provoking event sponsored by the Schuster Institute of Investigative Journalism. Phyllis Karas, who helped to write his memoir, titled An Actor and a Gentleman, moderated the talk. Gossett was introduced by Prof. Anita Hill (Heller), who gave a touching introduction. Hill recalled how, when she was growing up, seeing black faces on television was an event unto itself. Gossett was one of the first actors to break the racial barrier in entertainment, and Hill thanked him for his outstanding work. Gossett is most widely known for playing Sgt. Emil Foley in An Officer and a Gentleman, for which he won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award in 1983. He was the first African-American to win that award. An Officer and a Gentleman co-starred Richard Gere and Debra Winger, who was also nominated for Best Actress for her performance. The film centers around Zach Mayo (played by Gere), a young navy officer-in-training who learns about friendship and love while attending the Navy Aviation Officer Candidate School. Gossett played his tough-as-nails training officer.

Gossett recounted several stories from his time on the set of the movie, describing how he trained at a genuine Marine training camp and how he was allowed to appear in front of the rest of the cast only when dressed in his full military uniform, as per director Taylor Hackford’s instructions. He also praised Richard Gere’s work as an actor, saying that Gere should have received an Oscar at this point in his career, though he did not mention for which role.

An Officer and a Gentleman was the film that launched Gossett into the conscience of mainstream America, but, in fact, the actor appeared in his first professional gig 30 years earlier, at age 17, in the Broadway production of Take a Giant Step. Eight years later, he starred in his first feature film, A Raisin in the Sun, in which he played George Murchison opposite Sidney Poitier. Indeed, Gossett has worked with many of old Hollywood’s most notable figures, including Marilyn Monroe. He told a great story describing an instance in which he and Monroe took a drama class together. One day she called him and asked him to perform a love scene with her from the play Kiss of the Spider Woman. Gossett declined, saying “No way. I wouldn’t have been able to concentrate.” It’s hard to believe anyone could have resisted Marilyn. Gossett asserted that “if she had stayed with [ex-husband] Arthur Miller, she would have won three or four Oscars, and she would still be alive today.”

Gossett himself battled substance abuse, which he recounts in his memoir. He mentioned this period briefly, however, and only in passing during the talk. Most of the conversation focused on his long career and on the not-for-profit he created, the Eracism Foundation. According to its website, the foundation “engag[es] youth involved in gang activity with a series of intensive antiviolence camp initiatives and forums designed to promote peace, antiviolence, personal responsibility and re-entry into positive, productive citizenship.” It also sponsors “after school programs focusing on mentoring and tutorial services to nurture the academic and professional development of children from diverse communities.” Gossett says that at this point in his life (he is 74) he wants to dedicate himself to “an all-out conscientious offensive against racism.”

The actor has personal as well as moral reasons for taking on this battle. Growing up in Coney Island, N.Y., Gossett describes having friends of many ethnicities. It was the adults in his life who seemed to be the ones who cared about his skin color. He recalled one episode in which he was not allowed in a swimming pool with the rest of his friends because it was for whites only. When he was told he had to leave, the rest of his friends went with him. These demonstrations of support meant a great deal to Gossett, and the actor remarked that many of those same kids from Abraham Lincoln High School are still his close friends today.

When Gossett moved out to Los Angeles in the late 1950s to pursue acting, however, his race became a larger issue. On one of his first days in the city, the studio gave Gossett a car to drive. On his way back to his hotel, he was stopped on several occasions by different policemen, none of whom could believe a black man could be driving such a nice automobile. Later that day, when Gossett went for a walk around his new neighborhood, police questioned him and then handcuffed him to a tree for 3 hours. These events, as well as the gang violence that Gossett sees spreading through urban centers like his old neighborhood, motivated him to create his foundation as part of his work against bigotry.

Gossett Jr. was an engaging speaker, and I enjoyed listening to his stories, which he narrated in the deep, rich delivery one would expect from a PBS documentary.

The one aspect of the talk that I found weak was the question-and-answer section. Several students asked Gossett how they could work toward changing the entertainment community’s representations of black culture, how African-Americans could better their attitudes toward their own people and how to fight racism in various aspects of life. On these important issues, Gossett seemed to struggle with how to respond. He relied on the lame answer, “You have to be the one to change it.” I expected something more from a man who is the founder of an organization that aims to address these very issues. He also made remarks about wanting to marry three different girls who asked questions. This might have been less awkward if Gossett had not in actuality been married three times already.

However, overall it was a good decision to bring Gossett to campus. He was an eloquent speaker who has had a real impact on integrating American entertainment. His current work in race relations also strongly mirrors the importance placed on social justice at Brandeis.

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