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Louis Gossett Jr., the first Black man to win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, dies aged 87

Louis Gossett Jr., the first Black man to win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, dies aged 87

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 aged 87.

A statement from the family said Gossett died Friday morning. No cause of death was revealed.

In 2010, Gossett announced he had prostate cancer, which he said was caught in the early stages. In 2020, he was hospitalized with COVID-19.

Louis Cameron Gossett was born on 27 May 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 miniseries Roots, which depicted the atrocities of slavery on TV. 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, toward his Academy Award for An Officer and a Gentleman. He became the third Black Oscar nominee in the Best Supporting Actor category in 1983. He won for his performance as the intimidating Marine drill instructor opposite Richard Gere and Debra Winger. He also won a Golden Globe for the same role.

“More than anything, it was a huge affirmation of my position as a Black actor,” he wrote in his 2010 memoir, “An Actor and a Gentleman.”

Louis Gossett Jr. in An Officer and a Gentleman
Louis Gossett Jr. in An Officer and a Gentleman - Paramount Pictures

He had 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 memoir.

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.

Louis Gossett Jr., poses with the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in "An Officer and a Gentleman" - 1983
Louis Gossett Jr., poses with the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in "An Officer and a Gentleman" - 1983 - AP

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 pm. 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 the 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 ERACE, the Eracism Foundation, to help create a world where racism doesn’t exist.

Louis Gossett Jr. attends a Legacy of Changing Lives Gala - March 2018
Louis Gossett Jr. attends a Legacy of Changing Lives Gala - March 2018 - Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

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.

In August 1969, Gossett had been partying with members of the Mamas and the Papas when they were invited to actor Sharon Tate’s house. He headed home first to shower and change clothes. As he was getting ready to leave, he caught a news flash on TV about Tate’s murder. She and others were killed by Charles Manson’s associates that night.

“There had to be a reason for my escaping this bullet,” he wrote.

Gossett also appeared in TV movies like The Story of Satchel Paige, Backstairs at the White House, The Josephine Baker Story, for which he won another Golden Globe, and Roots Revisited.

He played an obstinate patriarch in the 2023 remake of The Color Purple.

He is survived by sons Satie, a producer-director from his second marriage, and Sharron, a chef whom he adopted after seeing the 7-year-old in a TV segment on children in desperate situations.