Louis Gossett Jr. Almost Played for the Knicks Years Before His History-Making Oscar Win

Louis Gossett Jr., who died at 87 Thursday, told PEOPLE in January that he was training with the NBA's Knicks when he was cast in the play 'A Raisin in the Sun'

<p>Taylor Hill/Getty</p> Louis Gossett Jr. on Dec. 8, 2015

Taylor Hill/Getty

Louis Gossett Jr. on Dec. 8, 2015

Louis Gossett Jr., the Academy Award-winning actor who died at 87 Thursday, acted on stage and on the big screen for more than six decades — but he also once starred on the basketball court.

In an interview with PEOPLE in January, the late actor recalled his winding road to Hollywood. The New York City native had already begun performing on Broadway in the early 1950s when he finished high school and headed to NYU on a scholarship. At the time, he also had hoop dreams.

The NBA's New York Knicks signed Gossett to a professional contract upon his graduation in 1958, per a profile on the actor in WGBH, but it was not long before he returned to the stage and then found his way to films.

I was at rookie training for the [New York] Knicks when I got a call from [playwright] Lorraine Hansberry to be a part of A Raisin in the Sun,” Gossett said of the original 1959 Broadway production of the iconic play, in which he starred opposite Sidney Poitier.

When he heard about what the role paid, Gossett knew it was time to pivot. “They said the part comes with a $700 per diem, more money than most professional athletes had in the bank at the time. I put the basketball down, and the rest is history.”

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<p>Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty</p> Louis Gosset Jr. at an NBA game on Nov. 19, 2014

Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty

Louis Gosset Jr. at an NBA game on Nov. 19, 2014

A skilled guitarist, Gossett told PEOPLE his career in music suffered a similar fate. In between theater gigs, “I passed the brass playing in the coffee shops down in the Village,” he recalled. “Once I got my first acting job, I quit the [music] business.”

In the ’60s, he moved to Los Angeles and launched his film and TV career. An Emmy for his role in the seminal 1977 TV miniseries Roots followed. In 1983 he became the first Black Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner, for his show-stopping turn as a tough Marine drill instructor in An Officer and a Gentleman, opposite Richard Gere.

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Gossett said that he was far from the first choice for the role. "They had hired another actor who was White, but when director Taylor Hackford found out that 75% of the Marine DI's were Black, they paid him off and hired me. I went down to San Diego Marine Corps to learn for six weeks. When I showed up on set, I was a marine."

<p>Bill Nation/Sygma via Getty</p> Louis Gossett Jr. at the 55th Oscars in 1983

Bill Nation/Sygma via Getty

Louis Gossett Jr. at the 55th Oscars in 1983

Thinking back to filming, he recalled his costar Gere struggling when they filmed their memorable mud scene together. "I remember that was a weekend. It was tough for Richard to do," he said. "But he's a great man, I like him a lot. The truth is we were all stars of that movie."

Over the next four decades following his big win for the role, Gossett continued to choose projects with a purpose, including his most-recent role as an obstinate patriarch in The Color Purple. As for retirement, that was not in his plan. “I’m still here,” he said. “God must have something left for me to do.”

Gossett, who had been married and divorced three times, is survived by his two adult sons, Satie and Sharron.

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