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How Louis Gossett Jr. Got His Acting Start in Broadway's “A Raisin in the Sun” with Sidney Poitier: 'I Was in Awe'

"I put the basketball down, and the rest is history," Gossett, who died Thursday at age 87, told PEOPLE in January of his pivot to acting in the 1950s

<p>Courtesy Everett Collection</p> Sidney Poitier and Louis Gossett Jr. in <em>A Raisin in the Sun</em> (1961)

Courtesy Everett Collection

Sidney Poitier and Louis Gossett Jr. in A Raisin in the Sun (1961)

Louis Gossett Jr.'s first forays into acting weren't exactly small steps.

The Academy Award winner, who died Thursday at the age of 87, spoke to PEOPLE earlier this year about getting his start on Broadway in the 1950s after first attending New York University on a scholarship, with dreams of playing professional basketball.

“I was at rookie training for the [New York] Knicks when I got a call from [writer] Lorraine Hansberry to be a part of A Raisin in the Sun,” Gossett said of the 1959 production, which would actually be his third on the Great White Way, after 1953's Take a Giant Step and 1955's The Desk Set.

“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," he added of the part of George Murchinson, which he played opposite Sidney Poitier at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

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<p>Courtesy Everett Collection</p> From L: Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Louis Gossett Jr. in <em>A Raisin in the Sun</em> (1961)

Courtesy Everett Collection

From L: Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Louis Gossett Jr. in A Raisin in the Sun (1961)

Related: Sidney Poitier's Incredible Life and Career in Photos

Gossett originated the role of George in the original Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun. He later reprised his role opposite Poitier, who died in 2022 at age 94, in the 1961 film of the same name, in which the latter once again portrayed protagonist Walter Lee Younger.

“I was in awe of that man — his experience and strength,” Gossett told PEOPLE in January of Poitier, who was the first Black man to win a Best Actor Oscar.

“I supported him, and he supported me," Gossett added.

<p>Bob Riha Jr/WireImage</p> Louis Gossett Jr. in Los Angeles in 1985

Bob Riha Jr/WireImage

Louis Gossett Jr. in Los Angeles in 1985

Related: Louis Gossett Jr. Almost Played for the New York Knicks — Here’s Why He Turned the Gig Down (Exclusive)

Born in New York City, Gossett got his acting start on Broadway in Take a Giant Step in 1953 — when he was still a student at Abraham Lincoln High School. As he explained in a 1991 conversation with Bob Costas, he had "a pretty promising career in high school."

"'They're looking for a young, Black kid to play a lead in a Broadway show called Take a Giant Step. They can't find anybody in the business, so they're going to the high schools. 'Tell your mother to take you down there,' " he recalled being told. "So that's how I got in show business."

Gossett is survived by his two adult sons, Satie and Sharron.

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