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Louis Gossett Jr., Star of ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’ and ‘Roots,’ Dies at 87

Louis Gossett Jr., the tough guy with a sensitive side who won an Oscar for his portrayal of a steely sergeant in An Officer and a Gentleman and an Emmy for his performance as a compassionate slave in the landmark miniseries Roots, died Friday. He was 87.

In a statement obtained by The Hollywood Reporter, his family said, “It is with our heartfelt regret to confirm our beloved father passed away this morning. We would like to thank everyone for their condolences at this time. Please respect the family’s privacy during this difficult time.”

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First cousin Neal L. Gossett told the Associated Press that Gossett died in Santa Monica. No cause of death was given, but the actor announced in 2010 that he had prostate cancer.

With his sleek, bald pate and athlete’s physique, Gossett was intimidating in a wide array of no-nonsense roles, most notably in Taylor Hackford’s Officer and a Gentleman (1982), where as Gunnery Sgt. Emil Foley he rides Richard Gere’s character mercilessly (but for his own good) at an officer candidate school and gets into a memorable martial arts fight.

He was the second Black man to win an acting Oscar, following Sidney Poitier in 1964.

For the role, the 6-foot-4 Gossett trained for 30 days at the Marine Corps Recruitment Division, an adjunct of Camp Pendleton north of San Diego. “I knew I had to put myself through at least some degree of this all-encompassing transformation,” Gossett wrote in his 2010 biography, An Actor and a Gentleman.

Douglas Day Stewart’s original script called for Gere’s Zack Mayo to beat up Foley.

“The Marines changed it,” Gossett recalled in a 2010 interview. “They said that an enlisted man would never beat up a drill sergeant. We’ll tear the place up unless you change it. They said, ‘If you don’t do this well, Mr. Gossett, we’re going to have to kill you.'”

In a statement Friday, Hackford noted that the part was written to be a white man.

“When I visited the Navy Officers Flight Training Center in Pensacola, Florida, I discovered that many of the drill instructors there were men of color,” the director said. “I found it interesting that Black and brown enlisted men had ‘make or break’ control over whether white college graduates would become officers and fighter pilots. At that moment I changed the casting profile for Sgt. Foley and started meeting actors of color.

“Lou Gossett came to see me — I knew and admired his stage work. He told me that he’d served in the U.S. Army as a Ranger, so in addition to being an accomplished actor, he knew military life — I hired him on the spot. Lou Gossett’s Sgt. Foley may have been the first Black character in American cinema to have absolute authority over white characters.”

The Brooklyn native capitalized on this hard-ass image in such action films as The Punisher (1989), opposite Dolph Lundgren, and Iron Eagle (1986) and its three sequels. In the Iron Eagle series, he starred as Col. Charles “Chappy” Sinclair, a leader of dangerous rescue missions in threatening international locales.

In 1959, Gossett played George Murchison in the original Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry’s domestic tragedy A Raisin in the Sun, then segued to Daniel Petrie’s 1961 Columbia film adaptation along with his stage co-stars Poitier and Ruby Dee, launching his career in Hollywood.

It was his eloquent portrayal as Fiddler, an older slave who teaches a young Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton) to speak English on the eight-part ABC miniseries Roots, that earned him his first significant dose of national recognition. Eighty-five percent of the U.S. population tuned in for at least a portion of Roots, and the finale drew more than 100 million viewers in January 1977.

“All the top African-American actors were asked, and I begged to be in there,” Gossett once said. “I got the best role, I think. It was wonderful.”

Gossett also starred in the critically acclaimed telefilm Sadat (1983), in which he played the assassinated Egyptian leader (Sadat’s widow, Jehan, personally chose him for the part), and he portrayed a baseball immortal in Don’t Look Back: The Story of Leroy “Satchel” Paige in a 1981 telefilm.

During his 60-year-plus career, Gossett excelled in a number of non-stereotypical racial roles, playing a hospital chief of staff on the 1979 ABC series The Lazarus Syndrome and the title character Gideon Oliver, an anthropology professor, on a 1989 set of ABC Mystery Movies.

He also appeared as the guardian of a 16-year-old alien (Peter Barton) on NBC’s The Powers of Matthew Star; as Gerak, the first leader of the Free Jaffa Nation, on the Syfy series Stargate SG-1; as Halle Berry’s estranged father on CBS’ Extant; and as former vigilante Will Reeves on HBO’s Watchmen. (That last one resulted in his eighth career Emmy nom.)

Gossett was born on May 27, 1936, in the melting pot of Brooklyn, the son of a porter (who was adopted and raised by an Italian family) and a maid. At Abraham Lincoln High School, he was class president and starred on the baseball, track and basketball teams; later, he would be invited to the New York Knicks’ rookie camp.

When a leg injury forced him to sit out one high school basketball season, Gossett developed an interest in acting, and his English teacher recommended him to the producers of the 1953 Broadway show Take a Giant Step. He won the lead role at age 17 over more than 400 other contenders, then received the Donaldson Award for newcomer of the year.

Gossett accepted a dramatics scholarship to NYU, became pals with James Dean at the Actors Studio in New York and made his onscreen debut in 1957 on the NBC anthology series The Big Story.

In 1964, he, Lola Falana and Mae Barnes sang in the cast of America, Be Seated, a “modern minstrel show” that was produced by Mike Todd Jr. and played at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York.

Two years later, he co-wrote the antiwar song “Handsome Johnny” for Richie Havens’ first album, a tune the folk legend performed as the opening act at Woodstock three years later.

Gossett went on to play an angry man living in a run-down apartment building in Hal Ashby’s The Landlord (1970), a con artist opposite James Garner in the slavery-era Skin Game (1971), a drug-dealing cutthroat in The Deep (1977), a headmaster in Toy Soldiers (1991) and a down-and-out boxer in Diggstown (1992).

The actor’s film résumé also included Travels With My Aunt (1972), The Laughing Policeman (1973), The River Niger (1976), The Choirboys (1977), Enemy Mine (1985), The Principal (1987), Blue Chips (1994), Jasper, Texas (2003), Daddy’s Little Girls (2007), King of the Dancehall (2016), Foster Boy (2018), The Cuban (2019) and The Color Purple (2023).

Gossett also did excellent work in The Sentry Collection Presents Ben Vereen: His Roots; Backstairs at the White House; Palmerstown, U.S.A.; A Gathering of Old Men; and Touched by an Angel. He received an Emmy nom for each of these five projects.

As a producer, he shared a Daytime Emmy for the 1998 children’s special In His Father’s Shoes, in which he also starred.

He was active in the New York Alumni Association, a group of Big Apple emigrants who for more than two decades reunited each year for a show at Beverly Hills High School.

Survivors also include his children, Sharron and Satie.

In 2006, Gossett founded the nonprofit Eracism Foundation, an “all out conscious offensive” to eradicate all forms of racism by providing programs that foster cultural diversity, historical enrichment, education and antiviolence initiatives. (In 1966, he said he was pulled over by Beverly Hills cops and handcuffed to a palm tree for no reason.)

“We better take care of ourselves and one another better, otherwise nobody’s gonna win anything,” he said in July 2020 during a CBS Sunday Morning profile. “We need each other quite desperately — for our mutual salvation.”

Duane Byrge contributed to this report.

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