Lou Gossett Jr.: A jokester and a gentleman

By Jim Slotek

Louis Gossett Jr. jokingly says he wants to correct his place in history as the second African-American actor to win an Academy Award (for the role of gunnery Sgt. Emil Foley in 1982’s An Officer And A Gentleman).

 Louis Gossett Jr.

Louis Gossett Jr.

“It’s a technicality,” he says over the phone from his home in Los Angeles. The official first African-American Supporting Actor Oscar winner Sidney Poitier was from the Bahamas (though the story is he was born while his parents were visiting Miami).

“But I say that I’m the first American Black actor to win an Oscar,” Gossett says, chuckling.

Fittingly, as we spoke, the 81-year-old Gossett was about to head to Greensboro, N.C. to accept the Sidney Poitier Lifelong Achievement Award from the National Black Theatre Festival on the 35th anniversary of his Oscar win and the 40th of his participation in the mini-series Roots.

Besides their connection in Oscar history, Gossett played opposite Poitier in the 1961 classic A Raisin In The Sun.

 Lou Gossett Jr., James Caan and Dylan Everett in Undercover Grandpa

Lou Gossett Jr., James Caan and Dylan Everett in Undercover Grandpa

I suggest that Oscar chances are slim for Undercover Grandpa (now on VOD), the kid-flick he filmed in Toronto with James Caan and young Dylan Everett (Campbell Saunders on Degrassi). In it, Saunders plays Jake, whose granddad (Caan) is secretly a special forces veteran. When Jake’s girlfriend (Greta Onieogou) is kidnapped by Slavic agents, Grandad calls up his aged troops (including a high-wire specialist played by Gossett) to rescue her.

“I don’t know, it could be a sleeper,” Gossett says jovially. “I heard that young man got an award from some film festival already.” (True, a Best Child Actor Award at the International Family Film Festival in L.A. Undercover Grandpa was also named Best Comedy Feature).

What does he remember most vividly about the shoot? “It was shot at that place that used to heat all of Toronto, that place near the water (the Hearn Generating Station). It was full of mold and stuff. And we had a raccoon that used to come and eat at lunchtime, he would follow us around.”

ORIGINAL-CIN: I’m guessing you’d worked with your co-stars James Caan and Paul Sorvino before.

GOSSETT: “I have. Both of them. We told a lot of jokes and talked about the good old days. There’s an awful lot to talk about. James Caan could have been a professional athlete. And he’s got a couple of broken bones from his rodeo days. He’s kind of stuck together with Scotch tape. But he’s still James Caan, he’s still that wonderful brother. But we all have our scars and broken bones and stories.”

OC: You’ve filmed a lot in Toronto.

GOSSETT: “I used to live there. I lived in Rosedale.”

OC: Wow. Nice

GOSSETT: “I was producing a lot of movies up there and moved between Vancouver and Toronto a great deal. I worked for, what’s his name? The man from Toronto who started HBO (Pictures).

OC: Robert Cooper?

GOSSETT: “Robert Cooper. That’s him. I did the one called The Guardian, which was the first HBO movie he did.”

OC: I remember that one. You played quite the bad-ass.

GOSSETT: (Laughs) “Yeah, I pulled that off. And before that, I did The James Mink Story (the story of a black former slave who became a millionaire in Toronto in the 1840s and traveled back to the U.S. to rescue his daughter).

OC: An underground railroad story.

GOSSETT: “And a Canadian story. The first mayor of Toronto was very nearly a black man. But I did quite a few things up there, World War III, Left Behind, Jasper Texas.

OC: And they haven’t given you the key to the city yet.

GOSSETT: “They may as well. I have a lot of friends up there.”

OC: I don’t know if you put much store in anniversaries, but this is both the 35th anniversary of An Officer And A Gentleman and the 40th anniversary of Roots. (In which Gossett played Fiddler).

GOSSETT: “That’s true. And it’s just wonderful to be around to celebrate them.”

OC: They did a remake of Roots, which got good reviews. But it just came and went. Why do you think that was?

GOSSETT: “Well, the timing was different, so it was never going to be have the same impact. But anything in that direction is still necessary. Anything that can help us be together and get rid of our differences and enhance our similarities is best for mankind.

“Reconnection to the generations is essential. Our job is to reconnect to the next generation so they can carry on and make it better. It’s the number one agenda of my foundation, to reconnect. It’s called The Eracism Foundation.”

OC: Well, you’re reconnecting with the generations in this movie. The one you just did in Ireland sounds like it has a very similar plot.

GOSSETT: “Hopefully it’ll be a hoot. It’s called The Supervisors and it has Tom Berenger and Beau Bridges and Fionnulla Flanagan. It’s about four former superheroes and one heroine from the ‘70s and we had magical powers and now of course we’re older and we’re in an old age home.”

OC: What was your superpower?

GOSSETT: “I was the fastest man on the planet, and they originally were going to call him Black Lightning. But it turned out that name was taken. So, they called him something-Thunder.”

OC: You’re working steadily doing a lot of episodic TV and small movies...

GOSSETT: “As long as they spell my name right on the cheque.”

OC: And receiving career awards.

GOSSETT: “I’ve got another one coming from the Afro-Asian Society in Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt. It’s across the border from Eilat, which is very close across the border in Israel. I’ve been there before and I scuba-dived in the Red Sea. And of course, I played (Anwar) Sadat (in the miniseries of the life of the assassinated Egyptian president).

“So, I guess I’m loved by people who don’t love each other. But as I see it today, we need each other more than ever for the salvation of the planet.”