Lou Gossett, Jr., Tells Of Harsh Introduction To Hollywood
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Now it's time for our Wisdom Watch, that's the part of the program where we talk to people who have made a difference through their work, people who have wisdom to share.
Today we're going to speak with a man who has brought a number of memorable characters to life over a remarkable five decade plus career, including Gunnery Sgt. Emil Foley, a man who expects nothing but the best from his charges.
(Soundbite of movie, "An Officer and a Gentleman")
Mr. LOU GOSSETT (Actor): (as Emil Foley) I want your D.O.R.
Mr. RICHARD GERE (Actor): (as Zack Mayo) No sir.
Mr. GOSSETT: (as Emil Foley) I want your D.O.R.
Mr. GERE: (as Zack Mayo) Mayo don't quit.
Mr. GOSSETT: Spell it. D-O-R.
Mr. GERE: (as Zack Mayo) I don't quit.
Mr. GOSSETT: (as Emil Foley) Yeah. Then you can be free and you and your daddy can get drunk and go hog chasing together. Huh?
Mr. GERE: (as Zack Mayo) No sir.
Mr. GOSSETT: (as Emil Foley) D.O.R.
Mr. GERE: (as Zack Mayo) I ain't going to quit.
Mr. GOSSETT: (as Emil Foley) All right then we can forget it. You're out.
Mr. GERE: (as Zack Mayo) Don't you do it. Don't you. I got nowhere else to go.
MARTIN: Of course, we're talking about Louis Gossett Jr. That role in "An Office and a Gentleman" - of course, he's playing opposite Richard Gere there throughout the film - won him an historic best supporting Oscar in 1983 as well as a Golden Globe.
But he's not only one of Hollywood's most versatile actors, he's also deeply engaged in a number of social issues which I hope he'll talk about, and he is taking us behind the scenes in his own remarkable life in a new memoir "An Actor and a Gentleman" and Louis Gossett Jr. is with us now.
Welcome. Thank you for joining us.
Mr. GOSSETT: Thank you. It's a pleasure with this nice introduction.
MARTIN: Well, just speaking the facts, so just telling the truth. So I think many people will remember your roles but I think a lot of people would be curious about where you caught the acting bug.
Mr. GOSSETT: I come from Brooklyn, a melting pot, a cultural melting pot right after the Depression, and those teachers came from the universities. They thought they were communists but they were not. They were just the left wing movement. And it was one of those teachers, Gustav Blumley(ph), Gus Blumberg(ph) was his real name, and he said they're trying out these kids for this play, a Broadway play. Tell your mother to take you down there. You can't lose anything by doing that so go. And the rest is history.
MARTIN: And that is history. You starred on Broadway, which I think is something else people may not remember, long before you headed out to Hollywood.
Mr. GOSSETT: At the age of 17. Yeah.
MARTIN: Yeah. And I wanted to mention that you headed out to Hollywood with some reluctance and I'm curious about that. I think a lot of people will be, because, you know?
Mr. GOSSETT: Well, I headed out to Hollywood not with reluctance because I was being sent by the William Morris Agency and being sent for by Lou Wasserman and Universal. And I was treated like a king and first class and limousines. So I went to get my car, which they rented for me and it was a Ford Fairlane Galaxy 500 with a hard top and with white on the outside and red on the inside and I was feeling - you couldn't touch me with a six foot pole. And it was only a 20 minute drive from the rental car to the hotel. It took four and a half hours. Was stopped every 15 to 20 minutes because of the police stopped me and wanted to know who the hell I was.
MARTIN: Now not just once, but what, like...
Mr. GOSSETT: Oh four and a half hours worth. And I "answered to the description," quote/unquote. And that night I wound up being handcuffed to a tree for three hours for walking in Beverly Hills after nine.
MARTIN: Welcome to Hollywood, huh?
Mr. GOSSETT: Welcome to Hollywood. Welcome to reality. That's the other reality.
MARTIN: You know what's interesting is, in your book you recount how your mind did not want to accept what was happening. I mean in a way you kept saying well, maybe it's something else.
Mr. GOSSETT: Maybe it's something else. And I tried to give them the benefit of the doubt but I ran out of benefits of the doubt. It was true.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Go back to that incident when you just had arrived and you were chained to the tree. I just really want to go back to that. You had this four and a half hour trip from the airport which should've taken 20 minutes. You check into this fabulous hotel. You have a fabulous suite. You have a fabulous meal. You decide you want to walk off some of the dinner with a walk and you are almost within minutes picked up and chained to a tree for three hours.
Mr. GOSSETT: As a lesson never to walk in Beverly Hills after nine o'clock.
MARTIN: How - what affect do you think that had on you? I mean then you had to go back and figure out how to keep working with people.
Mr. GOSSETT: Well, it was an enormous, you know, shock. And so, by the time I got back to the hotel, of course, I had to take my clothes off and get some clean clothes and I got immediately on the phone and I couldn't get my agent on the phone so I got my mother and father.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GOSSETT: My father said, you stay right there. I'll be right there. Now this is from Brooklyn to - they can't be right there. But I understood what he said. I'll come get you. My mother said, come home right away. These are one of those, what could I do? I came out there the way I was taught by my family and my neighborhood. No matter what the opposition, to go for the gold, to go completely to the promised land. But I found out that I had to sacrifice something that was right in order to maneuver my way through early Hollywood, so I had to act as if I was second class. I had to behave myself. The only time I was really free was when the director said action in front of a camera or on the stage and that's when I flew.
MARTIN: Talk to us a little bit about that role of Fiddler in what I think many people consider just a tremendous piece of work in the 1977 miniseries "Roots." I just want to play a short clip of a grown Kunta Kinte who's still trying to gain his freedom from a plantation, something that Fiddler is doing his best to discourage. I'll just play that clip.
(Soundbite of TV mini series, "Roots")
Mr. GOSSETT: (as Fiddler) Why you need all that?
Mr. LEVAR BURTON (Actor): (as Kunta Kinte) Isn't the last wagon going out this afternoon? Huh? Only two bottles and the niggers be drunk. Kunte be free.
Mr. GOSSETT: (as Fiddler) No. You know what happens when a nigger run off. The master and the overseer be meaner than ever to the rest of them.
Mr. BURTON: (as Kunta Kinte) Oh, but they won't do nothing bad to you Fiddler.
Mr. GOSSETT: (as Fiddler) You going to try again, huh? I remember one time you got me moved out of my cabin where I had to sleep in the barn most of the winter and that ain't bad like what they going to do to you when they catch you.
Mr. BURTON: (as Kunta Kinte) If they catch me.
Mr. GOSSETT: (as Fiddler) Toby, Kunte, there ain't no way to beat the law.
MARTIN: You won an Emmy for that role, of course. But you had some complicated feelings about it, which you talked about in the book. Will you tell us a little bit about that?
Mr. GOSSETT: Well, that scene was very - that's very brilliant of you to pick that particular scene because it's a reality, to figure out how to maneuver and to be successful and untouched, to get your money, to get to the promised land. There's certain things you have to sacrifice. There's certain things you have to know and maneuver. And now we've got it built in and so my mixed emotions was once again was, this man sounds like an Uncle Tom, but in reality there is no such thing as an Uncle Tom.
I think the story of Stepin Fetchit is a misnomer. I think if there's story about him it'll be called "Absolution," because he was one of the wealthiest men in America. But we had to use certain rules in order to make it. Those roles are still true today but not as much. We have our Will Smiths and our Jay-Zs and things are getting to be very positive - and, of course, our president of the United States. So we don't have to sacrifice that area.
But the bottom line is what we bring to the table must be paid attention to by all America right now and it's including the world, the way we were raised as children is the way we take over as grownups. We cannot plant any negatives in our children. They need to come up with their own ideas and if they come up with their own ideas there is no such thing.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'm speaking with veteran actor Louis Gossett Jr. It's our Wisdom Watch conversation. He's just released a new memoir, "An Actor and A Gentleman."
I do also want to talk about the whole substance abuse issue, because you're also very open about the fact that there were years when you were profoundly addicted. And you talked about that I think very movingly, about how in the early years there would be family get-togethers, and you obviously have a lot respect and affection for your family, but then you'd see, you know, kind of the alcohol take over at one point, you know?
Mr. GOSSETT: I see the deterioration of it but that's where my love was and the smell of love was the smell of marijuana, alcohol and cigarette tobacco.
MARTIN: Why do you think that is?
Mr. GOSSETT: Because that was the way the people were at that time. Right after the war they came back kind of broken with no opportunities and a lot of frustration. But when you do that generation after generation it becomes built in and you don't think there's any possibility of getting out of there. And it is a disease and it's an allergy with the body and it's an obsession of the mind.
MARTIN: You talked about how you saw this like with your father, your uncles. You saw them, you know, fighting and, you know, happy get-togethers would kind of turn ugly as people would get deeper into their cups and so forth. But so why do you think that happened with you?
Mr. GOSSETT: I wanted to be like them. But there was a gauntlet that we had when I was young and an athlete is you would have to have a drink or a joint or whatever it is and still win the championship. And I won many championships that way until, of course, there's a law of diminishing returns. And when you finally find out that's what you have, you can't switch it off and say I'm not going to do that anymore then you have to go through a system of one day at a time rules, which is an anonymous thing but it works.
MARTIN: Tell me a little bit more about your antiracism work. How did you get involved in that?
Mr. GOSSETT: How did I get involved in antiracism?
Mr. GOSSETT: Well, I'm subject of it. If you look at my track record over a 55-year period, of all the awards, maybe I should be kind of closer to Clint Eastwood, don't you think? If you think about the drugs and alcohol then maybe I should be more like Robert Downey Jr. But if you look at the other side of the coin, they're doing very well. And I'm not struggling but I should be easier than that. So in my program I had to get rid of what is a killer for anyone actually and that's resentment.
They've written treatises about why we should be angry. I guess they wrote treatises about why Nelson Mandela should be angry but neither one of us are. I take a page out of his life. When he came out of Robben Island everybody held their breath and they came out with that philosophy which I agree with. There's no time for that. There's only time for our understanding, our togetherness. And I believe that alcoholism and racism at the same time are in the same ballpark. We need to do something systematic on a daily basis in order to get rid of it.
MARTIN: What do you recommend?
Mr. GOSSETT: I recommend not teaching it to your children, number one, creating those things like maybe the Jews have in the synagogue by teaching those children how to get along with one another at the age of seven or eight, the respect for their elders, respect for one another, respect for the opposite sex, their dress code, the way it used to happen. That should be number one on our agenda. And in order to do that we need an organization and my organization is called Eracism.
MARTIN: One of the things that's interesting about you though, is that you have an experience and then you often convert it into activism. Like when you were diagnosed with prostate cancer you then started talking about prostate cancer and telling people to get tested. So I'm just curious how that works. Is that just part of your own, what, spiritual journey or something like that?
Mr. GOSSETT: I think we all have to - it comes from the old days almost before integration. It's called Each One Teach One. So we're on this planet not to what we can get but what we can give. So if I learn something successfully, I want to pass it on.
MARTIN: Is that in part what the autobiography is about? Because I mean at this stage of your career you don't have to disclose these things. I mean you - at this point you could kind of, you know, go on very nicely without telling people that you were chained to a tree for three hours on the first day you landed in Hollywood.
Mr. GOSSETT: Well, it's so nice to get that stuff out of your system so you can get on with it, you know, to put other things in your system. It's like taking a bath. Life is much better with that out. It's out. So I can put other things in there. I can be of service.
MARTIN: So I wanted to ask, this is one of the way we like to always end these conversations by asking, now you've been giving us some wisdom all along, but I wanted to ask is there any particular wisdom that you'd like to leave us with today?
Mr. GOSSETT: Yeah, there's no such thing as impossible. We are in the promised land if you're talking to African-Americans. All you have to do is go through the door of opportunity. Our president has laid it out for us. But there's fear so we've got to replace that fear with faith and get on with it.
MARTIN: Louis Gossett Jr., is an Oscar, Emmy and Golden Globe-winning actor. He's now the author of a new memoir, "An Actor and A Gentleman." He joined us from his home in Malibu.
Mr. Gossett, thank you so much for speaking with us today.
Mr. GOSSETT: It's good to talk with you, Michel. I hope to do it again.
(Soundbite of music)
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
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