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Louis Gossett Jr., Brooklyn-born Oscar winner, dies at 87

Amy Sussman/Getty Images North America/TNS

NEW YORK — Louis Gossett Jr., a dynamic and commanding actor from Coney Island who turned down a spot on the New York Knicks to embark upon a barrier-breaking stage and screen career that won him an Emmy and an Oscar, died Friday at a nursing home in Santa Monica, California.

Brooklyn native Gossett died early in the morning of natural causes, said his publicist, Em Fergusson. He had struggled earlier in his life with a drug addiction, and he battled cancer in his later years.

Standing an imposing 6 feet, 4 inches tall and performing with a fiery, magnetic intensity, Gossett won his Emmy for his role as the comforting Fiddler in the 1977 miniseries “Roots.” He earned his Academy Award — the first best supporting actor Oscar to go to a Black man — for his turn as the intimidatingly no-nonsense Sgt. Emil Foley in the 1982 film “An Officer and a Gentleman.”

Across his nearly seven-decade career, Gossett appeared in Broadway productions of “A Raisin in the Sun” and “Chicago,” and in hundreds of roles on screen. His final film credit was as Ol’ Mister in last year's “The Color Purple.

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He could sing too: Between shows on Broadway early in his career, he would belt folk songs at Greenwich Village clubs.

He first made his mark as a stage performer, appearing in seven Broadway productions from 1959 to 1971, before pivoting to a largely TV- and movie-focused stretch of his career, in which he took on roles as varied as the voice of Drill Sergeant in “Family Guy” and an elderly Cuban musician in the 2019 film drama “The Cuban.”

The socially conscious Gossett was far more than a performer. He launched the anti-bigotry group Eracism. And he was a lodestar for younger generations, showing how to walk dual tracks as an artist and activist, said Kenny Leon, an influential Tony winning Broadway director.

Leon, who recalled Gossett’s personal touch — he came to the opening of each of the director’s productions — said the actor’s body of work as a performer and prison-reform-focused activist rendered him “more than a king.”

“Our great kings and emperors are going on, but they left some great work,” Leon said by phone, describing Gossett as “witty, funny, warm” and easygoing in private.

Gossett’s career and work was shaped by the racism he overcame.

During filming of a screen adaptation of “A Raisin in the Sun,” in the early 1960s, he was ushered into a motel crawling with cockroaches due to a dearth of hotels that would accept Black patrons.

In an especially harrowing 1960s incident, California cops chained him to a tree for three hours, apparently judging it suspicious for a Black man to stroll swanky Beverly Hills, he later recalled.

Rattled, he phoned home to his parents in Brooklyn.

“My father said, ‘You stay right there. I’ll be right there.’ Now this is from Brooklyn — they can’t be right there,” Gossett recalled to NPR decades later. “But I understood what he said.”

The incident left an imprint on the young actor. He said his family had raised him to shoot for the stars — to “go completely to the Promised Land.” By age 16, he had made it onto the Broadway stage, appearing in “Take a Giant Step” in 1953.

“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,” he told NPR. “The only time I was really free was when the director said ‘action’ in front of a camera, or on the stage.”

“That’s when I flew,” he said.

Fly he did. His range and aura of authority won gushing critical reviews.

His Oscar for “An Officer and a Gentleman” in the early 1980s was the first won by a Black actor in 20 years. The Daily News’ film critic at the time, Rex Reed, hailed Gossett’s “wonderful, lean, teeth-grinding performance” as the “meanest drill sergeant you never want to meet.”

Divorce, fatherhood and struggles with addiction to cocaine and alcohol sent him into a spiral in the 1980s. And, for a period, roles dried up.

Once a healthy straight-shooter, Gossett’s life turned upside-down.

“I had an Oscar, an Emmy, and yet I had this big hole in my soul. I was in a pit of self-pity and resentment,” he told The New York Times in a 1989 article.

He entered a treatment program in Los Angeles, embraced Alcoholics Anonymous and returned to his faith. His life steadied.

“Thank God I was able to correct myself and turn it around,” he told CBS News in 2020.

He spent the final decades of his life in California and Georgia, but he is forever linked to his hometown.

Mayor Eric Adams saluted Gossett in a statement Friday, describing the actor as a “pioneer.”

“He made his hometown so proud and he will be truly missed,” the mayor said in the statement.

Louis Cameron Gossett, son of a porter and a nurse, was born May 27, 1936, in the melting pot of Coney Island, Brooklyn.

Popular and athletic, he attended Abraham Lincoln High School on Ocean Parkway, where he became his senior class president and starred on the basketball court and in the baseball field.

When an injury sidelined him, he performed in a school play to keep busy. A teacher impressed by his acting chops urged him to try out for “Take a Giant Step.” He won the starring role of the rebellious Spencer Scott, and then won critical acclaim.

New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson hailed Gossett’s “admirable and winning performance,” saying that it displayed “the whole range of Spencer’s turbulence.”

The production ran from September to November 1953, cutting into the basketball season.

“Very often rehearsals, public appearances and matinees will conflict with practice sessions and games,” the young Gossett told The Brooklyn Eagle at the time. “I have basketball on my mind and will work out and play in as many games as possible.”

He would even bring a basketball backstage at the Lyceum.

After high school, he went on to New York University, where he won a basketball scholarship and studied drama. After college, the Knicks came calling, and he started training with the team.

But Broadway beckoned too.

The revered playwright Lorraine Hansberry called Gossett directly to see if he would perform her gripping family drama “A Raisin in the Sun,” which was produced on Broadway in 1959. The play revolves around housing discrimination on the South Side of Chicago.

If Gossett was caught between two passions, money made his decision easier. And he later said he picked the right path.

“They said the part comes with a $700 per diem, more money than most professional athletes had in the bank at the time,” he told People magazine in an article this year. “I put the basketball down, and the rest is history.”