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Louis Gossett Jr., ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’ Oscar Winner, Dies at 87

Louis Gossett Jr., who won a supporting actor Oscar for playing the hard-as-nails drill instructor in 1982’s “An Officer and a Gentleman” a few years after winning an Emmy for his role as the cunning Fiddler in “Roots,” died early Friday morning. He was 87.

Gossett’s family announced his death in a statement, writing: “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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In Taylor Hackford’s “An Officer and a Gentleman,” Gossett’s Sgt. Emil Foley memorably drove Richard Gere’s character to the point of near collapse at a Navy flight school. Gossett was the first Black man to win the best supporting actor Oscar for that role.

In addition to “An Officer and a Gentleman,” Gossett is best known for films “Enemy Mine” (1985), in which he played an alien forced to come to terms with his human enemy when he and an astronaut played by Dennis Quaid find themselves stranded on a planet, and “Iron Eagle” (1986), in which he played an Air Force veteran who helps a young pilot find his father, who has been shot down and captured.

In paying tribute to Gossett, Hackford noted that the role of Foley was originally written as a white man, until Hackford visited the Navy Officers Flight Training Center in Pensacola, Fla., and learned that many of the drill instructors were Black men.

“At that moment I changed the casting profile for Sargent Foley and started meeting actors of color,” Hackford recalled. “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 Sargent Foley may have been the first Black character in American cinema to have absolute authority over white characters. The Academy recognized his consummate performance by voting him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. He definitely deserved it.”

After his Emmy win for “Roots” in 1978, Gossett picked up a further six Emmy nominations over the years. He drew a nomination for portraying the Egyptian president who made peace with Israel in the 1983 TV movie “Sadat.” He was also nominated for his performance on the 1978 variety special “The Sentry Collection Presents Ben Vereen: His Roots”; for playing Levi Mercer in the 1979 NBC miniseries “Backstairs at the White House”; for lead actor in a drama series for “Palmerstown, U.S.A.” in 1981; for lead actor in a miniseries or special for the Volker Schlondorff-directed “A Gathering of Old Men” (1987), in which he starred with Richard Widmark and Holly Hunter; and for multiple appearances as Anderson Walker on CBS’ “Touched by an Angel” in 1997.

Gossett, still hard working in his late 70s, memorably guested on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” in 2013, playing a mentor to Michael Kenneth Williams’ Chalky whom Chalky re-encounters when he is on the run.

He had also recently recurred on CBS’ Halle Berry sci-fi thriller “Extant” as Quinn and guested on series including “Madam Secretary” (2014), “Psych” (2012) and “ER” (2009) as well as on IFC’s miniseries spoof “The Spoils Before Dying” (2015).

Having first gained widespread attention through his work on the landmark miniseries “Roots,” Gossett starred in another miniseries about slavery, BET’s ‘The Book of Negroes,” in 2015.

Asked by Variety in 2015 which of his roles has been his favorite, Gossett responded: “Anwar Sadat. It was a challenge to play someone with history like that. His spirit was very much like Mandela’s. He transitioned from a hawk to a dove. He’d lost his brother and people he loved. He said he’d be willing to step into Israel in the name of peace. Mandela was willing to come out of prison with a smile on his face.”

Louis Cameron Gossett Jr. was born in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. He made his stage debut at 17 in a school production of “You Can’t Take It With You”; a sports injury had prompted his decision to take an acting class. He also fought polio while growing. He was offered an athletic scholarship but went on his own dime to NYU, where the tall young man could have played varsity basketball, which he declined to do in favor of theatrical pursuits.

Gossett had already made his Broadway debut, in 1953, despite no formal training as an actor, replacing Bill Gunn as Spencer Scott in “Take a Giant Step,” which the New York Times’ drama critics named one of the 10 best shows of the year. He drew his first mention in Variety for his work in the play.

Other Broadway credits include the classic original 1959-60 production of “A Raisin in the Sun,” in which he played George Murchison, the wealthy and educated boyfriend of Younger family daughter Beneatha; George, who denies his African heritage, represents the fully assimilated Black man. Gossett made his big-screen debut when he reprised the role for the 1961 film version of “A Raisin in the Sun.” (Earlier he had had a smaller role in the original comedy “The Desk Set,” which luckily was also a big hit.)

In 1963 he appeared on the Rialto in the Langston Hughes adaptation “Tambourines to Glory,” and he was a replacement in the controversial hit musical “Golden Boy” starring Sammy Davis Jr. in which Gossett played the Mephistophlean boxing promoter Eddie Satin. He was also among the stars of original musical “The Zulu and the Zayda,” about a Jew and a Black man bridging the racial gap in Johannesburg.

In 1968 Gossett starred with Diane Ladd among others in the Sidney Poitier-directed play “Carry Me Back to Morningside Heights,” and the actor played assassinated African leader Patrice Lumumba in the play “Murderous Angels” in 1971.

Decades later, in 2002, Gossett returned to Broadway to serve as replacement in the starring role of Billy Flynn in the musical “Chicago.”

As one of the program’s executive producers, Gossett shared a Daytime Emmy for outstanding children’s special for 1997’s “In His Father’s Shoes,” for which he was also nominated for outstanding performer in a children’s special. He played a cancer-stricken man who shares a magical experience with his son.

He also shared a nomination for outstanding special class special for the 2002 Opening Ceremony of the Salt Lake Paralympic Winter Games, for which he served as narrator.

Later in his career, Gossett continued taking roles across television and film. He had a seven-episode arc in the acclaimed HBO miniseries “Watchmen” and had a leading role in the 2020 religious drama “The Reason.” He also appeared in the 2023 remake of “The Color Purple.”

Gossett was thrice married. His first marriage, in 1964, to Hattie Glascoe was annulled. He was married to Christina Mangosing (from 1973-75 and had one child) and to actress Cyndi James Gossett (1987-92). Both of these marriages ended in divorce.

Survivors include a son, producer Satie Gossett, from Mangosing; an adopted son, Sharron, with Cyndi James Gossett; and a nephew, actor Robert Gossett.

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