Louis Gossett Jr. Interview: "I’m Not an African-American Anymore; I’m an American-African"
Image attributed to Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
Louis Gossett Jr. is best known for his Academy Award-winning role as Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley in the 1982 film An Officer and a Gentleman and for portraying the character of Fiddler in the ABC miniseries Roots in 1977. He has starred in A Raisin in the Sun, The Landlord, Skin Game, The Deep, Enemy Mine, Iron Eagle, Iron Eagle II, The Punisher, and many others, during an acting career that spans over five decades to include theater and extensive television work.
The storied actor has signed on as executive producer for Ali’s Comeback: The Untold Story. This feature length documentary chronicles the role the city of Atlanta played in granting Ali a license to return to the boxing ring after a three-and-a-half-year hiatus due to a conviction for draft evasion. Gossett also appears as a narrator in the film, and part of the proceeds will support his Eracism Foundation, which provides training for youth and adults that assist them in setting the example for living racially diverse and culturally inclusive lives.
"My son was maybe approximately five years old, and Ali used to tickle him. So I told my son, 'You know who that man was? That was your godfather Cassius Clay.' So he woke up and just went bananas. But that young kid from Louisville and I hung together and told jokes. Just hung out. It was a mutual admiration."
Louis Gossett Jr.: Hey, Melissa, how are you doing?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’m good! How are you today?
Louis Gossett Jr.: Good. Where in the US are you residing?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I am in Birmingham, Alabama.
Louis Gossett Jr.: Oh, I love that place! I can smell the barbecue (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Oh, absolutely, and thanks for taking the time today. Why did you sign on as executive producer of Ali’s Comeback: The Untold Story?
Louis Gossett Jr.: Well, he was my old friend. He was my friend since he was a kid before he was “Ali.” I lived in Los Angeles in Hancock Park, one block off of Highland and Wilshire in a beautiful home, and he lived on Fremont Place, which is a minimum of about a half mile down Wilshire Boulevard. So we ran into each other, and we were so close that every morning, we’d run back and forth. I’d have breakfast with him, and he’d have breakfast with me.
My son was maybe approximately five years old, and Ali used to tickle him. So I told my son, “You know who that man was? That was your godfather Cassius Clay.” So he woke up and just went bananas. But that young kid from Louisville and I hung together and told jokes. Just hung out. It was a mutual admiration. I won the Oscar, and he was excited, and I was excited about his accomplishments. Through a loophole in the Atlanta law, he got a chance to resurrect his career after that controversy, and he made his comeback, and all of mankind, if they could possibly afford the tickets, sat in the audience.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were you there at the comeback bout when Ali fought Jerry Quarry on October 26, 1970?
Louis Gossett Jr.: I was not there. I was busy working. Otherwise, I would’ve been in the front row. But everybody came to see his historical resurrection. How wonderful now to be a part of this story a lot of people don’t know.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Before Atlanta, Ali was banned from fighting in all 50 states because of the draft evasion conviction?
Louis Gossett Jr.: He couldn’t fight anywhere. Nowhere. They took all of his titles, so there was a little anxiety, of course. He could not fight for the title because they took it from him. It was more than a fight that made a comeback, and you know the rest. The rest is history. It’s nice to be a part of that, a good part of that story.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Muhammad Ali was known for trash talking his opponents and often freestyling with rhyme schemes and poetry. Who was the Ali you knew?
Louis Gossett Jr.: He was a beautiful kid. He was a brilliant, beautiful kid who grew up properly about things that were important to more than him. There are people in our history who have done that for the benefit of us all, and he grew into that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is there a tentative date for the release of Ali’s Comeback: The Untold Story?
Louis Gossett Jr.: The sooner the better is the date (laughs). By the end of the summer, but it requires the raising of some funds to polish it up a little bit to give the best presentation we can and then submit it to the awards. So we have to be careful what we put out there and make sure it’s accurate. We need to be sure it’s the best we can do, and whatever that takes, that’s how long it’s going to take.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I understand that as part of the partnership between you and Dream Factory, part of the proceeds from the film will support your Eracism Foundation. Tell me about the foundation.
Louis Gossett Jr.: Well, I continue the legacy that we, in this country, need a one America once and for all. We’ve had some conflicts back in the past in America, but if you compare our culture with all the other cultures in the world that we read about, our maturity’s about 12 to 15 years old, so we’re going through some growing pains, and the major growing pain is that there is no difference between one person and another in this country. It’s written in the documentary. All children are all American children. All people are all Americans.
The closer we get to that one nation under God indivisible consciousness with all of us, the better off we will be. That’s what we have to teach our children, and I intend to teach children from all ethnicities how they need one another and how they develop the best of their culture to add to the whole American pie. The American soup tastes much better when the best of all the cultures that live here is contributing to the building of this wonderful country.
I’m not an African-American anymore; I’m an American-African. There’s American-Italians. It’s one nation under God indivisible. It’s very patriotic. We have to 24-7 contribute to the positive building of this country together. It’s hard to get a terrorist attack in the middle of some kind of principles like that. It’s tough for a bad guy to get in there then.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is change continuing to happen?
Louis Gossett Jr.: Yeah, so we could go in different directions with kids. It’s happening. I think we’re going to have the first female president, and that’s progress. Great progress. You see what’s happening in sports, in politics and music. Our children are going in the right direction. We need to participate positively in our union for the benefit of us all.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Since Hillary Clinton may not run again, do you have another female in mind for the presidency?
Louis Gossett Jr.: Well, we don’t know, but I’m sensitive because it’s more than about the females. It’s about our growth. It seems natural that mankind is a combination of male and female, so the mankind has conquered. He’s developed a cause. He’s developed a mentality of championship and the king. It’s time for the queen, and it’s going to be a graceful transition. It’s time for tenderness, rebirth, understanding and benevolence, and that’s the female side of mankind. We need both, so men cannot get intimidated if there’s a female mayor or president. It’s time.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You starred in the landmark play A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway opposite Sidney Poitier and Rube Dee and reprised the role in the film. Did you realize then that it was special?
Louis Gossett Jr.: It was very special to us, and the best news is that it was special to other people. Not just A Raisin in the Sun, but Roots. It’s amazing. It’s like lightning in a bottle when you do something on television or theater that everybody catches on to, and it transcends from a play to a social statement, a positive one, and Roots is another. Another one for me is Enemy Mine, and the other character I played was Anwar Sadat, all the same thing where it was like lightning in a bottle. But people say, “Wow! That makes sense. Let me see if I can go in that direction, too.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were those works your proudest achievements?
Louis Gossett Jr.: I’ve been very fortunate to be part of some things that helped frame me and helped me grow to this one nation under God indivisible representation, and it’s about Blood Knot, the blood brothers in South Africa. It’s about Roots. It’s about Enemy Mine, ironically playing male and female in one body. It’s about Sadat. It’s about a lot of different things.
I’m very, very humbled and grateful to have participated and to have come up with a plan for my foundation, Eracism. It’s more than race. It’s just a thing that an automatic assumption that any human is better than another human. We’re put on the planet to take care of the world. We need to do that together and grow and make it better for the next generation.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What inspired you to make your professional acting debut in the theatre at age 17?
Louis Gossett Jr.: It was right after the depression. There were some professionals, the intellectual cream of the crop, that ran from the blacklist, came to New York and moved into these neighborhoods where they could change their names so they could teach. In movies, they were the John Garfields, the Dalton Trumbos and the Elia Kazans. They were all artists, but we were recipients of the intellectual cream of the crop for America, and our society reflected that we work together.
Nobody had anything after the depression, so we relied on one another. As a result, it became a renaissance for the wonderful people that came out of the area, like the Danny Kayes, the Barbra Streisands, the Arthur Millers, the Brooklyn Dodgers that got Jackie Robinson. I grew up in that society, so the best part of my life happened in the formation of me and my friends who were cooperative of one another, and that love is still here. Whoever is still alive and wherever they are, they can get in touch with me because we created a wonderful society.
I want to put that back in the minds of the people today. We relied on one another. At dinner, when I’d come home from school, I would take a deep breath, and I could smell my way around the world. I could smell fried chicken or corned beef and cabbage or menudo. It depended on who was home. That was the New York neighborhood symbolic of that. We need to be sensitive to one another now. That was then. This is now. We should be the best at every culture.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What other projects are in the works?
Louis Gossett Jr.: I’m directing a film. Here I am this old guy, and I’m being reborn directing a film about a man who came after Jackie Robinson. He was a shortstop, a very positive and powerful shortstop for the Chicago Cubs, by the name of Ernie Banks. He was a very special man, and I’m going to direct that. There are a couple of things coming out. One is called Foster Boy. It’s a foster child controversy.
I start back on Wednesday on Hap and Leonard. I did four episodes with my friends there. I get to watch my grandson grow up. I love my grandchildren. I have a connection with children. There’s a possibility I’ll be doing a master class somewhere. Stay in touch with these young people who are hungry to know. This is the natural thing for us to do.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You said a couple of years ago that it was up to us to stop Trump and that he was “bringing the poisons out in the people.” What do you think today?
Louis Gossett Jr.: Today, we’re being challenged to get to the next level, the next big, mature level, like a teenager outgrowing his adolescence. We’re challenged with some basic things, which we will survive because, whether we like it or not, we’re going in the right direction. Documentaries like this are necessary. I did a documentary on Lorraine Hansberry and Maya Angelou and others. We’re going in the right direction.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The right direction to end racism and promote equality for all people?
Louis Gossett Jr.: Yes. On a daily basis. Yeah. Every time we see a young person, we have to direct them in a positive direction. I think they’re kind of asking for that.
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