It was a great thrill and an honor to speak with Oscar-winner Louis Gossett, Jr., star of “An Officer and a Gentleman,” about his new movie, “Smitty.” He talked to me about starring in the original Broadway production of “A Raisin in the Sun” when he was still a teenager, about studying at the legendary Actor’s Studio with Marilyn Monroe (and what she smelled like), and about the trick he played on the medical assistant who came to treat his skin rash on “Enemy Mine.”
[Gurgling sound — the “Drac voice”]
Oh you’re doing your lines! That’s wonderful. I love that movie and your performance is amazing, that must have been an incredible challenge because you were covered in the lizard alien make-up.
Before Wolfgang Petersen took over and we were in Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland with Richard Loncraine directing, after about the first couple of weeks, there was a little rash happening because of the make-up, right up to my ear, and they were going to get some salve or something to put on it, because they have to rub the stuff off with the spirit gum. It was harder to get something than they thought because we were in the isolated area where the volcano is. So, they can’t find a skin doctor in Iceland, so they finally found a lady, she’s a freshman, and she’s just studying anatomy, and they call her and have to helicopter her from Reykjavik to this place. So you see this young, impressionable young lady with her little small purse, scared to death, in my dressing room. And I come out with the make-up on, and I say, “Hi, Doc, I’m the one with the skin problem…” [laughter] She ran for her life!
[laughs] All the way back to Reykjavik! It is one of my favorite movies and it’s such a touching story. A lot had to happen with the eyes and you really made it happen.
Very challenging. That’s why I took it, because it was a challenge. There’s a lot of Jerry in me.
Speaking of challenges, I understand that there are two rules about acting: no children, no dogs. And yet in this movie…
Here I am.
There you are, so tell me a little bit about it.
I love children and I love dogs, so it’s okay. We hit it off, I like the kid [Brandon Tyler Russell] a lot. I was there to help him be better, and he took it.
Well, you got started very young, too, didn’t you?
Started at 17 in the theater, still in high-school. There was a blacklist scare, it happened to the actors and it happened all across America and the intellectual cream of the crop ran from the universities and they changed their names and they settled in my neighborhood and others. As a result, all the Barbara Streisands and the Arthur Millers and the Neil Simons and the Harvey Keitels, and the Neil Diamonds, and Jackie Robinson and all of us, we got the benefit of those intellectual teachers. One of those teachers, who ran from the theater, who knew the trades, was saying, “They’re looking for somebody to play this lead in this Broadway show, I know you have never seen a play, but, tell your mother to take you down there Sunday, what could you lose?” And that’s how I got the part.
Wow, that was “Raisin in the Sun?”
No, that was “Take a Giant Step” in 1953. Then I was in “Raisin in the Sun.”
That’s one of my all-time favorite plays, I’m a big Lorraine Hansberry fan, I also like “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” and of course, “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.”
During that particular time, they called her one of those rebels, and they figured she was a communist, so she had to run and write. Now, she’s just part of society.
Isn’t that the way that it always goes with artists? They’re perceived as destabilizing and subversive and then they become canon.
Right, they become part of America, that’s what America stands for.
You got started as a professional actor very young. Who were your great teachers?
My teachers were of course Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker, whom I didn’t know but who inspired me. My immediate teacher was Frederic O’Neil, the first black president of Actor’s Equity, and Estelle Hemsley and Estelle Devans, and Maxine Sullivan, who was a singer—and then of course among my immediate teachers was the late Peggy Fury, who was married to the writer Lou Peterson, he was black and she was white and she married him because he was brilliant, and she turned out to be the best teacher for Lee Strasburg, who started in the Actor’s Studio with her and all of her contemporaries. The first people who so honored me to teach me were Lou Peterson, Peggy Fury, Maureen Stapleton, John Stix, Frank Corsaro, and my main teacher was a man by the name of Frank Silvera. Frank was one of the few blacks in the actor studios, but he always played Italians and Greeks, he was in “Viva Zapata!” playing Huerta, he was in the Appaloosa, he was a great actor. And after that he created the American Theatre of Being. He was my main teacher.
Those are all method actors, aren’t they?
Yes. So I went to New York University—but at the Actor’s Studio, I was the kid at the back of the room. In the front of the room was Sydney Poitier, but there was Brando and Anthony Quinn and Lee J. Cobb and Nehemiah Persoff, I remember. I remember all of those great actors and actresses that I rubbed elbows with, Julie Harris, Lee Grant, and of course, the late Marilyn Monroe when she was married to Arthur Miller. She smelled like Lifebuoy soap. She took a liking to me, came in with her husband’s oxford shirt tied at the waist, with some jeans and some flip-flops, preceded by this aroma. I’d come in the room and she’d be going, “Where’s Lou?” I couldn’t do any scenes with her, she was just one of the most sexiest, most wonderful women I’ve ever met. I almost had to quit the class because of her. If she had stayed with Arthur Miller she would’ve had Oscars and Tonys and everything else. That’s how natural she was. She wasn’t Marilyn Monroe there, she was Norma Jean.
Do you have a favorite of her performances?
“River of No Return .and of course, I loved “The Misfits.”
What was your first film?
My first film was done in Africa, called “The Bush Baby,” during the time when Jomo Kenyatta was the president, and it was the year of the first national television network, and they imported films from England and America and at the time, the television and movie industry was in New York, so that there was of course, “I Love Lucy,” “Honeymooners,” and of course there was “Judd for the Defense,” and then there was “The Nurses.” When I did an episode of “The Nurses,” I played a juvenile delinquent. I was shot in the stomach and at the end of the movie I ran, the stitches broke and I died. So fade out, fade in, here I’m landing in Nairobi airport and I feel like a pied piper with people following me all over the place. So, I finally get to the Nairobi Hilton, and finally a brave young man comes up to me, “Would you please excuse me, sir,” I said, “of course, why?” He said, “Will you open your shirt?” And I said, “Why?” So I open my shirt and they started speaking in Swahili, and the translator says, “They want to know how you did that. How did you come back to life? We saw you die!”
It’s a feel-good movie. I’m not offered any of the big ones for some reasons, but I take the job and I have to pick and choose, and sometimes those low-budget movies are better. Now they’re getting better, they’re not spending as much money and they’re getting into the quality of the movie rather than the money.
I saw “The Grace Card” also, I thought that was a very nice movie.
That’s a faith-based movie, but it speaks volumes.
What is it that you think families who see this movie should learn from it or take from it?
To be responsible for our children. More responsible than the media. To give them what they’re asking for, but they don’t know how to ask. Sometimes they go crazy trying to get our attention, it’s like a child in a high-chair in the kitchen with the food on the tray, and the momma’s on the phone talking about anything and all of a sudden, the child pushes the food on the floor. The child wants some attention. These children want some attention, and that kind of leads me to the subject of my foundation.
It’s called the Eracism foundation. I think the anatomy of the gang-banger and the young rebel is because we don’t get those lessons that we used to get in the family, they don’t get them; and they’re left to the recourses of television and themselves, and they make immature decisions. But we step in and teach them those lessons, their self-respect, their pride, their dress code, their respect for the elders and the knowledge of their culture, respect for the opposite sex, their hygiene, their disciplines, what they’re asking for. It doesn’t sound like it, but they’re asking for it. Then they go out the door and they have something to use to combat the evils of the streets and the public. By the time they get to school, there are more ladies and gentleman ready to learn. And the results of those kinds of children who have had it, like the Magic Johnson’s, they have to go through turmoil but they come out better, as opposed to the Daryl Strawberries who didn’t, but he’s also getting better. There’s a difference in the child, they’ve got that family support and learning those lessons, they can seek a higher knowledge. Our president is one of those people who did get that full family support.Our responsibility to give those children that, if we don’t know it, we send them some place where they can get it…supplying that compass.
What are you doing now?
I’m trying to get the first center built, and seven or eight mayors want me to start a center, so we’re talking to them. I’m setting up a state-of-the-art place where the kids can learn their physical fitness, spirituality, whatever you choose, but you need it, you need a dress code, your pride, why you’re important and why there are certain things about the law, certain respects for the elders and the opposite sex, the ladies and gentleman creation, the physical fitness, all of those things, apart outside from school, is what they learn hopefully, and when they come out of there and go into the workplace, and grow to be 18, 19, 20, 21 to be responsible adults, that’s their foundation. So if you do that to that generation, starting at about seven or eight years old, but the time they get to be responsible, even the issues of Congress and the things you read in the politics becomes a different thing. You’ve got more compassion for one another and your decisions are different, That’s what America should be about, and that’s what it originally wanted to be about, and to give kids that responsibility. Racism is a cancer, it comes from the old days, and things change and things are evolved and America looked differently from what we see on television these days. I take a lesson from Nelson Mandela, if anyone has a reason to go get revenge, it would be him, for he had a chance to go in there or either suffer or evolve, and he evolved, and as a result, South Africa is one of the greatest countries of the world.