An Actor and a Gentleman Speaks Out: A Conversation with Louis Gossett, Jr.

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by Linda M. Potter

Louis Gossett Jr. has had an improbable life. Born in Brooklyn in the 1930s, he became a Broadway star while still in high school, a sought-after basketball talent (pursued by the new York Knicks) in his early 20s, an Emmy winner for his portrayer of Fiddler in the 1977 television miniseries, Roots, and the first African American male to win an Oscar for an Actor in a Supporting Role for his portrayal of Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley in the iconic 1982 film, An Officer and a Gentleman. Another Emmy, two Golden Globes, numerous NAACP Image Awards, and a long list of other accolades worthy of the towering 6’4” actor followed.

Now, over 50 films and 100 television appearances later, his legacy is written in indelible ink in the annals of Hollywood history, and his gift for captivating audiences has earned him the coveted “star” status.

Getting from there to here (2012) wasn’t easy. Both embraced and victimized by a movie industry not ready for racial equality, his considerable talents opened numerous doors, but racism shut many more. Plagued by tumultuous relationships as well as alcohol and drug abuse, his life has had all the ups and downs of a jarring ride on the Coney Island roller coasters of his childhood.

Having released the destructive patterns of his past, he’s become a powerful advocate for “liberty and justice for all.” He worked tirelessly on the Obama 2008 presidential campaign and recalls sitting 50 yards above the podium as Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president. He admits to collapsing onto the grass in uncontrollable sobs, overwhelmed by the full impact of what had just happened — a black man had been elected President.

You wouldn’t know the struggles of his past in the way he lives his present. At 75, his joy for living is intoxicating, his passion for his craft of acting exhilarating, and his dedication to making the world a better place for all peoples, all races, and all ages, deeply inspiring. His attention is focused on the organization he founded in 2006, The Eracism Foundation, whose mission is to “eradicate the systematic impacts of all forms of racism by providing programs that foster cultural diversity, historical enrichment, education, and antiviolence initiatives.”

LINDA POTTER: I recently read your autobiography, An Actor and a Gentleman. It’s quite a powerful story. How were you able to write with such candor and honesty?

LOUIS GOSSETT, JR: It was about restraint… and meditation. And then prayer and consideration that I have a higher power in my life. I’m in a recovery program. It’s the best thing I ever did. It takes the decision out of me and gives it to where it belongs — my Higher Power, which is God. Not so much Jesus, but God, the creator of it all. I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no person on the planet that can live and succeed spiritually happy without a higher power of some sort.

LP: The Eracism Foundation that you started has done some wonderful work. You received the 2009 Legacy Award for your work with the Foundation. I’m curious. Did you coin the term Eracism?

LG: No, I got it from a small Choctaw Indian group in Louisiana. They only had it in their area, but then I saw it again on a T-shirt — the one with the eraser on it. Eracism is about more than just race; it’s about someone who thinks they’re superior to another human being. Important people and civilizations in history like Hitler, Napoleon, Alexander the Great, or the Roman Empire — when they thought they we superior, they went belly up. There’s a pattern there.

LP: In your autobiography, you speak of unimaginable cruelty and rejection in both your personal and professional life, as a result of racism. What was the final trigger for you that motivated you to create the Eracism Foundation?

LG: People have no idea how deep this goes — man’s inhumanity to man, thinking about self first. It’s such a prevalent thing. My industry proposes a certain kind of image. Every lead in every television show is a white man or a white woman. It’s not racial, they say? But it is because it’s not [reflecting] the truth about how it is in this country. People making commercials know that. They know about the dollar, and [as a result] there’s a beautiful mix [of races] in the commercials. When young people ask, why the commercials know, but not the shows, I say, well, they haven’t learned yet. When I first spoke up, I was black-listed. But I’m still here.

There has been a lot wrong for quite a while. But now God is slowly but surely making it right. Our children understand. They don’t know what’s right, but they know what’s wrong. Our children are very smart, brilliant young people and when they feel something resonating with them, they begin to rally around it in order to learn more. And all of a sudden, a lot of young men and young women [are] rallying around me. (laughing) It’s because I’m old. There are jobs that we do at certain ages. It’s natural to pass on your experience to the next generation.

LP: What wisdom do you feel you have for the next generation?

LG: Our thoughts as a people on this planet need to be with everyone. If that doesn’t happen sometime soon, the planet will change dramatically. Those who have been doing that will survive and those who have not will not.

If you back up and look at the headlines, we’re thinking about war, about money, about things. We’re not thinking about whether or not the family has disappeared. It’s time for honesty — rigorous honestly. It’s the man in the mirror idea. You start with yourself. Then you pass these lessons on to the children, whether they’re our children or not. It’s the tribal thing. In the old tribes, there was no child left out. Our number one commodity and our number one action is the salvation of the planet.

LP: Is your work with the Eracism Foundation focused mostly on youth? Or are you trying to reach a larger demographic?

LG: It’s a larger demographic. I have a concept I’m working on. I’ve gotten together with several of the bigger, inner city mayors from places like Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., and we’ve put together something modeled on synagogues. I call it a Shamba Center where we can offer “education before the education.” There’s an education that kids need before they get to school.

The bottom line is that no child should go out the door before they have respect for their elders, respect for the opposite sex, knowledge of their culture, understanding of their spirituality, understanding of the dress code and proper conduct, and knowledge of physical fitness and hygiene. An understanding of who they are. When they open the door and go out “into the street,” they will have this spiritual armor. When they get to [traditional] school, they’re ladies and gentlemen. That doesn’t happen anymore. I propose a center of learning to teach our children those things. African American and Latino children need to play a little catch up, but then eventually, everyone will go there, and learn to live without the scourge of racism and differentials at a young age. When you get older the concept is “Each one, teach one.” If you go in at 7, when you’re 10 years old you have a natural responsibility to teach anybody who’s new at it. When you’re 15 you have a natural responsibility to teach anyone younger who’s doesn’t get it. All the way past 18, past voting age to about 21 years old. If you practice this like a religion, when you get around the table to make decisions, it’s all a little bit more humane.

Parents can’t give away what they don’t have. They need to learn too, so, documentaries, hands on exercises [and such] will be offered. I need a place to build the first one, a state of the art facility. I guarantee that within a year you’ll see a difference in the people coming out of there.

LP: Do you have a location for your first Shamba Center yet?

LG: I’ve been offered Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, Philadelphia and Detroit. But I’m living in Los Angeles, so I’m trying to get it done here. But, whatever it takes. I don’t want it to be political, because if one political party puts it up and they lose, then I don’t want it to close. It’s got to belong to everyone. This is what the concept of Eracism is about. All the differences in the races, all the black men and the white women issues, all of that stuff, needs to be thrown out. Let’s look at each other like brothers and sisters. Like we did when we were born.

LP: I’m reminded of the Namaste greeting: “The God in me honors the God in you.” Is this the message?

LG: Absolutely. We need to get there. As we know spiritually, if we don’t do it soon, we’re going down quickly. I believe we have a very short window. Through the cracks come the enemy — the terrorists, the people experiencing unrest. We’re not number one anymore. The dollar is no longer number one. We’re no longer called to save anybody else. We’ve become bullies. We have to take care of ourselves. One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice is the hope.

LP: I know you have tenaciously supported President Obama. Do you think, as President, he has moved us forward at all? And in what ways?

LG: Yes. That’s what he does. He’s had the so-called enemy in his office, and he’s been around the world. When he went to the Middle East, nobody died. When he went to Berlin, he had more people in the square than ever before. He’s turned out to be the enemy of that tunnel vision — racism. He fits like a glove. He’s multi-racial. He ought to please everybody. God sent him to us. We should cherish that man.

LP: You’ve done a number of faith-based movies in the last few years. The most recent, The Lamp, about a couple in crisis who receive a mysterious oil lamp, is now available on DVD. In it, you play the “genie” who comes along with the lamp. What’s the basic theme of the movie?

LG: I’m like a Sterling Holloway character. I’m there to show the people the way to think. I just show up and then I’m like, “You called me?” I bring a universal message of faith – faith that your program or philosophy [or religion] works. Faith is more important when things go bad, because then it’s all you have; then faith really kicks in. It’s easy to have faith when everything is good, but when things are bad, it’s faith that pulls you out.

LP: What would your wish be if you had a magic lamp and an accommodating genie?

LG: World peace, spiritual unification, health of the planet, propagation of all the plants, the clearing of the air, the unpolluting of the water (stop the plastic). Also caring when someone is starving; we do that anyway, and we do it globally. But it shouldn’t cost anything to get benefits. We’re not helping [in order] to make money on it. If you’re my next door neighbor and your house is burning up, I’m not going to charge you for the hose!

LP: Do you see yourself continuing to do spiritual movies?

LG: I’m looking after faith-based movies that have substance because I don’t do the major [films] now. I’m doing what comes and (laughing) God wants me to do these. Now they’re trying to take my home away – I’m not making the money. But [if I lose my home] it won’t change my philosophy. That’s ok. I need to scale down anyway. But it won’t change my philosophy. I’m going to get a touring bus with three bedrooms, a satellite and a phone. With that you’re mobile. Maybe I’ll have a little bungalow, a little sloop cottage by the water where I can go fishing, but otherwise I’ll be mobile. It’s not going to change me.

LP: Who do you most look up to in the movie industry?

LG: I like George Clooney a lot. I never met him but I love his actions, his acting, the things he does off the screen. I also like Sean Penn a great deal. They’re devoted. And I like Angelina [Jolie]. (laughing) Not only because she has a sexy mouth, but because she has a beautiful heart.

LP: What do you hope is your legacy for the world? How do you want people to remember you?

LG: He did the best he could.

LP: Anything else?

LG: The number one thing on a daily basis is the mentoring of our children and the salvation of the planet. Those are the most important things. Without that we’re lost.

_Linda M. Potter is a popular speaker, a freelance writer and the author of If Only God Would Give Me a Sign! available at your local book store, through [wwwAmazon.com])http://www.wwwAmazon.com) or at www.wordkeepersinc.com. Linda is also the Managing Editor of BellaSpark Magazine. You can contact her through her website, www.lindampotter.com or at <lindampotter@comcast.net>.