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Louis Gossett Jr., first black man to win Best Support Actor Oscar, dies

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

One of Hollywood's most versatile actors has died. Louis Gossett Jr. was 87 years old. Gossett racked up hundreds of onscreen credits during a trailblazing career that was seven decades long. NPR's Neda Ulaby has a remembrance.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Louis Gossett Jr., whose intense and angular face you know from the movies and TV, starred on Broadway as a teenager. He acted alongside Maya Angelou, Marilyn Monroe, Sidney Poitier and in the 1964 musical "Golden Boy" with Sammy Davis Jr.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "GOLDEN BOY")

LOUIS GOSSETT JR: (As Eddie Satin, singing) Pretty women, blue-eyed or brown - how they drive you crazy, how they drag you down.

ULABY: The soaring young star was soon flown to Hollywood by the studios.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GOSSETT: I was treated like a king - in first class and in limousines.

ULABY: And, as Gossett told NPR's Michel Martin in 2010, he was given a glamorous rental car.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GOSSETT: Ford Fairlane Galaxie 500 with a hardtop and was white on the outside and red on the inside. And I was feeling like you couldn't touch me with a 6-foot pole. And it was only a 20-minute drive from the rental car to the hotel, which took 4 1/2 hours. I was stopped every 15 to 20 minutes because the police stopped me and wanted to know who the hell I was.

MICHEL MARTIN: No, not just once, but what, like...

GOSSETT: Oh, 4 1/2 hours' worth.

ULABY: His ordeal with Hollywood racism was just beginning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GOSSETT: And that night, I wound up being handcuffed to a tree for three hours for walking in Beverly Hills after 9.

ULABY: But Gossett was unstoppable. He showed up on TV's "The Partridge Family," "Bonanza," "The Jeffersons," "Little House On The Prairie," then a groundbreaking 1977 miniseries.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ROOTS")

GOSSETT: (As Fiddler) Kunta Kinte.

ULABY: "Roots" helped audiences see American slavery. Gossett played the main character's protector. In one scene, he comforts him after a brutal whipping. And he ad-libbed this transcendent line.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ROOTS")

GOSSETT: (As Fiddler) There's going to be another day. You hear me? There's going to be another day.

ULABY: Louis Gossett Jr. won an Emmy for the role. A few years later, he made history - the first Black supporting actor to win an Oscar. In 1983's "An Officer And A Gentleman," he played a tough drill sergeant attempting to break Richard Gere.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN")

GOSSETT: (As Sgt. Emil Foley) I want your DOR.

RICHARD GERE: (As Zack Mayo) I ain't going to quit.

GOSSETT: (As Sgt. Emil Foley) Spell it. D-O-R.

GERE: (As Zack Mayo) I ain't going to quit.

GOSSETT: (As Sgt. Emil Foley) Yeah. Then you can be free. And you and your daddy can get drunk and go whore chasing together.

GERE: (As Zack Mayo) No, sir.

GOSSETT: (As Sgt. Emil Foley) D-O-R.

GERE: (As Zack Mayo) I ain't going to quit.

GOSSETT: (As Sgt. Emil Foley) All right. Then you can forget it. You're out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GOSSETT: I didn't get any phone calls except congratulatory phone calls and no real offers.

ULABY: Gossett on NPR in 1986, just three years after his Oscar win.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GOSSETT: I think it has to do with racism, but I have to deal with subliminal racism, the way things have been. They'd have nothing. They didn't know what to do with me. I've yet to carry a movie like an Eastwood or a Redford, and that kind of gnaws at me a bit.

ULABY: It gnawed at him a lot. Here's Gossett, 24 years later, on NPR again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GOSSETT: You look at my track record over a 55-year period of all the awards. I - maybe I should be kind of closer to Clint Eastwood, don't you think? If you think about the drugs and alcohol, then maybe I should be more like Robert Downey Jr.

ULABY: Gossett went to rehab for drug and alcohol addiction 20 years ago and worked a 12-step program.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GOSSETT: In my program, I had to get rid of what is a killer for anyone, actually, and that's resentment.

ULABY: Addiction and racism, Gossett said, were soul-killing diseases he fought passionately. Gossett never got to be an A-list movie star, but he inspired generations of fellow actors.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

FANTASIA BARRINO: (Singing) We thank you for everything that you've done, oh...

ULABY: One of Lou Gossett Jr.'s last films was recent, "The Color Purple." Its younger stars paid him respect in this on-set video that circulated on YouTube.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

BARRINO: (Singing) ...Want to say thank you.

ULABY: The singer was Fantasia Barrino. In a statement on social media about Lou Gossett Jr., she said, he was an awesome man.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.