His most celebrated role, in the seminal miniseries Roots, was that of the wise Fiddler. Over his six decades as a professional actor, the legendary Louis Cameron Gossett, Jr. has shown that he’s a weaver also. He’s spun a few of his finest performances during some of the roughest eras for African-American thespians—his early turn alongside Sidney Poitier in A Raisin in the Sun, for example, or his Oscar-winning performance as Sgt. Emil Foley in An Officer and a Gentleman.
Gossett continues to add to his legacy with contemporary parts like Oscar Boneau in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, and roles in the upcoming television projects Book of Negroes (BET), about an African woman kidnapped into slavery who finds freedom in Canada, and on Extant (CBS), where he will play Halle Berry’s estranged father. But the 77-year-old is most focused on continuing to fight for political, cultural and artistic freedom, and adding new threads to the “tapestry of responsibility” (his words) that binds us all.
EBONY: You once called Roots an exorcism.
Lou Gossett Jr.: It was an exorcism, because the things that we learned from our elders, we talked about quietly in the kitchen or in the churches. If we talked about it too loud, there was a fear of being excluded by White society. Roots made the story official and brings it out to the surface. From now till 12 Years a Slave, The Butler and all those [films], we can talk about it, deal with it, and get on with our growth.
EBONY: As with most exorcisms, some folks—namely ABC executives—were fearful of the process, and expected a potential disaster when Roots aired, right?
LG: Back in the day and even today, with the Trendex ratings or the Nielsens, they had to be sensitive to the Southern White market. It was important to keep them as an audience, so they were worried. They figured the best thing they could do is put it on every day, one week, and get rid of it. And the opposite happened.
EBONY: Historically high ratings!
EBONY: Last November, LeVar Burton credited you and the other veteran actors on the set of Roots for helping him grasp how special the opportunity was then. What was that atmosphere like?
LG: Quite serious. One of my best friends while shooting Roots was Vic Morrow, the guy that whips Kunta. He apologized in advance: “I’m going to have to do this so it’s real.” The moment was so cathartic, at the end of the scene, for some wonderful reason, I [ad-libbed], “There’s gonna be another day, you hear me?” The atmosphere on set was conducive to telling the truth.
EBONY: Was there an electricity in the air that made it so conducive, some sort of larger spiritual forces midwifing those performances?
LG: On a daily level, it was there. It was a very sacred place to go to work. And everyone caught that sacred glow—crews, the actors, Lorne Greene, Chuck Connors, all of us treating it with such wonderful reverence. Which is why it had such a longevity, a long shelf life.
EBONY: After those days on set, did everybody—cast and crew, Black and White—sit down, talk and connect about the work being done?
LG: That didn’t happen for a while. Everyone went back home emotionally drained. Psychologically, no African-American actors worked for almost a year after Roots. When we started celebrating our success, then we really bonded.
EBONY: You’ve been a role model/mentor to African-Americans following the trail you blazed through Hollywood. You often speak of “the Jackie Robinson generation,” of yourself and others opening doors, though you were never paid a million or more for any film you ever worked on.
LG: The two lines from Roots that stick out to me are, “You no more in Africa, you in America now,” and what I said after Kunta escaped: “What is it like to be free, Kunta? It must be something.” Those two lines are keys to the Fiddler, and keys to the survival instinct of the African-American today. We are still learning “what it be like to be free.” That’s my sermon today to young people: there’s a tapestry of responsibility that comes with freedom.
EBONY: Freedom for African-Americans is represented as a static moment, like Juneteenth or the March on Washington. But it’s really more of a spectrum, isn’t it?
LG: It is. We spend a lot of time picketing for freedom we already have. It’s like, get on with it. We have a lot to offer, but a lot of us don’t know what that is.
EBONY: The History Channel announced that they’re planning a remake of Roots. Mark Wolper, the son of the original producer David Wolper, is involved. Did they reach out to you about the project?
LG: They asked my advice. Mark Wolper asked me what I thought. I said, “I don’t think we should besmirch our work of art.” I think we should continue on, do the stories of the Harlem Renaissance, stories everyone needs to know about. Roots is done. We’ve had the slaves, the maids, the butlers. Let’s get on with the tapestry. We’ve got a looot of work to do.
EBONY: In 2010, you told EBONY, “My dream, and it still exists as Tyler Perry gets close to it, is that African-Americans should do movies together. We have lots of stories to tell.”
LG: Absolutely. We have to make a statement. George Clooney and Brad Pitt, with those Oceans films they do, they get to work together, make a whole lot of money and make a major film statement. Imagine if once a year, myself, Denzel Washington, Laurence Fishburne, James Earl Jones, we did some relevant film together to make a statement. Eddie Murphy started with Richard Pryor [in Harlem Nights], but it needs to be done once a year, minimum.
EBONY: Those films have proven time and again that there are actors and audiences hungry to make and see more of them.
LG: It’s happening on a daily basis, and it’s good business. Next level: we have to be the employer, create the whole model, distribution, the whole thing, and be an equal partner in this filmmaking society.
EBONY: Danny Glover expressed his desire to do a film about Haitian slave-turned-revolutionary Toussaint L’Overture, and you’ve called for films about two African-American legends of the Old West, Bass Reeves and Deadwood Dick. Quentin Tarantino got Django Unchained made; but why is it so tough to tell those kinds of stories, featuring empowered Black leads, on the silver screen?
LG: That’s the stuff our kids don’t know anything about. My personal preference is that Jamie Foxx, one of the greatest actors of all time, will [play] Bass Reeves and we have Bass Reeves and Deadwood Dick dolls out there. Our counterparts know all about the Roman Empire, King Arthur, the Vikings, the French, the Germans. We know nothing about the Ashantis.
We’re the number one consumer on the planet. We can make a film without asking permission to tell our story, but we go to the wrong people for money. It’s a very embarrassing position to be in. We need to correct this stuff now. But we’ll come up for an answer for that. The distribution boycott is not as strong as it used to be.
EBONY: Over thirty years after you became the second Black man to win an Oscar, we see Lupita Nyong’o, Steve McQueen, John Ridley and other Black actors and filmmakers bringing home multiple golden statuettes, benefitting from your sacrifices. What were your feelings in real time, watching it all unfold?
LG: Very excited. Overwhelmingly grateful to see it happen in my lifetime. It’s given me a new life and respect that was not given to me before.
Gregory Johnson is a journalist who has written for New Musical Express, Vibe, Spin, and The Source, among many other publications and websites; a 10-year veteran of videogame developer Rockstar Games; and a proud father of two.