Over a decades-long career, Louis Gossett Jr. has starred in films like A Raisin in the Sun, Enemy Mine and An Officer and a Gentleman, for which he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor at the 55th Academy Awards. In his latest film, The Cuban, Louis plays an elderly Cuban man with dementia. He drew inspiration for the role from his days playing Afro-Cuban music in high school. “They had contests of the merengue and cha-cha-cha and our heroes were music heroes,” he told A.frame. “Besides the Sam Cooke people, there was Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Machito, Joe Cuba … and that brought to me memories of how easy it is for another culture to mix with ours, for us to not be able to live without it. That’s supposed to be the definition of America.”
Below are the four movies (and one miniseries) that have impacted Louis Gossett Jr.’s life the most.
I was about 6 or 7 years old when my mother and her brothers took me to the Apollo Theater to see a movie called Stormy Weather. I had never seen people like that before, that were dressed so beautifully. In it was Lena Horne (the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in my life), Cab Calloway, and Bill Robinson. And I had never seen anybody sing like that. It had beautiful music and beautiful dancing, and I was transfixed. That’s what got me into show business, I wanted to be just like them. (When I went to school, I became a clotheshorse.) When the movie was over, it got dark on the stage at the Apollo, the spotlight hit the curtain, and the curtain opened. And then the same people [from the film] were singing and doing their best. I dreamt about it. It was like heaven to me.
I remember playing Superman one day with my friends in school. When I got into the 12-13-year-old range, I really worshiped Superman, Batman and all those heroes. So I went to the bathroom, tied my mother’s bath towel around my neck, and said, “Up, up, and away.” It didn’t fit with the pictures I saw of Superman—they were all white. So I went out and my friend Stanley Ross saw something wrong. He said, “Louis, what’s the matter with you?” It was that I didn’t look like Superman. He said, “No, you’re Superman today.” I took the fear and the negative and threw it away. Nobody can tell me that because of the color of my skin, I can’t aspire to be anything I want to be.
Porgy and Bess was the same: outstanding performances, beautiful-sounding music. We went to opening night and, once again, I had that stuff in my system about the beautiful people: Dorothy Dandridge, Sidney Poitier, Pearl Bailey, Sammy Davis Jr. And here we go again. I’m transfixed when I see those people, looking like me on that beautiful stage. I thought that the curtain was silk it was so beautiful, the lighting … it was a magic environment.
In church, I sang with the choir, read from the Bible, and read things from Abraham Lincoln and the Pledge of Allegiance. I got in front of people, dressed the best I could, and performed. It was not as good as what I saw, but I liked the feeling of being in front of people and pleasing them.
The first Oscar I got was an award from church. The first award I got in show business was the Emmy for Roots. And then I got the Oscar—I thought I was floating. I had no idea that was ever going to happen, but that imprint is so vivid in my mind.
I could identify with the characters in the movie. You’re given a life choice at that age—which direction do you want to go?
Blackboard Jungle was almost my first movie, but they decided to cast older rather than high-school age. The director figured he could get a more high-quality performance with somebody who had the experience instead of somebody the exact age. So I lost the part to Sidney Poitier. It was Sidney Poitier, and God rest his soul, a good friend, Vic Morrow. I worked with him on Roots. So, now here I am touching the people that I see on the screen and getting to know them. I felt myself getting closer and closer to the peers that I’ve seen on stage and film.
Roots included me and people who look like me. I was too young to [have experienced] slavery, but when I did Roots, it just turned me inside out.
When you get older, you have a job and a responsibility to affect the younger people in a positive, informational way. And that’s why we’ve lasted so long, and why we survived slavery and second-class citizenship, globally. The first thing that you do is for the benefit of the whole family, the whole tribe, the whole block, the whole city. So you’re of selfless service first.
As I was impressed with Stormy Weather, I’ve been impressed now with some of the movies that are out there: Black Panther, movies like that. [Young people] should watch the growth of the industry and the growth of what they can see on the screen. You don’t have any [background] information about it. You see it for the first time on the screen, you’ve educated yourself.
It’s about two archrivals who are willing to kill one another because of the circumstances, but come to rely on one another and became very close friends. I became friends with Dennis Quaid [who starred opposite Louis in the science-fiction drama]. I’m a post-Depression child so I learned early that when there’s a crisis, it’s time for people to rely on one another. I had to rely on my parents for sustenance. When I came home for dinner and my parents weren’t there, I had to know my way around. We had the basics. We had potatoes and we had fish because [we were] up by the ocean. So it was either gefilte fish or a lasagna or corned beef and cabbage, depending on who was home. We bounced across cultures. It became a true America. And it sticks with me today that the answer to our country is that same reliability.
We have to be of service for the whole tribe of people for the benefit of us all. It’s been that way since I was 6 years old. The most natural thing for us to do is be in a group of people going in the same direction for our mutual benefit. I think it’s the answer for mankind today.