In "An Actor and A Gentleman" Louis Gossett Jr., known for his portrayal of Sergeant Emil Foley in the hit movie "An Officer and A Gentleman," reflects on his journey in Hollywood and the life lessons and stories along the way.
Read an excerpt of the book below, and then head to the "GMA" Library to find more good reads.
1981 – 1983
There were lots of women in and out of my life during those years, as I discovered that little kids could be babe magnets. I found out that a man caring for a small child without a woman was somehow attractive to other women. "Where is the mother?" they usually asked when they saw me walking into a restaurant with Satie or buying groceries in the supermarket.
"She's gone," I told them, and their eyes lit up with a mixture of sadness and admiration. This led to some delightful experiences. As I got more involved in projects, however, and my fame grew, I had to be extra cautious. I was learning that I could easily become a target, especially to women who might take advantage of my situation. I was slowly becoming a quasi-playboy while being a full-time single father. My need for a little downtime from the constant work was too often time that I filled with women who dealt in drugs and alcohol. Still, despite my media-illuminated missteps, I always had work, and, far more important, I clung to the role of proud and primary parent of a beautiful, loving, albeit spoiled, little boy.
Working on the ABC movie "Don't Look Back: The Story of Leroy 'Satchel' Paige," which we filmed in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, was a special pleasure, particularly because I'd played baseball in high school. Satch was rail thin, so even though I was a little skinny, I had to resist some of the wonderful barbecues to stay that way during the filming. I also had to wear a hairpiece, which was a real pain, moving as it did all over my head in the oppressive heat. Having Satchel present on the set in his famous rocking chair a year before he died of emphysema added a special dimension to the filming. I have always felt that this movie, directed by George C. Scott, should have been a major film, rather than a TV movie. It was about the great Negro League pitcher who finally made his way into the American League at the age of forty-two, the first of the Negro League stars to be elected into the Hall of Fame.
In real life, I was in my mid-forties, often eight to ten years older than the roles I wanted to play. I was on the mature fringe of the artistic renaissance I saw taking place all around me. I saw so many interesting roles out there that gave actors chances to try new acting techniques, but the competitive edge for those roles seemed to be going to fellow actors who were younger than I was. I had to use up so much energy keeping my name out there, attending functions, being a celebrity, when all I wanted was to create my own family and be home with my son. I understood why so many of my fellow actors simply did not show up for these events, but I did not feel as if I had that luxury. My name had to be constantly in the paper.
So, the minute I saw the script for "An Officer and a Gentleman," I knew that playing Sergeant Emil Foley was my shot. Originally, the script called for a white man to play the role of the hard-nosed gunnery sergeant, but somehow my incredible agent, Ed Bondy, got it for me. The second I'd officially landed the role of the drill instructor sergeant who whips his recruits into men by stripping them of their original identities and building them back up from scratch, ultimately turning them into marines, I knew I had to put myself through at least some degree of this all-encompassing transformation. If I was going to do this role, I would do it 100 percent right. The place to help me do this was the Marine Corps Recruitment Division (MCRD), an adjunct of Camp Pendleton, where they generously allowed me to enter military life for thirty days. Luckily, I was in pretty good physical shape then, running, swimming, and doing exercises of all sorts, which was a great asset for me. When I left the MCRD, I was in great shape. I had had the utmost respect for the marines before I got this role, proud that they were the first branch of the military to thoroughly integrate, from top to bottom, from commandant to beginners, and now the percentage of integration was even higher.
While at the MCRD, I got to hang out with the drill instructors (DIs) and saw how deeply they cared about each recruit, how important it was for them to turn these young men into real marines. To this day, every time I see a marine, I run over to shake his hand. Most of them simply shake their heads at this crazy tall black man, but some recognize me. "Ah, Lou Gossett," they say, smiling and warmly returning my handshake. Last year, I was invited to Camp Lejeune to commemorate an important anniversary for the oldest branch of the military. How I loved to watch those impeccable marine giants jump to attention at the slightest hand gesture from that black female commandant, Colonel Adele Hodges, the first woman ever to be in charge of the Marine Corps base, all 5' 4" of her. Some marine units actually use An Officer and a Gentleman in their training programs.
There was so much to learn at the MCRD, especially how the gunnery sergeant, or "gunny," as they call him, teaches each of his men that in order to survive, he has to set aside his own self and all of his own personal motivations in order to defend his country. At Camp Pendleton, I watched the young boys arrive with their long hair, drugs, and cigarettes and go into shock as they were told, "Get rid of your former life. Throw everything into this big wooden box. As of today, I'm your mother, father, wife, girlfriend, and the Holy Ghost."
I was an athlete and in good shape, but not even my Broadway dancing skills could have prepared me for learning the cadence of marching. It was far more than simply placing one foot in front of the other. I had to learn the cadences of each marching drill, as I repeated over and over, "Company halt, two steps, company halt, one, two, to the rear, march, two steps, left." There were times during the practice for the movie when I led my platoon into walls as I struggled to figure out this fascinating but agonizingly difficult skill. Yet when I finally learned the precise moves, it was exquisite. It became a choreographed dance. What a wonderful feeling that was! "If you don't do this well, Mr. Gossett," the DIs told me, with only a tiny smile, "we're going to have to kill you."
During the movie, there is a shot when you can see how we had to turn corners. When Richard Gere's Zack Mayo, whom I call "Mayonnaise," comes to talk to me before the fight scene, I say, "Meet me in the blimp hangar." Then, seconds later, I order, "Company halt," and they all stop on a dime and head around the corner without touching the curb. It's far more difficult than it appears to have to act and march at the same time. Things were made easier for us by the fact that they had actual DIs, or gunnies, in the movie and that a real gunny was there to dress me properly for my role.
What was also difficult was that director Taylor Hackford decided to put me in separate living quarters, in a comfortable condo twenty miles away from the set. The purpose of the forced separation was so that I could intimidate my men more during my scenes. He had to put an end to what was happening during rehearsals, when I screamed at the recruits and they broke into giggles. The word in Hollywood was, "Have you heard? Lou lost his mind up there." Alone in my condo every night, I almost did.
The rest of the cast partied a lot, although Richard and the equally talented Debra Winger retreated to their own places. The onscreen chemistry between the two of them was terrific, but it was a different story once the camera was turned off. They couldn't have stayed farther apart from each other.
Taylor kept urging me to "lay it on him," meaning that I should scream at Richard, cornering him, transforming him into a marine who wouldn't want to leave. It was the first time I had worked with Taylor, one of the nicest and most brilliant directors out there. I like to be pushed, and he pushed me, with a vision of Foley that made me trust Taylor completely. During the shoot itself, I fell into the same trancelike condition as when I had played Fiddler. It is as if the spirits of these two men, Fiddler and then Foley, joined mine and carried me off to a place where I left myself behind and became those two unique and totally different men. It was utterly magical.
When Richard pulls those words "I got nowhere else to go!" out of the depths of his soul, I understand that he has to make it, that I have to turn him into a man. There I am, in 1982, a black father figure making a man out of a white playboy. This made quite a statement, reminding me of my role as the homicide chief I'd played in "Companions in Nightmare" some fifteen years earlier. Things had certainly changed, although in many ways they were very much still the same. My hat was off to Richard during the entire shoot. I have the utmost respect for that man, who made an internal decision not to act like a movie star but rather to do his part from the inside. It was his movie, but it was apparent that he never once thought of his character, "I can't let him do that. I'm a star." He got dirty and tired and acted his butt off. He should have won an Oscar. I believe he will win one soon.
Our fight scene was a well-orchestrated dance, in which we never intended to hurt each other. The martial arts expert coach Jason Randall, who was brought in to work with us, got the two of us worked up for the fight. "Richard says he's gonna beat your ass," he told me. "Lou says he's gonna beat you up good," he warned Richard. In one take, after five or six kicks, my leg got tired, and I struck Richard on the shoulder, and he went down. I felt terrible, but he got right up and said, "Let's get going." I ended up with a hairline fracture on my chest when Richard pulled me in and kicked me at the same time, and I got off balance. And then I ended up doing the same thing to him. We were both worried about hurting each other, but it was no big deal. After we completed that unforgettable scene in three days, we got a big applause from the crew. Richard and I shook hands and hugged each other and then hugged Taylor, aware that we had created some magic. Although we rehearsed that scene for weeks, it was the last one we filmed, just in case someone got hurt. The graduation scene, that memorable part when Richard says, "I will never forget you," and I say, "Get the hell out of here," was filmed just before the fight scene.
That whole time, despite the magic I felt when I became Emil Foley, I was struggling against an edginess that clawed away at me. I tried to use this role to get all of my devils out, because I'd been struggling to keep those demons at bay. Things were made worse when someone I thought I loved came up to Port Townsend, Washington, where we were filming, to cook for me and to bring me drugs so that I could be comfortable on the set. Although my actor's discipline began to slide away with each passing day, it was with reluctance that I sent her home. The rumor is that she might have been involved with other members of the company as well, but I never knew that for sure. All that I could think about was the work, but every night after the day's work ended, unable to hang around with the rest of the cast and the crew, I was very lonely.
After the movie came out, I had to remember that it took place in 1982, with the country still struggling over the issue of race. Unlike in "Roots," when Kunta Kinte had been whipped, in "Officer" I had beaten a white man, a popular movie star, fair and square. Since that movie door was opened, even today I have had to be extra careful to stay away from bars. I'm aware that there can always be one hotshot anxious to take me on and prove that what happened in "Officer" was pure Hollywood. Although the acceptance for that role was overwhelmingly positive, there were still times when friends who were with me insisted I go out a back door rather than stick around certain crowds where they sensed a hostile person. It might be my imagination, but there are times when someone will come up to shake my hand and hold on to it for a few seconds too long, or the pat on my back is harder than it should be. At those times, I am grateful not only because I know martial arts, but because of my faithful friend and frequent bodyguard Otis Harper, who traveled with me often during those years. Sometimes the studio paid for my security, but whenever it didn't, I wouldn't hesitate to pay for it myself. One positive outcome, however, was that I made some wonderful martial arts friends who respected me for my performance in the fight scene.
One other wonderful reward for playing the role of Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley came several years ago when I was in Baton Rouge accepting an honorary degree from Baton Rouge Community College. My security guard told me about a white policeman who had been shot in the chest during a raid on a suspected Arab terrorist's house. He was in a coma, but several of the policemen asked me to go visit him and talk to him. I did. I had been there only a few minutes, just holding his hand and talking to him softly, when he opened his eyes. The first words he spoke were, "I can't get down and give you forty right now, Sergeant. Maybe later." I couldn't believe it. I told him to take his time. He recovered completely, and I am sure that today he would be able to give me at least forty pushups. But what he gave me that day was a gift I will never forget.
One of the most fascinating projects I worked on right after "Officer" was "Sadat," a role for which Anwar Sadat's widow, Jehan, personally chose me. Although this TV miniseries won me nominations for the Golden Globe and an Emmy, strangely, it was boycotted in the Middle East. Both the Egyptian and the Israeli governments found fault with certain details in the movie, but no one complained about my portrayal of Sadat. The boycott itself was odd, because the film appeared to be available in every private house in Egypt and in Israel. Personally, I felt revered in both countries and, remarkably, was able to travel from Egypt to Israel and back without having to show a passport.
Actually, we never went to Egypt for the filming but instead worked in five towns in Mexico for forty-two days. I brought Satie with me and enrolled him in the American Embassy school that the diplomats' children attended, but when my work became too challenging, I had to send Satie home. Playing a role that pays homage to such a well-known and well-respected person required every ounce of my energy and attention. I remember one particularly powerful scene in the movie. On the dark screen, a door opens and there I am, staring at the body of my brother, who has been killed. I have lost my brother and my best friend. I fell so completely into that role that I lost it, captured by the emotions that Sadat must have felt at that exact moment when he transforms from a "hawk" into a "dove." It is all in his face as he moves from there to his assembly and vows to stop the killing, telling the assembly, "If there is a way to make peace together, I will go to Jerusalem." This moment marks his transition from a fine president of Egypt to a great man of history. And we did it in one take.
Somehow, they found a schoolteacher in Mexico who was the spitting image of Golda Meir, and when I walk off the airplane at Ben Gurion Airport, she is standing there. I say, "I have been waiting a long time to meet you," and she answers with those memorable words: "What took you so long?"
Each day of this filming, I felt as if I was not acting. Instead, I was simply in the midst of a magic that consumed me, allowing me to glide effortlessly into my role and leave everything else behind. I returned to my own reality only after the cameras were turned off. Sometimes I believe that the reason I have been able to do such exemplary work on the screen is because this is the only place I can be free, neither censured nor judged.
Yet there was no screen to hide the ugly event that occurred in 1982, when Satie was eight, which caused irreparable damage to my personal and professional lives and, far more important, I believe to the life of my son. Christina, still anguished over my being Satie's primary parent and desperate to get him back, filed a lawsuit accusing me and the woman who, along with her two children, was living with me and Satie, of supplying drugs to the three children. It was an insanely ridiculous accusation that I was feeding Satie and this woman's two children a tablespoon of cocaine for breakfast every morning.
Despite the absurdity of the accusation, the police raided my house in the middle of the night. Although the detective told me, "This is pure Mickey Mouse. I don't know why we're here," the police removed Satie and my girlfriend's two children, sending them to foster homes for weeks. It took my lawyer, the late judge Edward Brand, a month to get through all of the necessary paperwork to return my son back home. I was allowed visits with Satie during that time, but he was miserable that month and returned home angry at not being able to see my girlfriend and her two children. It was obvious that he did not like me very much now. And, sadly, I was too busy to work out some of his anger with him.
Today, even though Christina is no longer alive, I am still trying to come to terms with her anger and the effect it has had on our son. I have always understood that Satie was her child, too, and that she loved him every bit as much as I did. Yet how could I have ever taken the risk of sharing custody with her, knowing that if I did, she might have taken off with him again, this time to a different country, and I might never have seen him again?
Ultimately, the court exonerated me, finding nothing, but it considered my girlfriend a negative influence on my son, who adored her and her two kids, and forbade her to come within ten miles of me and our house. All of the charges were dropped, but still the stigma remained. Other white actors were able to overcome worse predicaments with drugs and alcohol and self-destructive acts. For them, there was a hope of redemption and an even more successful career at the end of treatment, the drug problem only adding to the allure. But for a black man who was supposed to "mind his manners," the drugs were a permanent blemish. For me, the road was too narrow to have room to fool around.
I was beginning to become angry and resentful. I have since conquered those defects, understanding that the worst resentment one can have is the one he feels justified to keep. Although there are books and poetry and songs to help you feel justified about hanging on to those inequities, take it from me, they do you no good. It took time, but ultimately I began to use meditation and prayer to increase my conscious contact with God, eventually replacing my ego with humility and gratitude. This routine provides a daily inventory to help me discover what is darkening my soul and my spirit and allows me to eliminate those defects from my system, leaving a vacant space for God's light to shine through me to others, not unlike the diaphanous wings of a butterfly. After all, I quickly came to understand, God's light is brighter than any light I might have seen on Broadway and in Hollywood.
At that time, however, I had a long way to go before I created that vacant space inside my soul. Instead, my devils were enlarged, and I felt enormous guilt and resentment over the way things had turned out. Whenever that sad reality hit me, I called the dealer and got high and was ready to give it all up. But then I asked myself, "What am I doing?" and put away the stuff and got back into the fray.
Suddenly and unexpectedly, all of my sadness disappeared, and my world seemed filled with nothing but promise and redemption the moment Ed Bondy called to tell me of my Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for "An Officer and a Gentleman." It felt like a huge vote of confidence from my peers for a performance they could not ignore. Actually winning the Oscar, although I'd already won the People's Choice Award and a Golden Globe for the role, was a shock. As I sat with nine-year-old Satie, looking handsome in his tuxedo, and Ed, who was showing signs of his age but was still vital and, as always, in my corner, I didn't have a speech ready. Stunned, I glanced at the two of them as I heard my name read by Susan Sarandon and Christopher Reeve. I'd been certain that James Mason ("The Verdict") or Robert Preston ("Victor, Victoria"), both of whom were in poor health, would take the award for their stunning performances. It was a glorious effort to walk up to the stage and thank my parents, my grandmother, my cousin Yvonne Trenchard, and Ed from the depths of my heart and soul.
More than anything, it was a huge affirmation of my position as a black actor. After all, I was the first African American man to receive an Academy Award. Sidney Poitier had won earlier for Best Actor for "Lilies of the Field," but although he'd been born in Florida while his mother was on a shopping trip, he was still considered a Bahamian, thus not an African American. Hattie McDaniel was the first African American woman to win an Academy Award in 1940, for her role as Mammy in "Gone with the Wind." I was once told that Hattie had to come through the kitchen of the Waldorf Astoria to a small table in the corner of the ballroom where she could receive her award. We'd come a long way in forty-three years. We didn't have to come through the kitchen anymore.