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."