Being Black and "Difficult" in Hollywood
I interviewed Lou Gossett, Jr. in his lovely Malibu home on June 25, 2010. His talk ranged over a number of topics. After a distinguished career as a stage and screen actor and Oscar winner, the segregationists who run Hollywood will not cast him in the roles that meet his high standards.
Since he talks back and is picky, he gets called “difficult.”
The Hollywood that is “liberal” to the right, that fund raises for a black president, still adheres to Jim Crow practices. Black actors do not get paid as much as white ones. A good old boy’s club is a barrier against diversity. Black membership of the Screen Writers Guild is almost non existent. The Board of Governors that picks Oscar Winners is all white! Black, Hispanic and Asian American women get roles as prostitutes. Check out “Brooklyn’s Finest,” where, like in “American Gangster” the screen is littered with black corpses, and like David Simon’s Neo-Nazi “The Wire,” blacks are scapegoated as the chief distributors and consumers of drugs, and, using a tip from the “Captivity Narratives” of the 1700s, Richard Gere rescues white women from their evil black captors. (In the 1700s it was evil Indian captors).
Black men play pimps and criminals, when they have failed at both professions, though once in awhile you get someone who is as clever as Howard Smith, who staged the costliest embezzlement in Wells Fargo history, the kind of crime for which white men get light sentences and get to go to Club Feds’ tennis courts. And dine on Long Island duck.
Lou Gossett, Jr.’s memoir, An Actor and A Gentleman, was published this spring by Wiley. was a great host. He was very friendly as me and my entourage took over his house. His assistant was friendly and so were his dogs. Our driver, Joyce Sumbi, with whom we spent most of the afternoon, entertained us with stories about her family, her life in Los Angeles. She was a retired librarian. She talked about meeting Walter Mosley and Terry McMillan at a book fair. She died about a month later. — IR
ISHMAEL REED: Was your father Italian?
Lou Gossett: He was adopted by an Italian family. The reason why is if you go to Coney Island there are huge newsstands located near the subways. They have an Italian connection. They owned those. A man who worked for them owned one of the largest ones in America. He adopted my father.
ISHMAEL REED: How did that come about?
Lou Gossett: That came about because when my grandfather and my grandmother got divorced, they abandoned my two uncles and my aunt. And in order to save them from going to boarding school or wherever they sent them, orphanage , my father got a job and sent two of them to the military school and one to nursing school. They were all going to go, he was going to send all of them, and they needed someone to adopt those remaining. The Italian mother said to my father, “I’ll adopt you.” My father was adopted. He grew up in the Italian household.
ISHMAEL REED: What part of Italy did they come from?
Lou Gossett: Sicily. They were the Sylvester family. My father’s best friend, Georgie Terra, was an Italian guy. The children and the cousins and nieces and nephews were children of the Mafia. Those were the children he grew up with. If you want to go to a safe neighborhood, go to where the Mafia is.
ISHMAEL REED: Your father was in politics.
Lou Gossett: He divorced my mother first and then he got a brand new car every year. He earned a nice piece of change. I didn’t know that at the time, but he was very popular. He had a nice piece of change. This was after the Depression.
ISHMAEL REED: At the Actors Studio was Marilyn Monroe very serious?
Lou Gossett: She was very serious. She called me on the phone asking me to act with her. I blew it by my stammering. Someone else got the part.
ISHMAEL REED: The Actors Studio. James Dean?
Lou Gossett: We used to hang out together. There were four of us who used to hang out together. James Dean played the lead in Andre Gide’s “The Immoralist,” with Geraldine Page. I was appearing in “Take a Giant Step.” I was sixteen in 1953. The lead was Jane White, the daughter of Walter White (former head of the NAACP). James Dean, Ben Carruthers, myself, and a couple of others used to hang out together. We’d sustain ourselves with Horn & Hardart jelly doughnuts and Italian sandwiches.
ISHMAEL REED: You got on television.
Lou Gossett: I did. Right after that.
ISHMAEL REED: You did a line about Jesus Christ that caused controversy. It was, “Jesus Christ, the sergeant is coming.”
Lou Gossett: Let me tell you about that. My great grandmother came to see the show. There was a woman who played my grandmother. There was a line where I said, “Damn it, Grandma, I’m not going to do that.” After the show was over my grandmother slapped me upside the face. POW! I said, “What did you slap me for? That was a line in the play.” “You can’t curse like that.” She couldn’t understand that it wasn’t real and that it was just a line in the play. That was what that was for.
ISHMAEL REED: In your book, you praised Lew Wasserman.
Lou Gossett: He came from Detroit. He was one of those society people who were formerly poor but started making new money. Remember those “Movies of the Week” at Universal Studios? That’s where he came from. He started Universal’s Movies of the Week. Some of the actors in the first movie were Patrick O’Neal, William Redfield, Melvyn Douglas, Anne Baxter, and Don Winter, and Gig Young –all of those people. I played the detective and I had to find out the killer. The script had a bunch of rich people in a psych ward with crazy stuff going on. One of the characters was played by Melvyn Douglas. I was told to push him out of the way. I thought, “No, I can’t do that. That’s Melvyn Douglas.” Seeing my nervousness, he said, “Lay it on me!” That society was beautiful. The other society was the police and blue-collar workers in Los Angeles in 1968–
ISHMAEL REED: We’ll get to that. When I go to the movies now these special effects during the previews- they’re disturbing. Noisy. Violent.
Lou Gossett: The people you see with all the piercings and tattoos are the wizards who do those special effects. You see them in the lab doing the animation. They have long red, blue, green hair. There are so many of them, but they do brilliant things. “Avatar” was gorgeous. There are good stories in there, but when used in other movies they’re similar to those violent video games. Characters using deadly weapons. The children follow these movies.
ISHMAEL REED: You really can’t tell the difference between a movie and a video game, nowadays. Do you think that special effects driven movies are eliminating character?
Lou Gossett: Yes. That’s not what I came here to do.
ISHMAEL REED: Your father was a very fascinating man.
Lou Gossett: He was. He never said, “I love you,” but when he died there were several carefully prepared scrapbooks, he’d left in the bedroom. He was my number one fan. My mother was outgoing, but my father was cold. He had a tough time. He had to work hard. His father was like Jack Johnson. He had gold teeth and was a playboy. He had women taking care of him all of the time. He was a colorful man, full of life. He was overcompensating. He was the big man in the barbershop where I went to get a haircut.
ISHMAEL REED: You got a picture of him with a lot of liquor bottles in front of him.
Lou Gossett: (Pointing to a photo in the book.) That was my bedroom, which was also the living room. They would start out dancing doing the lyndy hop and the boogie-woogie to Cab Calloway, Count Basie and Louis Jordan. Then they would start fighting with each other. They would fight all out in the street until they went home and fell asleep. That happens in Africa. But that’s not the best of us.
ISHMAEL REED: NYU and Greenwich Village.
Lou Gossett: I was acting on Broadway and then I went to college. That’s when I met you. My second theater role was in a play starring Shirley Booth, of “Comeback Little Sheba.” I had a small part. The mail boy. I made money though. I took a leave of absence from school and went to New Haven, Boston and Philadelphia with the cast. I earned money for school. I had three or four funny lines. Our last stop was Wilmington, Delaware. There was a nice hotel room. The room service took a long time to get to me, though. This was Wilmington. I had to be careful. I walked the streets and found The New England Grill. I must have been eighteen. People said, “Hello.” I waited for an hour for my food. They told me, finally, “We don’t serve colored people here.” POW! I did poorly in rehearsal and was in danger of being let go and having to return to New York. Shirley Booth said, “Wait a minute, he’s been doing well.” I told Shirley Booth what had happened at the New England Café and started to cry. She told me that she would handle it and to go to the hotel and relax. The next morning a maid with food and invitations to all the restaurants and private homes awakened me . Shirley Booth had contacted the DuPont’s who were throwing a party in her honor. She told them that she would not attend the party unless I was invited and, “If you don’t treat this young man properly, we are packing up and moving to New Haven, Connecticut. And I can assure you no future pre-Broadway shows will ever come to Wilmington again.” The DuPont’s were major contributors to the theatrical society, including Penny DuPont who was my age and who became friends with me. That was that society. They stood up for me. From childhood until Hollywood we were one. The society full of people like Marlon Brando.
ISHMAEL REED: Did you know Bill Gunn?
Lou Gossett: Oh, yes. Very well. What a great writer. My first movie was “The Landlord.” That was his work.
ISHMAEL REED: We did a retrospective of “Personal Problems.” It was his last movie. It was produced by Steve Cannon and me.
Lou Gossett: Never heard of it.
ISHMAEL REED: When you arrived in Los Angeles, the studio put you up in the Beverly Hills Hotel and a fancy car. You had an encounter with the LAPD whose racist treatment of minorities continues to this day.
Lou Gossett: I had trouble with them within my first twenty-four hours. When I came out to Los Angeles I flew in a propeller airplane and the stewardesses were so nice and they would slice the meat for you. A limo came to the plane. The Willam Morris Agency planned all this. I said, “Whose limo is this?” “This is for you.” This was in the ‘60s now. They put my suitcase in the back seat and took me to the Beverly Hills Hotel. I was greeted with “Good evening, sir.” They put me up in the presidential suite. They took good care of me. I rented a car. They gave me a white Ford Fairlaine convertible with red leather interior from Hertz. I said “LOOK AT ME!” I jumped in and put on Sam Cooke. It took me four and half hours to get to the Beverly Hills Hotel. It usually took twenty minutes. Every one hundred yards I heard, “Pull over. You fit the description of someone who stole a car like this.” They were lined up Sunset, all the way down. It took me four and half hours to go from Crescent Heights to Sunset Boulevard to the Beverly Hills Hotel. I was eating good food at the hotel. Prime ribs. Creamed spinach. I decided to take a walk around the area. See the movie stars’ homes. The police came again. “What are you doing out here?” they asked.
“I stay at this hotel “I am a guest of Universal Studios.” They didn’t care. They told me to shut up. Next thing I know I’m handcuffed to a tree. “You’ll learn a lesson.” They abandoned me for three hours. Motorists who were passing by began throwing beer cans at me. When they released me, I went back. I told the hotel manager, who calls Universal, who calls the Beverly Hill Police to apologize to me. They said “You shouldn’t have been out after 9.” I called my mother. “Be right there. You stay where you are. I’ll drive out there to get you.” I told her to stay where she was. My agent called and said, “What are you going to do?” “I’m going to work.” “That’s what I expect you to do,” he said. So I went to Universal. It took me forty-five minutes to get to the set because Security didn’t believe that I was starring in a white production. That was my first twenty-four hours in Los Angeles.
ISHMAEL REED: Let’s back up. Basketball.
Lou Gossett: I was invited to play with the New York Knicks. I was never drafted, but I was invited to the rookie camp.
ISHMAEL REED: You said in Greenwich Village that there was some racism beneath the surface.
Lou Gossett: Yeah there were people from everywhere. It was racist. It was subtle. It was all right to have long hair. Before the hippies there were the Beatniks. They came from Kansas and Oklahoma. Like Jack Kerouac and Lenny Bruce. You can’t tell them to get rid of all of that stuff right away. They immersed themselves within the new society in the Village. You would feel racial tension in the different cafes down there. Cafe Wha, Café Bohemia. They had problems. So had we. It takes generations to get rid of prejudice on both sides. You could have gone to Harvard and got Phi Beta Kappa and still have racist ideas. Like the president of the United States.
ISHMAEL REED: They didn’t like interracial dating.
Lou Gossett: They didn’t like that worth a damn.
ISHMAEL REED: Did you know Johnny Romero?
Lou Gossett: Yeah.
ISHMAEL REED: I saw him in Paris.
Lou Gossett: Me, too. All right. That’s another story. The girl pleaded for his life.
ISHMAEL REED: He had an affair with Carmine DeSapio’s daughter. This was very interesting. In your book, you talk about women who are sent by pimps to set up celebrities. I immediately thought of Lawrence Taylor and Tiger Woods.
Lou Gossett: Yeah, there were a few of them. Richard Pryor, Darryl Strawberry, Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, all of whom were too big for their britches. It wasn’t just racial. It was more than racial. Joe Namath was a target. Even today. These women are a step above high-class call girls. In Tiger Woods’ case. They take in your secrets. Tiger Woods did a gentlemanly thing. Phil Michelson’s family was always there. He kisses his family and wife every time. Tiger’s family is not always there. They should have been there. He’s on the road. He is stuck because he’s between a rock and a hard place.
ISHMAEL REED: You talk about white actors with drugs and alcohol costing production time and money.
Lou Gossett: Robert Downey, Junior. But I can’t talk about that. Alec Baldwin drank.
ISHMAEL REED: So there is a double standard.
Lou Gossett: There’s always a double standard. After I got an Oscar, I had to appear with a white actor in order to work. I had to give them money.
ISHMAEL REED: You said that white men have their own club.
Lou Gossett: It’s unspoken. They got their own language. One brings drugs from the studio. I can’t say his name. He knows. He knows that I know. I’m kind enough not to say his name, but he knows who he is.
ISHMAEL REED: What it was like working with Diana Sands?
Lou Gossett: It was wonderful. She would cook for me and I would cook for her. We used to give each other massages. We did a love scene in “The Landlord” together. Hal Ashby began to stutter. “I don’t know how to tell you this,” he said and then tried to explain how our lips were “poking out at the camera.” The camera was making the image of our African lips even larger, so much so that they filled the screen. This was because the movie was done in Panavision.
ISHMAEL REED: What?
Lou Gossett: As a result, we had to regulate our kiss to fit the lens of the camera. Something we never would have had to do in the theater.
ISHMAEL REED: You had an affair with the Italian ambassador’s daughter?
Lou Gossett: She was the daughter of an Italian ambassador or envoy. He was at the United Nations. I’m not sure what he did. She saw me in “The Blacks,” by Jean Genet. She was a mixture of French and Italian and was sad from the disappointing relationship she had with her last lover. She’d had an abortion by some famous person. She and I did everything together. She moved out of her apartment without my knowing. I came home one day and the apartment was empty, including the furniture. She went crazy because she wanted to stay with me for the rest of her life. I found out that her parents were disappointed in her relationship with me because I was black. They had taken her on their private jet to the Alps and put her in a convent. They felt the nuns would help her recover from being with me. She didn’t want to go, which I didn’t know until several years later. She came out a different person. She dropped her friends and insisted she was gay. I thought that I could change her. It never happened. Five years later we ran into each other. She had come to photograph a play I was in. She was no longer beautiful. She had grown heavy and bitter. She said to me, “Get away from me. I know what you did.” I backed off. She did very well when it came to her photography. She was disappointed by three men, including her father.
ISHMAEL REED: You did a film in Kenya and had an altercation.
Lou Gossett: There was a pilot in Kenya from Rhodesia. At the time Rhodesia was like South Africa. Apartheid. Obstructionists were the Arabs, East Indians and the British who didn’t want the transition from colony to independent. Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Nyerere. The only helicopter pilot was a white man from Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe]. The director wanted a scene where the helicopter was to brush by me. I jumped into a hole and the helicopter goes over my head. I remembered the helicopter. The helicopter hit my shoulder. The director said, “Great shot.” The next thing you know I hit this guy, the pilot. I had him on the ground strangling him. I don’t remember doing it. When the helicopter hit me, he was smiling. I got the photograph. I had never done that. I just lost it. It’s like the scene where the mama sees the child under the car and she lifts up that car. I was going to kill him. He almost died.
ISHMAEL REED: One passage in the book shows why some westerns are pro Confederate. “Shane,” for example and the lionization of Confederate mass murderers, Frank and Jesse James. They hire Southerners to play cowboys. Some Southern extras left some excrement on the floor of your trailer. Gave you bad saddles. What did the producers say about this?
Lou Gossett: The producers didn’t know until after the fact. I did a film called “Cowboy in Africa” where I played the part as Fulah Hermera, the African Chief. It was filmed at Disney Ranch in Hollywood instead of in the mountains of Kenya. I took the role seriously. It was nighttime and thirty-seven degrees outside. It was 37 degrees. I was almost naked and freezing. I said to the director, “I think the chief should put on some animal skins. After all, this is his country, and he has been here longer than the cowboy. He is supposed to be a smart man who knows how to treat cows and practice animal husbandry. He’ll look ridiculous standing here, shaking. Maybe you should give me some animal skins.” The director said, “Action.” I continued, “Wait a minute. Do you know how this is going to look to millions of viewers who will see a person who is not smart enough to dress properly? We’ll lose all sense of authenticity. A chief would look ridiculous standing here, shaking…” He repeated, “Action.” I said it a few more times and he still insisted: “Action!” A member of the crew told me later on, “Good job. We could have been there all night.”
ISHMAEL REED: So you got a reputation for being difficult?
Lou Gossett: Yeah.
ISHMAEL REED: What does it mean to be difficult?
Lou Gossett: You speak your mind.
ISHMAEL REED: You speak your mind.
Lou Gossett: I speak my mind. This book would have come out two years later if I had spoken my mind. I’m making a come back and so I had to be nice. You still have to exist.
ISHMAEL REED: Black and white actors get paid, differently?
Lou Gossett: I never made a million dollars in a movie.
ISHMAEL REED: This is supposed to be liberal Hollywood. Progressive. They gave money to Obama.
Lou Gossett: They are supposed to be working on that, but it has become a problem. There is automatic superiority about equality. Them being on my side one, but we have to respect each other, and that’s what we have to teach our children. Otherwise it will continue into the next generation and the next.
ISHMAEL REED: You know Muhammad Ali?
Lou Gossett: That was my buddy. We lived down the street from each other. We used to run together.
ISHMAEL REED: What do you think of him lighting the Olympic torch?
Lou Gossett: He said what I couldn’t say. He said a lot of things that we couldn’t say.
ISHMAEL REED: You mean back in the ‘60s.
Lou Gossett: Yeah.
ISHMAEL REED: What about the endorsement of Reagan?
Lou Gossett: It doesn’t matter. It’s all the same.
ISHMAEL REED: When did you get married?
Lou Gossett: I knew her six months before I got married. She had a complex about her from being terrorized, which is what happens to Mexican and Filipino women, which she took out on me. She got pregnant the first time we had sex. She had the baby and then disappeared with the baby.
ISHMAEL REED: You said you calmed him down by playing Satie.
Lou Gossett: You know the term crack baby? He was a hot sauce baby. He’s my boy, six foot six. You know about my other son?
ISHMAEL REED: Yeah. Beautiful family.
Lou Gossett (Points to photos on the coffee table). That’s his kids with his first wife. Then he married into another family. And here is my other son and his family. (Gossett adopted a child who was homeless.) He has a PhD.
ISHMAEL REED: I wrote a piece about “Precious” in the New York Times. A lot of the people are disappointed with the movies coming out, like “American Gangster.”
Lou Gossett: They gave Denzel Washington an Oscar for “Training Day.” He should have gotten one for “Malcolm X” or “Hurricane” or “The Great Debaters.”
ISHMAEL REED: How were you able to take over the script for “An Officer and a Gentleman?”
Lou Gossett: Me and my agent who grew up with me back in New York– named Ed Bondy–, got the role of Sergeant Emil Foley for me, even though the role was for a white man. I’d played judges, a chief of police, an anthropologist. I had to do it 100 percent right because I had to whip my Marines into shape and bring them back up from scratch. I was in good shape from going into military life at Marine Corps Recruitment. They sent me twenty miles away.
ISHMAEL REED: In the original script Gere beats up the Drill Sergeant.
Lou Gossett: The Marines changed it. They said that an enlisted man would never beat up a Drill Sergeant. We’ll tear the place up unless you change it. They said, “If you don’t do this well, Mr. Gossett, we’re going to have to kill you.” The director was happy about that. The three of us should have received Oscars. Gere, the director and I.
ISHMAEL REED: This woman Christiana who accused you of supplying your children with cereal laced with cocaine. Was she bi-polar?
Lou Gossett: They believed her story.
ISHMAEL REED: Why?
Lou Gossett: Because I was black. What else would it be? They threw it out. The police officer lost his job. She never showed up to court and the newspapers never printed a retraction.
ISHMAEL REED: Do you think you have a guardian angel? Here you are about to get evicted and a royalty check arrives on the day of the eviction. It’s for a song you wrote for Richie Havens. Then this cocaine story is broadcast nationwide and just as things look bleak, you get an Oscar.
Lou Gossett: I have a couple of guardian angels.
ISHMAEL REED: Who told you that had an Oscar?
Lou Gossett: I’m still in shock. It’s over there. (Points to a shelf that holds the Oscar and other awards including Emmys, Golden Globes and Peoples Choice awards.)
ISHMAEL REED: There were several times when you got serious illnesses. Like in Mexico?
Lou Gossett: Like when you drink the water and eat the salad? You get parasites. Yeah, we don’t have strong immune systems in this country. We get sick when we leave the country. Others have it in their system. They don’t get sick. We are antiseptic.
ISHMAEL REED: And then you got the mold.
Lou Gossett: That was here. I was on the road, hardly ever at home. There was a leak in the front door and the carpet got mildew. I came in and there was mold all on my furniture, it was damp. I got it cleaned up and went on the road again. Twenty years later it was in the wood and I’m inhaling and I got it in my lungs and my skin was itchy. I went to Canada to do a movie. I went to a doctor who treated me for it. They tested my blood. It could have killed me. The doctor said, “Do you realize how much mold you have in your blood?” I got massive doses of blood infusions and antibiotics. That was almost ten years ago.
ISHMAEL REED: You said because you got sick, other people got roles that you could have gotten.
Lou Gossett: Yeah. That’s another story. I got acupuncture and they tore the original house down and redid it. There was mold everywhere. I had to live in a hotel and then the back house. It took a year. It gave me a new life. I was supposed to be out of here. I should have been out of here three or four times. But when I was appearing in “Lackawanna Blues” I was dying. I had to have the house torn down and rebuilt. It was the beginning of a new life. I’ve walked down that tunnel three or four times toward death only to be turned back.
ISHMAEL REED: You talk about your friend Jon Voight. He’s a real right-winger.
Lou Gossett: Well whatever he is he can be whatever he wants to be.
ISHMAEL REED: He’s one of these birthers.
Lou Gossett: He’s nuts.
ISHMAEL REED: You were warned by producers to stay away from white women? I go to the movies and the White male actors can have any woman they want.
Lou Gossett: God Bless them.
ISHMAEL REED: They get anyone they want. Whom are these movies for?
Lou Gossett: They are for young white boys to give them strength and courage. They must need that. I get my power from God.
ISHMAEL REED: You wanted to do a series on the Harlem Renaissance. I want to know the name of the writer who agreed to do it.
Lou Gossett: I won’t give out his name. It’s too much pressure on him. It’s embarrassing to ask HBO to do this.
ISHMAEL REED: They do “The Wire.” You were in two movies with Tyler Perry. What do you think about Spike Lee calling his movies coonery and buffoonery?
Lou Gossett: I think Spike Lee is frustrated. He should leave the brother alone.
ISHMAEL REED: Why do you think he’s frustrated?
Lou Gossett: Because he is a brilliant man and he’s got a complex. He should leave the anger alone. He’ll get there. Right now he’s in a hurry.
ISHMAEL REED: Did you see “Miracle at Saint Anna’s?”
Lou Gossett: Brilliant. “Malcolm X “was brilliant. He has to calm down and he’ll be OK.
ISHMAEL REED: I want to end with you talking about racism.
Lou Gossett: I feel like we should all get along and in order to do that we have to get rid of thinking about what happened in the past. We have to start with God being in charge. We need self respect, respect for our elders, respect for the opposite sex, our dress code, how we conduct ourselves, how we talk, our country, conflict resolution. The stuff that makes us ladies and gentleman is gone. “Scarface,” or wherever they got it from, they got it. The children are brilliant but they need to change their attitudes. They have to get a positive attitude. The streets need to get safer. The kids have to be taught who they really are. The difference between Michael Johnson and Michael Vick. One had a foundation, one didn’t.
ISHMAEL REED: Do you believe in the Rapture? (I was referring to a movie called “Left Behind,” a Christian movie, in which Gossett plays the president of the United States.)
Lou Gossett: I try not to think about it, but yeah. The second coming is happening because we think that we are in charge. The oil spills, the tsunami, and the earthquakes are a sign. Those of us who look toward the light will be here. Those who don’t will be gone.
ISHMAEL REED: Thank you very much.
This interview originally appeared in Konch.