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Louis Gossett Jr., the first black man to win the Oscar for supporting actor, dies at 87

Los Angeles California — Louis Gossett Jr., the first black man to win a supporting actor Oscar and an Emmy for his role in the seminal television miniseries “Roots,” has died. He was 87 years old.

Gossett’s nephew told The Associated Press that the actor died Thursday night in Santa Monica, California. No cause of death was revealed.

Gossett always thought of his early career as a Cinderella story in reverse, and success found him from an early age and propelled him forward, toward his Academy Award for “An Officer and a Gentleman.”

He earned his first acting credit in his Brooklyn high school’s production of “You Can’t Take It with You” while sidelined from the basketball team with an injury.

“I was hooked, and so was my audience,” he wrote in his 2010 memoir “An Actor and a Gentleman.”

His English teacher urged him to go to Manhattan to try “Take a Giant Step.” He landed the role and made his Broadway debut in 1953, at age 16.

“I knew too little to be nervous,” Gossett wrote. “In retrospect, I should have been scared to death when I went on stage, but I wasn’t.”

Gossett befriended James Dean and studied acting with Marilyn Monroe, Martin Landau and Steve McQueen at a branch of the Actors Studio taught by Frank Silvera.

In 1959, Gossett received critical acclaim for her role in the Broadway production of “A Raisin in the Sun” alongside Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Diana Sands.

He then became a Broadway star, replacing Billy Daniels in “Golden Boy” with Sammy Davis Jr. in 1964.

In 1968, he returned to Hollywood for a major role in “Companions in Nightmare,” NBC’s first television movie starring Melvyn Douglas, Anne Baxter and Patrick O’Neal.

This time, Gossett was staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel and Universal Studios had rented him a convertible. Upon returning to the hotel after picking up the car, a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy stopped him and ordered him to turn off the radio and raise the roof of the car before letting him go.

Within minutes, he was detained by eight sheriff’s deputies, who had him lean against the car and forced him to open the trunk while they called the rental car agency before letting him go.

“Although I understood that I had no choice but to endure this abuse, it was a terrible way to be treated, a humiliating way to feel,” Gossett wrote in his memoirs. “I realized this was happening because I was black and had been showing off with a fancy car that, in his opinion, I had no right to drive.”

After dinner at the hotel, he went for a walk and was stopped a block away by a police officer who told him he had violated a law against walking in residential areas of Beverly Hills after 9 p.m. Two more officers arrived. and Gossett said he was chained to a tree and handcuffed for three hours. He was eventually freed when the original police car returned.

“Now I had come face to face with racism and it was an ugly sight,” he wrote. “But it wasn’t going to destroy me.”

In the late 1990s, Gossett said police stopped him on the Pacific Coast Highway while driving his restored 1986 Rolls Royce Corniche II. The officer told him he looked like someone they were looking for, but he recognized Gossett and drove off.

He founded the Eracism Foundation to help create a world where racism does not exist.

Gossett made a number of guest appearances on shows including “Bonanza,” “The Rockford Files,” “The Mod Squad,” “McCloud” and a memorable performance with Richard Pryor on “The Partridge Family.”

In August 1969, Gossett had been partying with members of the Mamas and the Papas when they were invited to the home of actor Sharon Tate. He first headed home to shower and change clothes. As he prepared to leave, he saw a news story on television about Tate’s murder. She and others were murdered that night by Charles Manson’s associates.

“There had to be a reason for me to escape this bullet,” he wrote.

Louis Cameron Gossett was born on May 27, 1936 in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, New York, the son of Louis Sr., a janitor, and Hellen, a nurse. He later added Jr. to his name in honor of his father.

Gossett broke through to the small screen as Fiddler in the groundbreaking 1977 miniseries “Roots,” which depicted the atrocities of slavery on television. The extensive cast included Ben Vereen, LeVar Burton and John Amos.

“More than anything, it was a huge affirmation of my position as a black actor,” he wrote in his memoirs.

“The Oscar gave me the chance to be able to cast good roles in movies like ‘Enemy Mine,’ ‘Sadat’ and ‘Iron Eagle,'” Gossett said in Dave Karger’s 2024 book “50 Oscar Nights.”

He said his statue was in storage.

“I’m going to donate it to a library so I don’t have to keep an eye on it,” he says in the book. “I need to free myself from that.”

Gossett appeared in such television films as “The Story of Satchel Paige,” “Backstairs at the White House,” “The Josephine Baker Story,” for which she won another Golden Globe, and “Roots Revisited.”

But he said winning an Oscar didn’t change the fact that all his roles were supporting.

He played a stubborn patriarch in the 2023 remake of “The Color Purple.”

Gossett battled alcohol and cocaine addiction for years after winning the Oscar. He went to rehab, where he was diagnosed with toxic mold syndrome, which he attributed to his home in Malibu.

In 2010, Gossett announced that he had prostate cancer, which he said was caught in its early stages. In 2020 he was hospitalized with COVID-19.

He is survived by his children Satie, a producer and director from his second marriage, and Sharron, a chef whom he adopted after seeing the 7-year-old boy in a television segment about children in desperate situations. His first cousin is the actor Robert Gossett.

Gossett’s first marriage to Hattie Glascoe was annulled. His second, with Christina Mangosing, ended in divorce in 1975, as did his third with actress Cyndi James-Reese in 1992.

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