Louis Gossett Jr., Roots and An Officer and a Gentleman Oscar Winner, Dead at 87

Academy Award winner Louis Gossett Jr., best known for his celebrated work in Roots and An Officer and a Gentleman, has died. He was 87.

“It is with our heartfelt regret to confirm our beloved father passed away this morning,” Gossett Jr.’s family said in a statement obtained by PEOPLE Friday. “We would like to thank everyone for their condolences at this time. Please respect the family’s privacy during this difficult time.”

The Associated Press was first to report news of Gossett’s death after the actor’s nephew told the outlet that he died Thursday night in Santa Monica, California. No cause of death has yet been revealed.
Born in New York City, Gossett got his acting start on Broadway inTake a Giant Step in 1953 — when he was still a student at Abraham Lincoln High School. As he explained in a 1991 conversation with Bob Costas, he had “a pretty promising career in high school.”

“‘They’re looking for a young, Black kid to play a lead in a Broadway show called Take a Giant Step. They can’t find anybody in the business, so they’re going to the high schools. ‘Tell your mother to take you down there,'” he recalled being told. “So, that’s how I got in show business.”

In the years that followed, Gossett attended New York University and acted in Broadway’s The Desk Set in 1955 and 1956. His film debut came with 1961’s A Raisin in the Sun, which has since been entered into the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. The movie was released two years after the original Lorraine Hansberry play premiered on Broadway, with Gossett acting alongside the legendary Sidney Poitier.

Louis Gossett Jr. Almost Played for the New York Knicks — Here’s Why He Turned the Gig Down (Exclusive)
At the beginning of his film career in the 1960s, Gossett also performed as a folk musician (“I passed the brass playing in the coffee shops down in the Village,” he told PEOPLE) and played sports. He even turned down a potential professional basketball stint to focus on acting. “I was at rookie training for the [New York] Knicks when I got a call from Lorraine Hansberry to be a part of A Raisin in the Sun,”

“They said the part comes with a $700 per diem, more money than most professional athletes had in the bank at the time. I put the basketball down, and the rest is history,” he added.

After moving to Los Angeles in the ’60s to focus on film and television, his next breakthrough role came in 1977, when he played Fiddler in Roots, earning an Emmy award for outstanding lead actor in a single appearance in a drama or comedy series. He later admitted that he was initially hesitant to take the gig.

“I said, ‘Well, how come they saved the ‘Uncle Tom’ [role], for me?’ I hide the insult that hit me in the pit of my stomach,” Gossett told ScreenRant of being offered the role. “Then I said, ‘Well, I’m not going to turn this down, because I want to be part of this thing…. It’s a challenge to bring that resurrection character as a survivor in America, who does not remember being a slave, for him to survive. Without Fiddler, Kunta Kinte does not exist.”

After Roots, Gossett enjoyed big-screen success with his role as drill instructor Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley in 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman. The film earned Gossett an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor — making him the first Black performer to win the Supporting Actor Oscar.

“They had hired another actor who was White, but when director Taylor Hackford found out that 75% of the Marine DI’s were Black, they paid him off and hired me. I went down to San Diego Marine Corps to learn for six weeks,” he told PEOPLE in 2024. “When I showed up on set, I was a marine.”

As for the Oscar win, Gossett recalled in a CBS Sunday Morning interview that he didn’t believe it at first, and that his agent “hit me on my chest and said, ‘They mentioned your name.'”

“And I looked at him because I thought I was asleep. And I looked around and there was applause,” he said. “Not supposed to be possible. So I said thank you. That’s a piece of history.”

In the ’80s and ’90s, Gossett appeared in a number of films and series, including Jaws 3-D, Enemy Mine, The Principal, Sadat, Iron Eagle, the Marvel-comic based film The Punisher, Toy Soldiers, A Good Man in Africa and Blue Chips. He also hosted Saturday Night Live in 1982.

Gossett revisited his stage roots later in his career, appearing as Billy Flynn in Chicago in 1996.

One of Gossett’s most notable later roles was as Will Reeves in HBO’s 2019 limited series Watchmen. The acclaimed show earned several awards following its brief, nine-episode run, including 11 Emmys. He told Page Six in 2020 that he didn’t “know what the real answer is” in terms of why the show was not renewed.

In 2023, Gossett took on the role of Mister Johnson in The Color Purple, and as he explained in 2024, he was “still here” with no plans to retire. “God must have something left for me to do,” he told PEOPLE.
“As long as I’m here, there’s a job to do for the benefit of us all,” Gossett previously told CBS Sunday Morning. “For what it’s worth.”

Gossett, who had been married and divorced three times, is survived by his two adult sons, Satie and Sharron.

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