Oscar-winning actor Louis Gossett Jr. of ‘Roots’ and ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’ fame dies at 87

The acclaimed actor, who was the first Black man to win an Oscar for best supporting actor, was working well into his 80s and appeared in the 2023 release of "The Color Purple."

Louis Gossett Jr., an Oscar- and Emmy-winning actor who embodied a variety of characters in a career that spanned more than five decades, died Thursday at age 87.

The legendary actor appeared in more than 50 films and hundreds of television shows, garnering respect and acclaim along the way for roles such as Fiddler in the television miniseries “Roots,” and Sgt. Emil Foley in the film “An Officer and a Gentleman.”

A New York City native, Gossett was born on May 27, 1936, to Hellen Rebecca Gossett, a nurse, and Louis Gossett Sr., a porter. His Coney Island neighborhood in New York’s Brooklyn borough was home to other prominent artists including Gustav Blum. Harvey Keitel, Neil Simon and Arthur Miller. 

2023 TCM Classic Film Festival Day 3 – Saturday
A screening of “Carmen Jones” in 2023 brought together (from left) Shari Belafonte, TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, Donald Bogle, Louis Gossett Jr., Debra Martin Chase, and Lawrence Hilton Jacobs during the 2023 TCM Classic Film Festival in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jerod Harris/Getty Images for TCM) Credit: Photo byJerod Harris / Getty Images for TCM

Acting came early, but it wasn’t Gossett’s first interest. He attended Abraham Lincoln High School, where he first focused on basketball. An injury that left him sidelined led him to take an acting class. At 17, he debuted in a school production of “You Can’t Take It with You,” and his performance was so inspiring that his teacher urged him to audition for a Broadway play. He did so, landed a role in  “Take a Giant Step” (1953), and won the Donaldson Award for best newcomer of the year. 

Following high school, he chose to attend New York University, which offered him a basketball and drama scholarship. While in school, he took on other acting gigs, appearing in “The Desk Set” (1955) with award-winning actress Shirley Booth. Upon his college graduation in 1958, he was invited to the New York Knicks’ rookie camp. He chose to remain dedicated to his acting career and studied at The Actors Studio with John Sticks and Peggy Fury.

In 1961, Gossett landed a pivotal role in the Broadway production and subsequent film adaptation of “A Raisin in the Sun.” He also appeared in the original cast of Jean Genet’s  “The Blacks.” It would become the longest-running off-Broadway play of the decade. James Earl Jones, Roscoe Lee Browne, Cicely Tyson, Godfrey Cambridge, Maya Angelou and Charles Gordone were among his castmates. He went on to appear in “Golden Boy” (1964), and later in “Chicago” (2002).

On-screen, Gossett’s career also blossomed. His credits include “The Landlord” (1970), “Good Times” (1976),  “Don’t Look Back: The Story of Leroy “Satchel” Paige” (1981), “Enemy Mine” (1985), “The Principal” (1987), “Iron Eagle” film series (1986-1995), “The Josephine Baker Story” (1991), “Lackawanna Blues” (2005), and “Watchmen” (2019). 

83rd Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
Actor Louis Gossett Jr. and his eldest son, Satie Gossett, attend the 83rd Annual Academy Awards in February 2011 at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images) Credit: Photo byKevork Djansezian / Getty Images

In 1977, he won an Emmy Award for outstanding lead actor in a drama or comedy series for his portrayal of Fiddler in the groundbreaking ABC miniseries “Roots.” 

He made Oscar history in 1983. In 2023, Gossett celebrated the 40th anniversary of his historic Academy Award win for best supporting actor for his role in “An Officer and a Gentleman.” He was the first Black actor to win that category.

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Gossett recalled during a December 2023 press conference that he faced some tough competition that award season. His fellow nominees included Charles Durning, John Lithgow, James Mason and Robert Preston. “To be in the top five is pretty good stuff,” said Gossett, who also won the Golden Globe that year. 

In addition to his Academy Award and Emmy, Gossett won another Golden Globe Award for best supporting actor in HBO’s “The Josephine Baker Story” in 1992. And in 2000, he received the Black Reels Award for outstanding directing in a television movie or limited series for the made-for-television film series “Love Songs” (1999). He joined forces with Robert Townsend and the late Andre Braugher for each to direct a short story, all interconnected through themes of love and family.

Gossett was still in demand at age 87. While it was a small part, Gossett took on with plenty of heft the role of Ol’ Mister Johnson in the movie musical adaptation of “The Color Purple,” which premiered in 2023 and earned rave reviews and award season buzz. For Gossett, it was a “blessing” to be a part of it all. “It’s just lightning in a bottle,” Gossett said about the film’s acclaim. “It’s just perfect.”

5th Annual TV Land Awards - Backstage And Audience
Louis Gossett Jr. (right) posed with fellow “Roots” cast members (from left) Todd Bridges, LeVar Burton, John Amos, Ben Vereen, Cicely Tyson, Olivia Cole and Leslie Uggams before the 2007 TV Land Awards at Barker Hangar in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for TV Land) Credit: Photo byKevin Winter /

When asked in a press conference in Atlanta about the decision to bring “The Color Purple” to the screen again, he lauded the novel as a “monumental piece” of art and its commitment to truth. 

He told the audience: “Since I’m still here, I’m devoted to the absolute, bottom line truth about our existence together as mankind.” 

Off-screen, Gossett was a dedicated social activist and educator. With the support of a grant, Gossett, James Earl Jones and Paul Sorvino began a theater group in the 1960s to help at-risk youths. In 2005, he sponsored a Los Angeles anti-violence effort called One Summer of Peace. The following year, he founded the Eracism Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eradicating racism. The foundation provides young adults with tools to live a racially diverse and culturally inclusive life. As part of the foundation’s work, he partnered with the Rev. George Clements, a Black Catholic priest and rights activist, to develop Shamba Centers to teach Black history and culture.

Gossett is survived by his sons, Satie Gossett and Sharron Gossett.

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