The Louis Gossett Jr. I knew

After graduating from college in 1976, I moved back to my native Columbus, Ohio. I took typing jobs and temp jobs, living with my grandparents, lolling about town with a degree in my back pocket, unworried about the days ahead. I’d find a steady gig soon enough. Anyway, there was a recession going on.

Then, in January of 1977, a kind of slow-burning whiplash struck the nation. A TV miniseries, “Roots,” adapted from Alex Haley’s best-selling book, premiered on nightly television. Haley had traced his Black family’s roots, going all the way back to Africa and their wrenching voyage to America. It seemed everyone in the country was glued to the show. Black viewers cried; some reportedly needed therapy because the show was so real and raw. And White audiences started talking about Black people — and slavery — as never before.

End of carousel

My family was fascinated with Fiddler, the cagey slave in “Roots” played by Louis Gossett Jr., who died Friday at 87. Gossett was of that small group of Black actors who came on the scene in the 1960s and managed to endure, going from theater to TV to motion pictures. He received an Oscar for playing a drill sergeant in “An Officer and a Gentleman.” He was also my cousin.

My grandfather, Julius Haygood, and Eddie Bee Ray, were brother and sister. Eddie Bee had a daughter, Helen, who was Lou’s mother. My Aunt Bertha spoke to me on the phone after hearing of Lou’s passing and shared stories about the two of them playing together as children in Georgia. Although raised in Brooklyn, Gossett often visited family down South. “I remember one time we were near a wasp nest. Lou said to me, ‘Why don’t the wasps ever get you?’ I told him I could outrun them. He said he could outrun them, too. Well, they came after us. And they got only him.” She laughed at the memory.

Lou, who had a career on Broadway before turning to screens large and small, inspired me to try acting. And soon there I was, drifting — as so many actors love to say — into community theater. There was a tiny role in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” And later larger roles, in a Neil Simon play, in a Lonnie Elder play. I got some decent reviews. I started watching Brando movies. And then came the plea from family members: “Get with Cousin Lou, dammit! He’s family!” California seemed a long way from Columbus. I went to New York City instead. I’d enter the world of acting from the East Coast! Then maybe I’d connect with Lou. In New York City I flopped, and I wound up in retailing.

But every time Lou appeared in a TV movie or motion picture, I’d make an effort to catch it. There were many movies, “A Raisin in the Sun,” “The Landlord,” “Travels With My Aunt,” “The River Niger” and “The Deep” among them. A brother and stepbrother of mine went to L.A. Lou, bless him, gave them temporary accommodations. After my retailing career crashed, I found my career in journalism and book writing.

Through the years I had exchanged a couple notes with Lou, sending him some of my books. When I started working on one about the history of Blacks in Hollywood, I knew I wanted to go visit Lou. Aunt Bertha gave me his phone number. “Hey, cuz,” he said when I reached him, “How you be?” No formality at all. I told him about my book project. “I lived it,” he said. He had relocated from California to Georgia and lived a little more than 20 miles outside of Atlanta. I asked him to recommend a hotel. “I’m in the woods. You’ll stay at my place.”

It was 2020 when I traveled to meet him. It was indeed a house in the woods, but quite huge, and the first I had ever been in with a swimming pool. He suggested a swim. I begged off. We got Aunt Bertha on the phone. They reminisced about the wasp attack. Later, after he napped, his stories started to spill out: “I was in this play, and every night I had to talk rudely to the character playing my mother. Well, my own mother had come to the play one night. She came back stage and walked up to me and slapped me. Hard. She then said, ‘Don’t you ever talk to a lady that way again!’”

He talked about James Edwards and Billy Dee Williams and Harry Belafonte and Eartha Kitt and Sidney Poitier. He talked about traveling to Europe in the 1970s and being treated with the kind of respect he rarely got in America. He talked about “A Raisin in the Sun,” which he was in on Broadway and in the movie version. “Sidney and Claudia and Ruby fought about who the play was really about,” he said of his fellow cast members. “They wanted to outdo one another.” He talked about the nightclubs the Black actors would congregate at in that world of 1960s Hollywood, which could be so cold for Black artists. He talked about hanging out with Jimmy Dean and John Cassavetes. He talked about “Roots”: “It was very special and I just had to do it.” He complimented the liberals of Hollywood, whom he said stood up for Black actors: “Those guys — Lew Wasserman, Orson Welles, Tallulah Bankhead — fought for us.”

One evening we sat in an Atlanta restaurant having dinner. On the way back to his home, we passed the studio where he had been rehearsing the movie musical version of “The Color Purple,” which would be released in 2023. We stopped at a store. It was a soft Georgia night. And I watched him walk out with a cool and jazzy strut, like he was ready to take on Hollywood once again.

Wil Haygood, a former Post reporter, is visiting scholar at Miami University in Ohio. His latest book is “Colorization: One Hundred Years of Black Films in a White World.”

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