The writer (center) with Louis Gossett Jr./COURTESY PHOTO

The Jewish heart and soul of Louis Gossett Jr.

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The Jewish heart and soul of Louis Gossett Jr.

The writer (center) with Louis Gossett Jr./COURTESY PHOTO

The first time I met him, he pretty much took my breath away. An elegant, tall Black man dressed in a stylish dashiki top, he seemed oblivious to the fact that every eye was turned to him. As his long athletic legs delivered him to our table, “How good to see you, Lou,” my literary agent, Helen Rees, greeted him, standing up to receive a warm kiss on both her cheeks. “Let me introduce you to Phyllis, a potential writer to help with your memoir.”

“Nice to meet you,” he said in the deep baritone voice that brought every face that hadn’t been intrigued by his looks to stare unabashedly at our table.

And it had begun, one of the most intriguing and meaningful relationships in my life. For the next two years, Louis Gossett Jr. and I worked on his memoir, “An Actor and a Gentleman.” And when that was finished, the friendship that began that day in a Boston restaurant deepened.

He was 87 when he died on March 29.

Working with Lou was sheer pleasure. Highly intelligent, articulate, and blessed with an unrivaled memory, he charmed me with stories of his equally unrivaled life.

He told tales of his Coney Island childhood, where every mother knew what was happening in his life, if he was skipping school or playing in a basketball game; where he could go from house to house and choose matzoh ball soup, corned beef and cabbage, or lasagna; where he developed his strong love for the Jewish holidays, which he observed as long as they fell on a school day; and, finally, where a basketball injury his senior year at Abraham Lincoln High School delivered him to Broadway rather than to the Knicks.

I was awed by what Lou called his “Jewish soul.” He knew more Yiddish than I did and joyously threw his phrases around. His love for Jewish foods was limitless. A few knishes, a bowl of chicken soup with matzoh balls, a brisket and potato latkes, some tzimmes … each bite was heavenly.

His story itself captivated me. Everything was falling into place with his acting until – after a successful career in Broadway – he arrived in Hollywood. Here, he faced racism worse than moving to the back of the train traveling to his relative’s farm in Georgia. His first trip to Hollywood in 1961, to make the film version of “A Raisin in the Sun,” landed him in a cockroach-infested motel, one of the few places to allow Blacks.

When Lou returned in 1968, for NBC’s, “Companions in Nightmare,” Universal Studios booked him in the Beverly Hills Hotel and rented him a shiny new convertible. After picking up the car, he was stopped by sheriffs, who handcuffed him to a tree where he soiled himself while they tried to figure out how a Black man could own such a car. Drivers shouted obscenities and variations of “You stay there, boy,” as they passed, honking their horns.

He repeated that story and too many others like it – such as the time unwashed garments were left in his dressing room while his white costar received new costumes for the same scene – with sadness and surprise but without rancor. Undoubtedly, he led the way for future Black actors who, standing on his shoulders, faced less racism.

When Lou came to spend a few days writing at our house in Marblehead, he insisted I arrange a speaking engagement at a Lynn school where he could address disadvantaged kids. And how alive he was, mesmerizing every kid with his extraordinary voice, sitting amidst them, happier than the enthralled kids. Always, it was the children who mattered; not the fame or the money. He never avoided a chance to talk to young people – at a college, in a church, at an impromptu gathering. Lou’s favorite subject was his sons, Satie and Sharron, and his adored grandchildren.

Trying to discuss his more than 41 films, 11 roles on Broadway, and dozens of TV shows – which continued to grow as we wrote – never mind the countless awards, seemed an endless task, yet his thoughts on each one were too impressive to omit. As a writer and a Jewish grandmother, finding his unique voice was difficult but crucial for me. And when Lou finally declared, “You got it, professor lady!” I breathed.

Wise and self-deprecating, he made every session a memorable scene. Mimicking the Marine drill instructor from hell, Emil Foley in his Academy Award-winning “An Officer and a Gentleman” performance talking to “Mayo-nnaise” (Richard Gere), he sternly asked delighted fans, “You looking at me, [expletive] brain?”

Or he would dazzle others with his sizzling “Enemy Mine” Jeriba Shigan Drac voice. “I’m the only guy who became pregnant,” he reminded me as we discussed that unforgettable – though underrated – film in which he died in childbirth. So often, Lou would call my husband, Jack, to relate jokes, filled with accents, so often his Yiddish dialect, and always, at the conclusion, his own laughter, loud and joyous.

Playing the leading role of “Sadat,” about the life of Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat – a made-for-TV biographical film for which he earned an Emmy and a Golden Globe – cemented his connection with his Jewish soul. Though the film was banned in Egypt and Israel and filmed in Mexico, Lou was proud of the fact that Sadat’s widow, Jehan, chose him for the role. He found the boycott odd, since the film could be found in homes in Egypt and Israel. Personally, he felt revered in both countries, and remarkably was able to travel from Egypt to Israel and back without showing a passport.

Portraying such a well-known person required extreme concentration. In one scene when Sadat looks at the body of his brother who has been killed during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, “I lost it,” Lou told me. “It is all in his face then when he transforms from a hawk into a dove, telling the Assembly, ‘If there is a way to make peace together, I will go to Jerusalem.’ This moment marks his transition from a fine president of Egypt to a great man of history. And we did it all in one take.”

Chief on Lou’s list of important topics was his Eracism Foundation, “to contribute to the creation of a society where racism does not exist.” Although he is no longer here, his lofty dream lives on.

Lou took a piece of my heart when he died. And when I am sad that I will never again hear that magical voice, I check my television channels and find it there. I pinch myself as I remember that the handsome, talented actor playing Col Chappy Sinclair (“Iron Eagle”), Fiddler (“Roots”), or Satchel Paige (“Don’t Look Back”), and dozens of other unforgettable roles, was my dear friend with a Jewish soul. My world seems less special now that Louis Gossett Jr. is gone. May his memory be a blessing. Θ

4 Responses

  1. Dear Phyllis,
    How I wish I had known him.
    A mensch for sure.
    Your article is so beautiful.
    Love Naomi

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