Monday, October 18, 2010

An Actor and a Gentleman by Louis Gossett, Jr. and Phyllis Karas

Louis Gossett, Jr. and Phyllis Karas. An Actor and an Gentleman. New York: John Wiley and Sons Inc, 2010.

The author, at age 25, was an actor in the Broadway and then movie versions of “A Raisin in the Sun”. While filming the movie, he had to stay in one of the few motels that rented then to African Americans. He returned to Broadway and occasionally did episodic TV at the $2,500 minimum per show. He then performed in NBC’s first Move of the Week, “Companions in Nightmare”. Lew Wasserman, the head of Universal, hired him to be in the TV series “In the Heat of the Night”.

Gossett was enjoying his new wealth and flaunting it in his lower economic class neighborhood. He then recalled something his Great Grandmother told him when he ad acted that way, “God was here before you got here. He is going to be here while you are here. And he is going to be here long after you’ve gone. So you might as well calm down and let Him handle things now.”

Gossett also learned humiliation when he on multiple occasions was pulled over by police because he fit a suspect’s description of being Black. He was verbally abused and once handcuffed to a tree.

Gossett had a role where he had to yell at a character portrayed by Melvyn Douglas, an actor he greatly respected. Douglas told him “Lay it on me. Do your job.”

Gossett performed in a play with Shirley Booth. When the play was performed in Delaware, a local restaurant refused to serve Gosset because he is Black. When Booth learned of this, Booth called influential people in town and told them Gossett must be treated well from then on or else shoe would work to prevent other pre-Broadway shows from appearing in Delaware.

Gossett unofficially studied at the Actors Studio, learning about acting from Lee Strasburg, Frank Silvera, and others. Silvera would use a hair fryer to simulate a camera so actors would learn from its heat where a camera was located. The author states the best student he saw was Marilyn Monroe. Other talented students he saw included Sidney Portier and James Dean.

Gossett learned important acting differences between theater and film. The voice modulation is different for audiences and for microphones. The camera sees more closely, so eye expressions are more important on film.
As the author puts it, “the camera was a magnifying glass, capable of revealing your inner life.”

Gossett writes of a rumor that studio executive did not like that Sammy Davis Jr. was dating actress Kim Novak, and feared the interracial romance would devalue her box office returns. The studio head supposedly had David heated so badly he lost an eye. The rumor has it that Frank Sinatra intervened and stopped the beating from getting worse.

Gossett was troubled by seeing the disgruntled neighborhood youth, some of whom broke his windows. He obtained $18,500 in Federal Harlem Youth Act funds for a youth theater program. The Gossett Academy of Dramatic Arts was created. He always had about 86 students learning acting, dance, set construction, costumes, etc. Richard Pryor, James Earl Jones, and Paul Sorvino taught there. The funds ended during the Nixon Administration.

When Gossett visited Kenya, he discovered a crowd of people staring at him. He was told they had seen him on TV, watched his character die on the operating table, and believed it really happened. He opened his shirt ot show them he was fine.

Gossett filmed a scene in a movie directed by John Trent with a pygmy and a real poisoned arrow. In the script, Gossett overruns the pygmy to the arrow. The pygmy insisted on doing the scene first, for real, and won, holding the arrow that could have killed Gossett between his eyes. In another scene, Trent told a helicopter pilot, but not Gossett, to fly his helicopter straight towards Gossett and the camera operator, forcing them to frantically dive into a ditch, all for a shot.

Gossett learned to relate to camera operators, sound technicians, prop people, stunt people, etc. Mutual respect will develop and each will help each other out. As Gossett believes, “there is no room for ego”.

Gossett worked on episodes of numerous TV shows. He was often called upon when there was a role for a tall bald Black actor.

Gossett once turned down an invitation to a party at Sharon Tate’s house. He thus escaped being there the night everyone in her house was murdered.

Gossett filmed a movie scene where he wore only a loincloth, playing an African native. Chuck Connors was warmly dressed as the temperature was in the 30s. Gossett protesting being cold and that the show wouldn’t look authentic if the native was shown not knowing how to dress properly. The director insisted that shooting proceed. Gossett looked to Connors for help and was disappointed that Connors declined to get in the middle. Years later, though, Gossett came to better know and respect Connors.

Gossett had the role of Isak Poole for 15 episodes of the TV series “Young
Rebels”. He complained that his character was the only one who hadn’t had the hero role in any episode. In the next episode, his character was placed in a coma, as retribution. He also notes his pay was less than his costars.

Gossett worked with the same double and stand-in for 25 years, Bobby Angelle. Angelle was also his personal assistant and good friend. Angelle would speak up for Gossett if they felt a production was abusing him, since they knew Angelle had less to lose. They protected each other.

Tony Brubaker was his stunt double in about 15 films.

Gossett pays tribute to African Americans who helped pave the way for him and other African American actors, such as Hattie McDaniel, the first Blak to star in a TV series “Beulah” in the 1950s and Diahann Carroll, who starred in a popular TV seires “Claudine” in the 1960s. He noted many whites were not used to working with Blacks, often did not regard Blacks as well as others, and often Blacks were exploited. Yet, if the Blacks complained, they were regarded as being difficult. Gossett was placed in difficult situations, such as filming in a real Mexican bug and possibly disease infected jail cell and at a location with scorpions and DDT spray that choked him.

Gossett won an Emmy for his role in the TV series “Roots”. Still, he continued observing that his white co-stars were paid more than he was.

Gossett filmed the movie “An Officer and a Gentleman”. To learn the role of a drill instructor sergeant (DI), he spent 30 days at Camp Pendleton. A DI was on the set to see that Gossett’s uniform was always correct. Gossett observed that Richard Gere and Debra Winder had great chemistry on film but bad chemistry off camera. Gossett won an Oscar, People’s Choice Awards, and Golden Globe for his portrayal.

Despite winning an Oscar, Gossett found his roles continued being supporting roles.

The author believes studios allow actors using drugs to work. Insurance companies that insure these actors during their shoots often pay personnel to inform them when an actor uses drugs.

Gossett filmed several movies in ill health. It was eventually discovered he was suffering from toxic mold poisoning.

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