'The Color Purple' star and Oscar-winning actor, 87, reflects on his life's twists, turns and most memorable moments in this week's issue of PEOPLE
It's as if acting pursued Louis Gossett Jr. — not the other way around.
In this week's issue of PEOPLE, the Oscar-winning actor, 87, who is back on the big screen in The Color Purple, opens up about his eventful life and winding road to Hollywood.
In the early 1950s, the New York City native had already begun performing on Broadway when he finished high school and headed to NYU on a scholarship. At the time, he also had hoop dreams.
“I was at rookie training for the [New York] Knicks when I got a call from [playwright] Lorraine Hansberry to be a part of A Raisin in the Sun,” Gossett says of the original 1959 Broadway production of the now iconic play, in which he starred opposite Sidney Poitier.
When he heard about what the role paid, he knew it was time to pivot. “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.”
A skilled guitarist, Gossett says his career in music suffered a similar fate. In between theater gigs, “I passed the brass playing in the coffee shops down in the Village,” he recalls. “Once I got my first acting job, I quit the [music] business.”
In the ’60s he moved to Los Angeles and launched his film and TV career. An Emmy for his role in the seminal 1977 TV miniseries Roots followed, and in 1983 he became the first Black Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner, for his show-stopping turn as a tough Marine drill instructor in An Officer and a Gentleman, opposite Richard Gere.
Gossett recalls that he was far from the first choice for the role. "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. When I showed up on set, I was a marine."
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Thinking back to filming, he recalls his costar Gere struggling when they filmed their memorable mud scene together. "I remember that was a weekend. It was tough for Richard to do," he says. "But he's a great man, I like him a lot. The truth is we were all stars of that movie."
Over the next four decades following his big win for the role, Gossett, a three-times-divorced father of two, has continued to choose projects with a purpose, including his latest role as an obstinate patriarch in The Color Purple. As for retirement, that's not in his plan. “I’m still here,” he says. “God must have something left for me to do.”
For more stories and pictures from Louis Gossett Jr.'s fascinating life, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE.
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