Last summer Lou Gossett fell painfully on his coccyx, but he kept working and now has found it pays to be a good soldier. The accident happened while he was filming a karate scene for this summer’s romantic blockbuster An Officer and a Gentleman, in which he plays a nail-spitting Navy drill sergeant who kicks the selfishness out of recruit Richard Gere. Gossett still winces from his injury (his coccyx, or tailbone, was badly bruised) but resists hospitalization (“I’m phobic about traction,” he explains). Instead, the 45-year-old actor finds solace in talk that he’s a shoo-in for a Best Supporting Oscar nomination. “The injury,” he says with a smile, “was worth it.”
The remarkable success of An Officer and a Gentleman—it currently trails only E. T. at the box office—is also, no doubt, a welcome antidote to another sore point for Gossett: He was charged last March for possession of a small amount of cocaine and marijuana. Police found the drugs in his house after his ex-wife, actress Christina Mangosing, told authorities she believed that their child, Satie, 8, was being given cocaine by Gossett’s then girlfriend, Honey Ann Rufner, 35. A child-endangering charge was dropped for lack of evidence, and Gossett, who claims he doesn’t know where the drugs came from, is seeing a psychologist as part of a program that will allow him to have the possession case dismissed. He claims he bears no grudge toward his ex-wife. “If anyone has any malicious intent, it will come back to them without my doing anything about it,” says Gossett. “I believe in the law of karma.”
In his professional life, Gossett, a 29-year showbiz veteran who won an Emmy for his portrayal of Fiddler in 1977’s Roots, sees something wrong with Hollywood’s attitude toward black actors, and vice versa. “The racism is not conscious as much as it’s an omission of thought,” says Gossett. “Black actors will look at the trade papers and if the casting list doesn’t say ‘black sergeant,’ they won’t go out for the part. And if the script doesn’t say ‘black sergeant,’ the producers and directors won’t look for one.” Officer director Taylor Hackford hadn’t considered casting a black as the drill instructor until Gossett approached him. Once cast, he attacked the part with a vengeance, submitting to 10 days of basic training and hand-to-hand combat practice at San Diego’s Marine recruitment center. During location filming in Port Townsend, Wash., he bunked in a condo 20 miles from the set to discourage familiarity from the cast and crew. “I’d act real uppity, and the guys would say, ‘What’s the matter with that bastard?’ ” recalls Gossett. “When I showed up for work the next day, that’s what was on their faces. But if I’d partied with them, they might have giggled when I shouted.”
Born in Brooklyn, the son of a porter and a maid, the 6’4″ Gossett won high school letters in track, baseball and basketball. (Still a rabid hoop fan, he occasionally travels with the L.A. Lakers and shoots baskets with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson. “I call it a workout,” says Gossett. “They don’t.”) An interest in acting blossomed after he beat out hundreds of auditioners for a role in the 1953 Broadway play Take a Giant Step, at 16. Despite some early lean years, he has steadily built up a list of credits including 1959’s A Raisin in the Sun, 1979’s Backstairs at the White House and the 1981 Satchel Paige TV story, Don’t Look Back. This fall he stars as an alien foster father in the NBC fantasy series The Powers of Matthew Star, which was delayed last season after co-star Peter Barton sustained third-degree burns in a freak on-set accident.
Between jobs Gossett travels (“Tokyo is the only major city I haven’t been to”), composes music on his piano or on one of his four guitars (Richie Havens played Gossett’s antiwar anthem Handsome Johnny at Woodstock), and collects East African art (“I thought I was going to be a great African art collector—until I found how expensive it was”). But Gossett says his main concern is building a stable life for Satie, who spent one month in a foster home immediately after his dad’s drug bust. He takes Satie to the Star set often, and recently moved into a seven-room house on four hilltop Malibu acres. “I bought it for the property—especially for the little one,” says Gossett. “What I have to watch out for is not having him grow up in my shadow. There have to be times when he’s by himself, doing something productive. I want him to be a child.” And himself to be a proper father. “I never really sat down and talked to Satie to find out what was on his mind,” says Gossett. “That’s the lesson I learned. I’ve stopped taking him for granted.”