Family Business

LIKE MANY CONCERNED ACTORS, LOU Gossett Jr. used to be Prince Charity, Hollywood style. “I’d write checks,” Gossett says, “and we’d all hold hands in our tuxedos and feel wonderful because we’d done something for the needy.” Somehow, that wasn’t enough. On a gloomy morning in 1985, as he sat in his Malibu Canyon home watching an ABC news segment on poverty among the nation’s children, he saw an 8-year-old boy emerging from a shelter. Gossett sat up straight, studied the boy for a moment and pondered the life in store for him.

At the time, Gossett, as he recalls it, was “deep in melancholy and loneliness.” He had quietly been in therapy and programs like est for two years to overcome alcohol and drug abuse and, he says, “My life wasn’t working for me.” Touched by the image of a small boy in need of a home, Gossett thought, “Let me help somebody else and get out of myself.” So he decided then and there to launch a search for the child.

When the boy was located several weeks later in St. Louis by Otis Woodard, a social worker whom Gossett had contacted through an ABC publicist, the actor flew to meet the child. “I had in mind,” he recalls, “to write a check for a market to supply food once a month and to get him clothes.” So Gossett finally met the boy, Sharron. “It was the most magic meeting I ever saw,” Woodard recalls. “Gossett just grabbed the boy and held him, and that was the beginning.”

The trio then went to an abandoned apartment to meet Sharron’s mother, Rosemary Green, and his brother and sister. Gossett remembers the moment keenly. “What suddenly came out of my mouth was, ‘Do you want to come live with me?’ It was involuntary, in a sense. I had absolutely no control at the moment.” Indeed, says Woodard, Gossett was so moved by the family’s plight that he offered to take them all home. But Rosemary Green, who had lost Sharron’s father in an auto accident, knew that wouldn’t work. She had a boyfriend, and he didn’t get along with Sharron. So she agreed to allow Gossett to become her firstborn child’s legal guardian, she says, “so he could have the kind of opportunity that no other kid could have.”

Sharron was too young to understand that Gossett was a Hollywood star who had won a supporting Oscar for 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman. Even so, to a youngster with an unemployed mother, two siblings and no father, living for more than two years on the move from one decrepit shelter to another, it sounded like a fine idea.

Fatherhood would seem a natural role for Gossett, 54, who has established himself as a tough but compassionate authority figure in films like Iron Eagle and the new Toy Soldiers, released April 26. On the set of Soldiers, in which he plays dean to a school of rich bad boys, Gossett took the young actors under his wing. Says costar Sean Astin, 20, son of Patty Duke and John Astin: “The second I saw Lou, he opened his arms up and gave me a big hug. He disarms you right away.” Adds the film’s director, Daniel Petrie Jr.: “Lou made sure he knew about the boys’ extracurricular activities—who they were going out with and what trouble they might be getting into.”

But back in 1986, Gossett was, as he conceded, still having problems of his own. Even as he tried to meld Sharron with his own son, Satie, then 11, from his failed second marriage (Gossett was granted custody after a court battle with his mother), Gossett was battling the twin demons of alcohol and cocaine. He didn’t even show up to audition for Ragtime, a film he badly wanted to work on. (Later in the decade he was equally distressed, though for different reasons, when he failed to get the role of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. But Jonathan Demme told him frankly that he dared not make Lambs with a black psychopath. Now Gossett hoots, “Can you see a T-shirt with my picture on it with HANNIBAL THE CANNIBAL underneath?”)

Gossett knew that, in order to adopt Sharron, he would have to clean up his act. But for three more months, he could not. When he wasn’t working, Gossett would often hide out in the guest house at the back of his two-acre property, where he kept his stash. He realized, he now says, that “Satie wasn’t getting any quality time from me.” Besides, he adds, “having a new son was an awesome responsibility, so I hid.”

All of which made Sharron’s adjustment particularly difficult. “He internalized a lot,” Gossett reflects. “He used to wander around through our fruit trees by himself. When you’d ask him a question, he’d answer yes or no, or just shrug his shoulders. He was torn about being here and leaving his family behind.”

Before he could take care of Sharron, however, Gossett had to care of himself. He decided, he says, “If I was going to be somebody for a kid to watch, I had to walk that walk and talk that talk.”

In Gossett’s lexicon, that meant checking into a private hospital for a month to kick his habits for good. It also meant asking his girlfriend, actress Cyndi James, 30ish, to move in to help him. “When I came out,” he says, “the house was much more sane. Cyndi and I and those two boys, we all had some growing to do. We had to make a family.” To that end, Gossett and James were married in Israel at Christmastime 1987, since he was filming there. “In my poetic mind,” he says, “it would be perfect to be married in the Holy Land.”

The family seems to be functioning just fine these days. With testimonials from, among others, producer David Wolper, Gossett was granted adoption of Sharron in 1989. Both of them, plus Cyndi and Satie, attend family therapy sessions regularly. So the boys are getting quality time these days from their lather—and with each other. “Satie is Sharron’s idol,” Gossett says. “Plus, Sharron was good for Satie. He tried hard to live up to Sharron’s hero worship.” Sharron, now 13, is doing well at his studies after some tutoring and will join his brother next year at Santa Monica High School. Sharron, who already stands 5’10½” and is an excellent athlete, and the 6’5″ Satie, now 17, play basketball and Nintendo games together, and Sharron says it’s “sorta neat” having a famous father. But, he adds, “It sometimes gets annoying when people ask you questions they think are normal, like, ‘Do you live in a 20-room mansion?’ ”

Actually, the Gossett house is a one-story Mediterranean, quite modest by Malibu standards. Still, it is a far cry from the St. Louis shelters. But Sharron has not forgotten his first family; he sends presents and returns once a year for a visit and sometimes brings them gifts. Rosemary, who has given birth to a set of twins since Sharron went to Malibu, has been assisted by relatives and found a small home.

Still, Sharron’s new life has also given him a taste for acting, and he will soon audition for a role in an NBC-TV movie, Carolina Skeletons, opposite his father (with Dad producing). Should he get the part, Sharron will play Gossett’s kid brother falsely accused of murder and executed. (Gossett plays a soldier in Vietnam home on leave who, on his mother’s plea, sets out to clear his brother’s name.)

Gossett, of course, bursts with pride over Sharron’s development. “For a long time I think he was feeling very guilty because he had everything, and at one point he wanted to go back to his family,” he says. “I pointed out that he should get a good education, find a profession, find his own way—then help them find theirs.” Gossett adds with a laugh, “I tell him, ‘I want you to take care of me, too, when you get big.’ ”



SAM MEAD in New York City

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