In the dog-eat-dog, justice-less jungle of prime-time TV, the first casualty of the fall was Lou Gossett Jr. ABC is putting his hospital series, The Lazarus Syndrome, on “indefinite hiatus”—which could mean either temporary shelving for a facelift or euthanasia. Gossett himself insists that Lazarus (the title refers to a patient’s need to attribute miraculous powers to his physician) will rise again.
“The show didn’t have enough action or focus,” he admits. “Also they overworked us, and the energy was gone. I know mine was.” That state is uncharacteristic for Gossett, 43, whose 26-year career has been a succession of electric performances. He won an Emmy two years ago as the Fiddler in Roots and a nomination for this year’s Backstairs at the White House. He stalked Nick Nolte and Jacqueline Bisset as the cutthroat of 1977’s The Deep. But perhaps his rarest distinction came from the troubled Lazarus. By refusing to have the doctor rewritten as a “black man” role, Gossett became one of the few blacks ever to star in a TV series not tied to race. The Congressional Black Caucus applauded, inviting Gossett to speak at its recent dinner for outgoing U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young.
Whatever the show’s fate, he says, “I know one guy who’s really happy about the hiatus—Satie, my son.” The twice-divorced Gossett recently won custody of the 5-year-old after a court battle with his second wife, actress Christina Mangosing. The boy (named for composer Erik Satie) has moved into Pop’s new 14-room Hancock Park home with a backyard “rain forest” and a central courtyard where Lou plans to add a swimming pool. A governess and maid live in, and Satie’s Mom visits every other Sunday.
Gossett was himself the son of a Brooklyn porter and a maid (“Mom worked two, sometimes three houses a day”), but proud of a heritage he could trace to colonial days. He still wears a melted silverware bracelet handed down by his great-grandmother, Sarah Wray, who was born a Georgia slave and lived to be 117. At Abraham Lincoln High School, the 6’4″ Gossett was class president and a track, basketball and baseball standout. (In sandlot ball, he alternated on the pitcher’s mound with a lefty named Sandy Koufax.) But after an injury temporarily sidelined him at 16, Lou followed an acting teacher’s urging to try out for Broadway’s 1953 Take a Giant Step. Gossett won the lead over several hundred competitors. “People like LeVar Burton had to dream of becoming an actor,” he admits. “I didn’t. It just happened.”
After graduating from NYU in 1959 on a basketball/drama scholarship, Gossett figures he “would have had two or three good years in the pros,” but the theater beckoned again with 1959’s Raisin in the Sun and 1964’s Golden Boy. “My timing was great. There were few good black actors then, and I got all the parts,” he says. Even so, in the early ’60s, he earned only $45 a week off-Broadway. Once, an unexpected $7,000 check—his royalties for writing Handsome Johnny, the anti-war song Richie Havens sang at Woodstock—bailed him out. Despite hundreds of roles, his breakthrough came only with Roots. “All of a sudden I got public affirmation. I was invited to appear at every party, and a higher quality of offer started coming in.” But he adds in his admirably blunt style: “I think that if I were white I would be a multimillionaire. So should James Earl Jones be, and Olivia Cole, ad infinitum.”
Even his own lower-scale stardom exacted a price. “I can’t let my hair down in public,” laughs the shaven-pat-ed Gossett, whose receding hairline years ago convinced him “to take a cue from Telly.” A hidden cost is the occasional shearing of attachments. “I have some friends who are women, but no girlfriends,” says Gossett, who scuba dives, jogs and gardens in his spare time. “I don’t take love lightly, and I’ve got too much going on. The entertainment business demands a very understanding wife or no wife at all.”
Any future mate would have to contend with Gossett’s upcoming first LP. He’s also co-producing and starring in Don’t Look Now, an ABC made-for-TVer on baseball great Satchel Paige. And, touchingly for someone so concerned with civil rights, he’s contemplating a film biography of Stepin Fetchit, the 1930s black comedian often reviled as an “Uncle Tom.” Gossett calls him “the most misunderstood character ever. He was the highest-paid black actor at the time and a strong man who went through a lot.” And Lazarus? “ABC is still committed to us,” says Gossett. “I’m not worried a bit.”