Lou Gossett Jr
Lou Gossett Jr is one of the most highly-acclaimed African actors in the history of Western civilisation. His outstanding, sophisticated and ergonomic performances have garnered awards, plaudits and notice from many of the most influential and discriminating persons in the post-War era. Popes, monarchs and presidents have at one time or another acknowledged and borne witness to his impact on both the arts and leisure spheres. Almost without regard for his personal safety he has lifted the profile of African-American (and to a lesser extent, black) actors in the eyes, ears, noses and throats of civilised Man.
Lou Gossett Jr is the son of silent screen songstress Zasu Pitts and the 15,300 ton merchant vessel Lou Gossett. He was born in the Chicago Dockyards on 11 November 1908 in heavy snow. His distinctive African-American good looks stood out against this and he was immediately adopted by a travelling circus, the name of which is lost to history. He travelled the Midwest United States as "Lou-Lu the Black-Face Boy" where he learnt many vaudeville routines. In 1926 his act was labelled "unconvinincing" by semi-literate belle epoque pundit Al Jolson and the circus abandoned him near Logan, Utah. He took a series of odd jobs from other odd jobbers, including handrail polisher, boot black and Korean henchman before the lure of Hollywood became too much to bear.
Lou came to Hollywood early in 1927 and was immediately noticed by the Los Angeles Police. After a series of short-term jobs for the City, sheer boredom made the LAPD desist and Lou was free to embark on his chosen career, movie star. His first screen appearance was in D W Griffith's Doan Fogit The Darkies (1927)' opposite, and eventually under Harold Lloyd. This was followed by the forgettable silent horror epic Voodoo Schwarze (1927) and the slightly less traumatising Never Mind the Darkies (1928) again opposite and then under Lloyd. Gosset's enthusiasm and low salary brought him to the attention of Lon Chaney who needed a black actor to clean his house. Gossett's big break came in Chaney's smash-hit Dat Ol' Black Magic (1928) where Lou played an African witch doctor opposite and then under Chaney's boot.
The end of the silent era and the beginning of the Depression brought major changes to the American cinema scene. For long it had been said that black americans had no voice but with the advent of sound many white Americans were surprised to find they had one. Lou was at the forefront and vanguard of this move into speaking for black actors, although his early refusal to sing limited his roles. He took a small part in the post-crash weepie Daddy Ain't Got No Money (1929) opposite Canadian 'ingenue Fay Wray and a young Bela Lugosi. Lugosi eventually got the part in Tod Browning's Dracula but Gossett's screen presence so impressed Browning that he cast him in the led for 1931's Yas, Suh!. This was a spectacular success in the South and was immediately followed by Yas, Boss! (1931) and Yassuh, Boss! (1932).
Lou was now a box-office smash in the deep South and theatres in Chicago often had queues round the block to see his starring roles. He was teamed opposite Fay Wray again in King Bling *1933) but this motion picture relied too heavily on anachronistic slang to be really popular and was eclipsed by an RKO picture released the same year. Adolf Hitler wrote a stern memorandum on it as well. Growing unrest in the South following 1935's Black Caesar and Black Caesar II: The Marsupials almost ended Lou's career before Darryl F Zanuck cast him opposite Shirley Temple in Little Miss Hitler *1936(, Little Mis duce *1937), Little Miss Bootlegger (1937), the controversial Little Miss Prostitute (1938) and Little Miss Madam (1939) directed by James Whale.
The War Years
The unfortunate release of Whale's Little Miss Tojo on 7 December 1941 almost wrecked his and Lou's movie career, but America's entry into the War of Japanese Agression opened a new field for Lou's expressionistic acting style. The US Army needed thousands of black recruits to fill thousands of uniforms and, since the wartime draft contravened the 28th amendment in the case of freed blacks, Hollywood studios were encouraged to produce recruitment films. Gossett's name got top billing in such films as Feet, Do Yo' Duty (1941) for the Army, Ghettos of Montezuma (1942) for the Marines and the enormously popular series beginning with Yassuh, Corporal! (1942) and ending with Yassuh, Boss! in 1945. This last, an almost scene for scene remake of his 1932 classic is still regarded as one of the best expressions of the futility of demobilisation in the black experience.
Abbott and Costello Meet Lou Gossett Jr (1948) marked the low point of Lou's film career. He appears in this A&C vehicle for only five minutes and his speech is slurred and dialogue so rambling some critics see it as the inspiration for Marlon Brando's performance in Apocalypse Now. What few people knew was that Lou was battling an addiction to brain tumours. During the War he had been injured on the set of Yassuh, Major! (1943) and a small blood clot on the anterior portion of the hippocampus had developed into a benign tumour. With money from his film earnings (he was paid $72 000 for Yassuh, Lieutenant! (1942) ) he was abled to frequent the private clubs and seraglios of LA's idle rich. Many of these sported benign tumours as well and Lou drifted into the seamy side of addiction to surgery. Once again, the boredom of the LAPD ensured that he escaped their notice but by 1949 he had hit rock bottom - and hard.
- Elia Kzan cast him in 1950's film noir classic, The Smilin' Dete'tive where Lou played the trenchcoated hero, Cassius Mudd. The film's plot, about a postman who always rang twice is not one of William Faulkner's best, but its portrayal of a dark-lit world mostly inhabited by what were then called 'Negroes' who were almost invisible unless they laughed or smiled stands as one of the last and greatest of what critic Eleanor Roosevelt called 'la cine nigro'. The film also marked the last appearance of Lou's estranged father, who is scuttled at the fog-bound docks at the beginning. Box office receipts weren't good enough to justify a sequel and for a time it looked as if Lou's film career had ended.
Post-War American politics was typified by the election to the Congress of several sock puppets from the Pacific Northwest and to the Senate of a ventriloquist's dummy, Charlie McCarthy. During the 1950's McCarthy, or more likely his manager, Edgar Bergen became increasingly obsessed with the threat of Communist infiltration of his bodily orifices. Anyone who criticised America's involvement in corporate life, Korea, democracy or music was labelled a Communist and subjected to scrutiny and hounding by agents of the FBI, BATF, INS and NAMBLA. Many popular actors and directors in Hollywood were brought before Senate committees regardless of their anti-Semitism or in some cases because of it. Thanks to his war film record, Lou escaped persecution by the Senate and Congressional sock puppets but as a protest against what he considered anti-black feeling he turned down the role of 'Tailgunner Joe', the sodomising sherriff in Commie Busters vs The Ku Klux Klan (1954) and moved to Europe.
Black or noir people were unknown in Europe during the 1950's thanks to the abolition of slavery in 1835 and again in 1862 and at first Lou's colour went unrecognised. His role as the King of Siam in a London theatrical adaptation of Anna and the King of Siam caused no furore at all. Unfortunately it caused no ticket sales either and Lou was living in Soho in 1957 down on his luck and down to his uppers. Scraping together his loose change he took a boat across the Channel and into French movie history.
- He made four films for French vitessie director Jean Renoir during April and May 1958. Le Chat Noir, Le Chapeau Noir Noir, pour quoi Noir?, L'Homme Noir and the softcore exploitation picture Je Suis Curious, Noir (1960) opposite Swedish-Israeli starlet, Birgit bar D'Eaux.
Lou was able to return to America after the election of the audio-animatronic John F Kennedy in 1960. Kennedy freed the slaves for a second time after the infamous Bay of Pigs incident. This gave black America not only greater freedom but also rooves over their heads and acess to a new medium for the expression of oppression - television.
- Lou's recognisability immediately got TV producers interested. Lou starred in the excellent "Drik's Law" *1961) opposite Hayley Mills and Irwin Allen's "The Subcutaneans" (1962) beating out both Jonathan Harris and Kurt Kasznar for the role of 'Dr Magnus'. He even showed a talent for light comedy opposite Sebastian Cabot in "Spy Guys" *1963) before landing the role that would make him famous for a new generation.
Death of Zasu Pitts
Lou's mother had been struggling for some time with a lack of any pitiable disease and when she finally contracted psittacosis in November of 1962 her lasting legacy was assured. Lou loved his mother deeply and on numerous ocasions but her advanced age and lack of celebrity had pushed them apart over the previous decade. Pitts was a classically trained unicyclist and sideshow freak and she privately despised Lou's career in 'those gaudy flicker shows' as she liked to put it in a fake Southern accent. On hearing of her illness, though, Lou curtailed his television career, putting "Spy Guys" on hiatus until it was revivied and rettitled starring Bill Cosby and Robert Culp. Lou nursed his mother through a difficult period of the illness from which she recovered and subsequently died on 7 June 1963. Some months later John F Kennedy also succumbed the fatal bird disease, this time administered by bullet.
"I Love Lou"
"I Love Lou" (1964) was NBC's answer to a question nobody asked, but at 55 Lou was now an orphan and needed the care and support of TV's caring peodcution atmosphere. Lou's portrayal of Lou Grant, hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, overweight, cigar-smoking, Republican-voting, gun-toting, shorthand-taking, stylishly-coiffed flamboyantly heterosexual taxi driver trying to juggle the high-powered world of Baltimore taxi driving and a wisecracking family admirably featuring wife Alabama Esther Rolle, daughters Cherry Diana Ross and Cleophilia Diahann Carroll and son Kunta Kinte John Amos touched the hearts of black America and confused the hell out of white viewers. Such catchphrases as 'Dat ain' no possum!' and 'Yo' han' is on my what?' entered into everyday speech.
- Producer William Dozier got cotrol of the series in 1967 and made changes he felt would be more popular with a product-buying audience and the show kept its title but changed subtly. Gone was Lou's family and he became an avenging taxi driver by day and asleep by night. He got a new sidekick, or 'ward' called "Injun Joe" played inexplicabvly by Randolph Mantooth, Dennis Cole and Fernando Lamas. The show garnered an Emmy nomination for Jodie Foster, however, in the two-part episode "Little Miss Prostitute" *1968). the show was nothing if not responsive to the signs of the times, however andin 1968 the show was comletely reworked into Lou's signature TV role.
"Dr King: Medicine Man"
From 1968 to 1973 Lou played a heretofore unknown brother of Martin Luther King Jr, Kahlil Gibran King who took up where his unfortunate older brother had been shot. In 128 episodes Dr King walked the streets at night preventing crime, held down a medical practice by day preventing crime, tackled the Mob, the Syndicate, the Mafia, the Klan, the Republicans, the NAACP and the BATF while doing slum clearances, communing with Nature, organising rock concerts and peaceable assemblies, bantering with his pretty secrtary Shelley Fabares and always hving time to get in a song with the Jackson Five. In the last two seasons the show even had animation with Lou voicing all the characters in "Honkey Bunny". Ratings declined in late 1972 and the series was axed after only a few episodes the followin year. The final episode, "Sayonara, Sexy Momma" was a 90-minute film shot entirely in sepia, of Lou mugging at the camera superimposed over a desk calendar with the pages being flipped over by a prosthetic hook. This was in reality Lou's only German film, Tdtrzeit (1958) made by the helplessly expatriate Orson Welles after a five-day bender.
“I don't see what all the fus is about. All my movies were either in black and white or in color... Shit...”
In October 1969 an independent movie directed by Spencer Tracy and produced by Sean Connery and Peter Fonda opened to a nearly empty house at the Cornpone Movie Arcade in Hannibal, Missouri. Guess Who's Coming to Breakfast (1969) was a cheeky, coy sex romp of the time and the plot was a shameless, litigiable rip-off of the popular Guess Who's Coming to Dinner made the year before. The distinguishing fact of this movie was its all-black cast, except for the bewildered breakfast guest, played by Sandy Duncan. The film was hugely successful grossing $262,000 and 13,985 discount coupons in its first three weeks. The era of blaxploitation had begun.
Most white producers did not see the significance of Guess Who's Coming to Breakfast and few black producers could raise the money to produce, so follow-ups to Guess's success had to wait until late 1970 to get off the ground. As one of Hollywood's more successful black actors, Lou was the catalyst that really "put the color into Technicolor" to quote Rod Steiger.
- Most 'blaxplanttation' or 'blaxploitation' films were rip-offs of more successful or 'white' films with a proven track record and some simply altered the title of a popular film in order to give it black appeal. Who is the Black Black Dahlia? (1970) is completely forgetable, for example, since the entire film is a poker game with no dialogue and voice overs taken from 1950's 'personal hygiene' films, with the closing shot being a dahlia filmed in negative that lasts for 15 minutes. Black Hello Dolly"" (1971) is simply Roscoe Lee Browne standing in an abandoned amusement park telling a long rambling anecdote about the time he and Sidney Poitier got drunk on the set of To Sir, With Love and fell asleep on Twiggy. Black Cool Hand Luke (1971) is smuggled footage of the lynching of a South Carolina man who stumbled onto a Klan meeting. What blaxploitation needed was a touch of class.
- Lou had one early attempt in the genre, the musical Black Godspell (1971) but this was not a great success and Cleavon Little's protrayal of Jesus was called blasphemous even by Jewish cinema patrons. In 1972 a small nes item about a group of Vietnam War veterans who had escaped prison caught nobody's attention. In 1973, Lou was offered the part of Black Shaft before it was realised that the original Shaft had been black. 1973's Phatom of the Ghetto was Lou's quick riposte to this snub. In it he played Quincy Smith, a funk fusion bass player who is deeply in love with Peggy Bushell, a white girl played with amazing self-restraint by Goldie Hawn. The original ending of the film calls for Smith to fall from the roof of 'The Basement', but the futility of this was seen at the last moment and Smith changes his name and walks off into the darkness to try to reclaim his 'rhythm heritage'. The way was open for a sequel and the sequel Lou made was a blockbuster.
"It was a lost labour of love and labour of lost love said Lou about In The Heat of the Mudd (1973). This film, with its easily recognisable source material, reintroduced the character of Cassius Mudd, the private dick from The Smilin' Dete'tive. Though the character had been way ahead of its time in the 1950's, newly empowered black audiences "really grooved to a black man in an overcoat" to quote Ghetto Voice. Lou's portrayal of the gum chewing, hard living, rum drinking, hamn-fisted private dick with a Caribbean lilt and a heart of gold crammed the movie ouses all along the Mississippi and around the Great Lakes. It did well on both coasts and its popularity in Texas surprised even Bill Cosby. Over the next five years Lou made eleven 'Mudd' films and in 1978 they climaxed in what some have seen as the zenith and apotheosis of Lou Gossett Jr's career.
In 1975, William Goldman had approached Universal Studios with a proposal for Black Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Vice-presidents liked the idea and held onto it with no intention of making any sort of motion picture, under the studio's 'property acquisition' business model. A series of complicated contractual mistakes over the next two years somehow combined Goldman's script with David S Ward's Black Sting and William Peter Blatty's treatment for Black Exorcist. The resultant gumbo of big print and dialogue lay around on studio shelves for a few months before Joel Silver saw it as a vehicle for Lou Gossett Jr and his character Cassius Muddd.
- Production began in late 1977 in Sacramento and quickly moved to Joliet, Illinois, St Vroix in the Virgin Islands, the Serengeti Plain, New Orleans and Amsterdam before completing post-production in Denmark. The completed picture is a sublime combination of detective yarn, Cold War thriller, love story, whodunnit, Georgian romance, musical, brutal science fiction indictment of bourgeois mores and testament to the enduring power of Lou's screen presence, as he plays opposite Antonio Fargas, Ben Vereen, Bernie Casey, Bill Cosby,Billy Dee Williams, Bubba Smith, Calvin Lockhart, Carl Franklin, Cleavon Little, Debbie Allen, Eartha Kitt, Esther Rolle, Flip Wilson, Gary Coleman, Grace Jones, Greg Morris, Gregory Hines, Irene Cara, Isaac Hayes, Ja’net duBois, James Earl Jones, Jim Brown, Jimmie Walker, Joe Seneca, John Amos, John Kitzmuller, Levar Burton, Lloyd Haines, Moses Gunn, Nichelle Nichols, Ozzie Davis, Pam Greer, Paul Robeson, Percy Rodgrigues, Richard Pryor, Richard Roundtree, Robert Earl Jones, Ron Glass, Ron O'Neal, Roscoe Lee Browne, Rosey Grier, Rupert Crosse, Sammy Davis Jr, Scatman Crothers, Sidney Poitier, T K Carter, Tamara Dobson, Taurean Blacque, Teresa Graves, Tito Jackson, Todd Bridges, Yaphet Kotto, And Shelley Winters as ‘Madame X’. The film grossed $47 million at the box office (and an untold number of coupons) and for most of 1979 it was impossible to walk down any ghetto street without being mugged - and seeing some theatre showing Lou's signature piece. It capped off the 'blaxploitation' era of 'soul cinema' as it was being called and made the white world take notice of someone they'd regarded as part of the furniture, or at least some kind of farm equuipment.
- It got the attention of two struggling TV hangers-on. John Ashley who had been a supporting player in the 1960's Beach Party movies and who had later gone to the Phillippines for undisclosed reasons and Frank Lupo, who remembered an ovbscure article from 1972 about some veterans who had escaped from prison.
“So I said "Say what?" and they told me it would be George Peppard, Dirk Benedict and Bryan Brown. So I said "Count me in!". Later I had to say "Pay me" as well, so I called up my skanky-ass agent and popped a cap in his ass.”
. . .And Beyond
Black actors were less in demand after "The A-Team" ceased production in 1986 and even a star of Lou's quality and reliability found work difficult to get. Some black actors drifted into popular music, others, like Bill Cosby, drifted into unrealistic and usually plotless situation comedies. some drifted into death. The decline of 'blaxploitation' and the rise of Latino cinema, 'chop sockey' movies made for the American Asiatic market and the inexplicable succcess and critical recognition of Bollywood made life for black actors more and more difficult. Lou made a few forays into the genre of 'Afro-American cinema' but even he admits that "cinema based on a hairstyle ain't doin' anybody any damn good". Even the acceptance of the word 'nigger' did little for the old school black actor and Lou found himself welthy and comfortable but the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd still hd the allure it had back in the 1920's.
- His theatrical performances during this time garnered mixed reviews. His portrayal of Nelson Mandela in the 1998 production of Necklace of Freedom' is still regarded as the most sensitive and credible performance to dte. As agaisnt that, he rates his pe
“This is some fucked up repugnant shit!”
- They Walk By Night (2006)
- Crunch Time (2006)
- Ginger Snaps Black (2005)
- Grandma Moses vs The FBI (2004)
- “The Ice-T Show” (2004)
- “The Nicole Ritchie Show” (2003)
- Crime Streak (2000)
- The Ghettoes of Madison County (1999)
- The Black Mile (1999)
- The Return of Cassius Mudd (1997)
- The Hunt for Black October (1991)
- The Color Black (1988)
- Enemy Mine (1985)
- Yassuh, Mr President! (1984)
- “The A-Team” (1982)
- The Empire Strikes Black (1980)
- Mississippi Mudd (1978)
- Kramer vs Mudd (1978)
- Black Star Wars (1978)
- Muddy II (1977)
- Mudd’s Women (1977)
- I, Mudd (1977)
- Muddy (1976)
- The Towering Ghetto (1975)
- Terms of Mudd (1975)
- Blackquake! (1975)
- Black The Poseidon Adventure (1975)
- Welcome Back, Mudd (1974)
- Scream, Mudd, Scream (1974)
- Dirty Mudd (1974)
- Phantom of the Ghetto (1973)
- In The Heat of the Mudd (1973)
- Black Godspell (1971)
- “Dr King: Medicine Man” (1968)
- “I Love Lou” (1964)
- “Spy Guys” (1963)
- “The Subcutaneans” (1962)
- ”Dirk’s Law” (1961)
- Je Suis Curious, Noir (1960)
- L’Homme Noir (1958)
- Todtzeit (1958)
- Noir, pour quoi Noir? (1958)
- Le Chapeau Noir (1958)
- Le Chat Noir (1958)
- The Smilin’ Dete’tive (1950)
- Abbott and Costello Meet Lou Gossett Jr (1948)
- Yassuh, Boss!(1945)
- Yassuh, General! (1945)
- Yassuh, Colonel! (1944)
- Yassuh, Major! (1943)
- Yassuh, Captain! (1943)
- Ghettoes of Montezuma (1942)
- Yassuh, Lieutenant! (1942)
- Yassuh, Sergeant! (1942)
- Yassuh, Corporal! (1942)
- Little Miss Tojo (1941)
- Feet, Do Yo’ Duty (1941)
- Little Miss Madam (1939)
- Little Miss Prostitute (1938)
- Little Miss Bootlegger (1937)
- Little Miss Duce (1937)
- Little Miss Hitler (1936)
- Black Caesar II: The Marsupials (1935)
- Black Caesar (1935)
- King Bling (1933)
- Yassuh, Boss! (1932)
- Yas, Boss! (1931)
- Yas, Suh! (1931)
- My Daddy Ain’ Got No Money (1929)
- Never Mind the Darkies (1928)
- Dat Ol’ Black Magic (1928)
- Voodoo Schwarze (1927)
- Doan Fogit the Darkies (1927)