January 15, 2009
Louis Gossett Jr. to Give Shul Inaugural Ball Toast
This week, actor Louis Gossett Jr. will fly to Washington, D.C., to attend the inauguration of Barack Obama, where he will celebrate with an inner circle of African American celebrities who campaigned for the president-elect. But in between those festivities, he will make a more personal stop — to deliver the toast at the National Inaugural Jewish Ball sponsored by Ohev Shalom — the National Synagogue, a thriving Modern Orthodox congregation in the capital.
The 72-year-old actor — who recently spent six days in the hospital due to a near-fatal pulmonary episode — is determined to make the trip, even if he has to traverse airports in a wheelchair.
“I want to say, ‘Thank you,’ to the Jewish community,” he said of the toast. “My childhood in Coney Island was overwhelmingly influenced by teachers and classmates of the Jewish faith. They expanded my horizons and encouraged me to excel. Because of their nurturing and mentorship, I grew up believing that no one could tell me I couldn’t accomplish something because I was black. Despite the racism of the time, they taught me that anything is possible.”
Gossett (“Roots,” “An Officer and a Gentleman”), who is famously bald and 6-foot-4, sat for an interview in his sprawling Mediterranean-style home in Malibu, wearing a sequined Obama victory T-shirt. The milieu was light-years away from his working-class roots in Coney Island, where his mother worked as a maid and his father as a porter, chauffeur and gas company employee.
There is a sparkling indoor pool, several indoor and outdoor fountains, courtyards and Buddhist and African art on the walls. A mantle sports Gossett’s Oscar for best supporting actor in “An Officer and a Gentleman,” as well as his Golden Globes and Emmy awards. There are tokens from his work with Nelson Mandela and other leaders of the African National Congress, where many of the white leaders were Jewish.
“Even there, blacks and Jews got together,” he said.
Gossett traces his own success to the liberal Jews who moved into his neighborhood after fleeing Hitler’s Europe or McCarthy-era blacklists.
“Because of these brilliant people, there was a Renaissance in all subjects, from sports to music to all of the arts,” he said.
“I was also influenced by how Jewish families encouraged their children, my classmates, to succeed.”
If Gossett’s own parents returned late from work, he was often invited to eat gefilte fish and brisket with Jewish neighbors.
When Holocaust survivors moved into the neighborhood after World War II, Gossett was already aware of what they had suffered. His uncle, Timothy Gossett, had served in an all-black division under Gen. George Patton that helped liberate concentration camps, such as Dachau and Buchenwald.
“My uncle described the piles of emaciated bodies, which he remembered to his dying day,” the actor said.
Decades later, Gossett narrated a PBS documentary, “The Liberators,” about the experience of such soldiers, and hosted reunions between black soldiers and survivors in New York.
Gossett suspects that his English teacher at Abraham Lincoln High School, Gustave Blum, identified with African Americans because he had experienced anti-Semitism as a result of the blacklists. When Gossett suffered an injury that prevented him from playing basketball (thus nixing his dream of attending medical school on a sports scholarship), Blum helped lift his depression.
“My marks were dropping,” the actor recalled. “Gustave said, ‘You’re losing your interest, your edge. Why don’t we read some plays together?’”
In 1953, Blum, who had directed on Broadway, recommended Gossett for a role in “Take a Giant Step,” an interracial romance, on Broadway. The 16-year-old beat out 445 other actors for the job.
A poster from that play adorns the center of Gossett’s Malibu living room and serves as a reminder of sorts.
“I’ve been carried on the shoulders of blacks and Jews, mostly, my entire life — directors, playwrights, producers, my managers and agents,” he said. “I am the product of the successful union of what I call the Afro-Judaic culture.”
Gossett’s Jewish friends and associates helped him through other difficult times in his life, as well. Despite becoming the second black man to win an Oscar (after Sidney Poitier), he said he did not receive subsequent film offers for years because roles for blacks were so scarce.
“I was filled with resentment and bitterness,” said Gossett, who as a result increased his use of drugs and alcohol.
The now-sober actor eventually found regular work in television (“Thank God for Lew Wasserman”) and later starred in more than 80 movies, several of them shot in Israel, where Gossett picked up Hebrew phrases from the crew.
Gossett met Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld last year at a “Race and Reconciliation in America” conference hosted by former Secretary of Defense William Cohen and Cohen’s wife, Janet Langhart Cohen.
“I was moved by the fact that Louis got up ... and spoke about how his life was impacted for the better by growing up in a mixed neighborhood of Jews and blacks,” Herzfeld said.
The rabbi invited Gossett to speak at a Shabbat service last August, when the actor became the first African American to deliver a sermon in the shul’s 122-year history. Since then, the two men have spoken or e-mailed each other two or three times a week, and Herzfeld has expressed interest in the Eracism foundation that Gossett has founded, in part, to mentor black youths, modeled on the yeshiva system.
Gossett regards his participation in the Jewish ball as a good way to fete Obama’s presidency.
“When I speak,” he said, “I’ll encourage blacks and Jews to continue this love affair, this collaboration, so we can show the rest of America how it is done.”