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Louis Gossett Jr., Oscar-winning actor from ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’ and ‘Roots,’ dies at 87

Gossett’s victory at the 55th Academy Awards in 1983 made him only the second Black man to win an acting Oscar, 19 years after Sidney Poitier won for his leading role in “Lilies of the Field.”
Image:  Richard Gere, Louis Gossett Jr., An Officer and A Gentlman
Richard Gere, left, and Louis Gossett Jr., in 'An Officer and A Gentlman' in 1982.Paramount / Courtesy Everett Collection
/ Source: NBC News

Louis Gossett Jr., who became the first Black man to win the Oscar for best supporting actor for playing a no-nonsense drill sergeant in “An Officer and a Gentleman” (1982), has died, his family said Friday.

He was 87.

“It is with our heartfelt regret to confirm our beloved father passed away this morning,” the actor’s family said in a statement. “We would like to thank everyone for their condolences at this time. Please respect the family’s privacy during this difficult time.”

In an acting career that spanned six decades, Gossett appeared in dozens of movies and television shows, including the film adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” (1961) and big-screen spectacles like “The Deep” (1977).

He won an Emmy for playing the old slave Fiddler in the seminal ABC miniseries “Roots” (1977), acting in three of the program’s eight episodes. He delivered a memorable late-career turn in HBO’s “Watchmen” (2019), playing a former vigilante known as Hooded Justice. 

Louis Gossett Jr. in \"The Watchmen.\"
Louis Gossett Jr. in "The Watchmen."Mark Hill / HBO

But his portrayal of the tough-as-nails Gunnery Sgt. Emil Foley in “An Officer and a Gentleman,” a romantic drama co-starring Richard Gere and Debra Winger, cemented him deepest in the public consciousness.

“There’s a love-hate relationship between the sergeant and his trainees,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review. “Lou Gossett Jr. does such a fine job of fine-tuning the line between his professional standards and his personal emotions that the performance deserves its Academy Award.”

Gossett’s triumph at the 55th Academy Awards in 1983 made him only the second Black man to win an acting Oscar, 19 years after Sidney Poitier won for his leading role in “Lilies of the Field.”

Louis Gossett Jr. was born May 27, 1936, in Brooklyn, New York. He was drawn to athletics as a kid, especially basketball, but an injury kept him from playing for a time and led him to another pursuit: stage acting.

When he was in high school, a teacher encouraged him to try out for a play — and that audition resulted in his Broadway debut in the 1953 production of “Take a Giant Step,” a coming-of-age tale about a Black teenager growing up in a predominantly white community.

He graduated from high school a year later and then enrolled at New York University. He continued to pick up acting gigs along the way, including a role in the Broadway version of “The Desk Set” as well as small parts on television shows.

Gossett’s most notable stage credit was in the original cast of “A Raisin in the Sun,” a classic play about a Black family searching for a better life. Gossett portrayed the wealthy and pretentious George Murchison, a role he reprised in the 1961 movie version directed by Daniel Petrie.

He continued to act in Broadway and off-Broadway productions during the 1960s. He made his second major film appearance in Hal Ashby’s dark comedy “The Landlord,” released in 1970. The same year, he co-starred on the short-lived TV series “The Young Rebels.”

Gossett landed roles in several lesser-known movies during the early ‘70s, including “Skin Game” (1971), George Cukor’s “Travels With My Aunt” (1972) and “The Laughing Policeman” (1973). He played a drug kingpin in “The Deep,” adapted from a novel by “Jaws” author Peter Benchley.

“Roots” raised Gossett’s profile, landing him an Emmy in September 1977. Gossett’s fellow nominees in his category were all members of the “Roots” ensemble: John Amos, LeVar Burton and Ben Vereen. (The series itself claimed six awards, including best limited series.)

Gossett reprised the role of Fiddler in the 1988 television movie “Roots: The Gift.”

Image: Louis Gossett Jr., LeVar Burton
Louis Gossett Jr., left, and LeVar Burton in 'Roots'.ABC Photo Archives / Getty Images

“An Officer and a Gentleman” propelled Gossett to national acclaim. He underwent rigorous training for the role, spending 10 days at a school for drill instructors at Camp Pendleton in California, where he marched, ran and practiced karate from 4:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day.

He was thrilled to receive an Oscar nomination, but he was convinced the supporting actor prize would go to industry veterans Robert Preston (“Victor/Victoria”) or James Mason (“The Verdict”). 

When presenters Christopher Reeve and Susan Sarandon called his name from the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, Gossett’s agent jabbed him in the chest, the actor recalled in 2018. “They said your name,” the agent said.

“I got up as smooth as I possibly could, trying to figure out what I was going to say,” Gossett recalled in an interview with the Television Academy.

Gossett was disappointed that bigger film parts did not follow his Oscar victory.

“I was left with a lot of time on my hands” after the Academy Award, Gossett told The New York Times in 1989. “I thought I’d get a lot of offers — and they didn’t come.”

“I let myself become bitter, resentful,” he added. “I was my own worst enemy. I said to myself, ‘What more can I do? Where’s the light at the end of the tunnel?’ I started to self-destruct.”

He started to abuse alcohol, cocaine and marijuana. “I had an Oscar, an Emmy, and yet I had this big hole in my soul,” Gossett told the Times.

Eventually, Gossett entered a residential drug-treatment program in Los Angeles and stopped using drugs, according to the profile in the Times. The path to sobriety was “very humbling and necessary, a very positive time,” he said.

Gossett was a ubiquitous and dependable presence on the big and small screens for decades to come — quietly commanding, sometimes intimidating, sometimes soulful.

He acted in genre-spanning films such as “Jaws 3-D” (1983), “Enemy Mine” (1985), “The Principal” (1987), “The Punisher” (1989), “Toy Soldiers” (1991), “Diggstown” (1992), “Blue Chips” (1994) and a string of under-the-radar indie movies from 2000-2010.

He frequently cropped up on television, guest-starring on episodes of “Touched by an Angel,” “ER,” “Psych,” “Boardwalk Empire.” He recently played a small but pivotal role as a legendary attorney accused of sexual misconduct on the Paramount+ series “The Good Fight.”

“Watchmen,” Damon Lindelof’s celebrated limited series based on the landmark DC Comics series of the same name, gave Gossett one of his most distinctive late-period roles. He was the enigmatic Will Reeves, grandfather of the show’s hero, Angela Abar, played by Regina King.

This article first appeared on NBCNews.com.