Louis Gossett Jr., Award-Winning Actor Who Portrayed Hard-Nosed Marine in 'An Officer and a Gentleman,' Has Died at 87

Louis Gossett Jr. in his Academy Award-winning role as Marine Corps Sgt. Emil Foley in 1982's "An Officer and a Gentleman." (Paramount Pictures)

Louis Gossett Jr. was too young to fight in the Korean War and too old to serve in Vietnam. But over the course of more than 70 years as an actor, he contributed some of America's favorite military characters to our cultural lexicon. This includes Marine Corps Sgt. Emil Foley in "An Officer and a Gentleman," a role for which he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor -- the first Black man to receive the award in that category.

Along the way, Gossett also portrayed a slew of other memorable characters, for which he received numerous other awards and nominations, including "Roots," "The Josephine Baker Story" and, most recently, "The Color Purple." The actor died in Santa Monica, California, on March 29, 2024, at the age of 87. Though he was a survivor of prostate cancer, no cause of death was given.

For his performance as Sgt. Foley, Gossett was also the second Black actor to win an Academy Award for acting and the third Black actor to win an award overall. His other military roles include the role of returning Vietnam veteran Smitty on an 1968 episode of "The Mod Squad," an alien soldier in the cult classic "Enemy Mine" and Col. Charles "Chappy" Sinclair in the ridiculous but somehow beloved "Iron Eagle" (and its three equally absurd sequels).

Gossett was even the face of one of the U.S. Coast Guard's best recruiting commercials ever.

Gossett reportedly thought of his career as a "reverse Cinderella story," where he achieved success on the stage early in life and achieved greater fame as time went on. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1936, the actor was still in high school when he appeared in "Take a Giant Step" on Broadway in 1953. He attended college at New York University on a basketball scholarship while studying drama and minoring in pharmacy, but left basketball behind and went into acting after graduation.

Gossett returned to Broadway in 1955 and remained onstage throughout his early career in film and television. He made his film debut in 1961's "A Raisin in the Sun," starring Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier. By 1968, his stage career was over, but his film and television stardom was on the rise. On TV, he appeared on more than 100 shows, including "Bonanza," "Good Times" and "The Rockford Files."

In the acclaimed 1977 miniseries "Roots," he portrayed Fiddler -- an enslaved musician and mentor to Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton), the show's protagonist. For his performance as Fiddler, Gossett won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Actor for a Single Appearance in a Drama or Comedy Series. He would also earn nominations for both an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his role as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in the made-for-television movie "Sadat." On the silver screen, he appeared alongside Beau Bridges in 1970's "The Landlord," Nick Nolte and Robert Shaw in 1977's "The Deep" and James Woods in 1992's "Diggstown."

Louis Gossett Jr. as 'Fiddler' in the 1977 ABC miniseries 'Roots.' (ABC)

Gossett's most memorable Hollywood role, however, is probably that of Sgt. Foley in "An Officer and a Gentleman," a role he unofficially reprised in a 2006 episode of "Family Guy." When Brian and Stewie accidentally joined the military, Gossett voiced an otherwise-unnamed drill sergeant (who really enjoyed musical theater) who trained them in a montage-homage to "An Officer and a Gentleman."

In a statement made after Gossett's passing, "An Officer and a Gentleman" director Taylor Hackford told The Hollywood Reporter why he chose the actor for a role written for a white man.

"When I visited the Navy Officers Flight Training Center in Pensacola, Florida, I discovered that many of the drill instructors there were men of color," the director said. "I found it interesting that Black and brown enlisted men had 'make or break' control over whether white college graduates would become officers and fighter pilots. At that moment, I changed the casting profile for Sgt. Foley and started meeting actors of color.

"Lou Gossett's Sgt. Foley may have been the first Black character in American cinema to have absolute authority over white characters," he added. "The Academy recognized his consummate performance by voting him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. He definitely deserved it."

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