By Terri Schlichenmeyer
When you were a kid, you thought you were so smart. Back then, you knew better than your elders, but you also knew better than to tell them that. You were smart enough to get away with doing things (you thought) they never learned about. For sure, nobody could touch you in the brains department when you were a kid.
Then you became an adult, and you saw how much you didn’t know.
In the new book An Actor and a Gentleman (written with Phyllis Karas, published by Wiley, 308 pages, includes index), author Louis Gossett, Jr. says he never knew much racism as a child. But as his career rose, so did the bigotry.
Growing up on the edge of Brooklyn near Coney Island, little Louie Gossett never wanted for love. His parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles showered it upon him. Cousins watched his back because they knew he had potential.
Even Italian and Jewish mothers in the neighborhood embraced the “it takes a village” philosophy and helped raise young Gossett. He says, in retrospect, that he was the victim of racism more than once, but that’s the way things were and he barely noticed.
Although Gossett initially thought he might become a pro basketball player, during his junior year of high school, a different, more appealing opportunity presented itself: An English teacher cast Gossett in a school play. For the rest of his life, Gossett was in love with the theater, a love that transferred easily to movies and TV.
In 1961, Gossett moved to California to try his hand at film and, despite his love for acting, he encountered racism that sent him back to New York. Seven years later, he tried Hollywood again, but the racism was worse.
Undaunted, and encouraged by colleagues and social changes in America, Gossett made his home in L.A. and stuck with acting. He dated, briefly married, had a son, and divorced; dated, adopted a child, then married, went into treatment for alcohol addiction, and divorced again.
Clean and sober, he began to put his life, personally and professionally, on track.
If one were to read An Actor and A Gentleman at face-value, one might believe that nearly everybody in America grew up with, worked with, or otherwise knew Louis Gossett, Jr. 50 or 60 years ago. Name-dropping, boasting, and personal shout-outs are so rampant in the first half of this book that it became tedious, making me want to skip large swaths of page.
And yet, if you can read between the lines, Gossett and co-author Phyllis Karas redeem the tedium by giving readers a unique, first-hand peek at racism in entertainment. I really liked that part of this book, mostly because of the well-defined (and well-deserved) outrage that Gossett lets sneak through his narrative.
Overall, my recommendation for An Actor and A Gentleman is limited. If you’re looking for something on African Americans in Hollywood, here’s your book.
If you’re looking for a light Tinsel Town bio, though, you’d be smart to choose something else.
Bookworm Terri Schlichenmeyer lives in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books. She welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.