Villanova on Set with James Ijames & Louis Gossett Jr.


Courtesy of Taylor Landon-Freedman

The participants gathered on Zoom to share insight and experience with attendees. 

Sneha Beri, Staff Writer

People outside of the entertainment industry rarely get a chance to learn about its inner workings and fully understand the thought processes driving certain actors. However, on Feb. 26, the Virtual Villanova on Set program was able to organize an event with Academy-Award winning actor Louis Gossett Jr. 

Sporting two Emmy awards and a photo of himself with his great-grandmother in the background, Gossett was more than willing to answer questions from playwright-director-educator James Ijames, event organizer Taylor Landon-Freeman and the other attendees. 

This was the first Villanova on Set event I attended, and I wasn’t sure of what to expect going in. I figured it would be like a panel discussion, where Gossett discussed aspects of the industry and memories from his career. What I didn’t expect was to have one of the most illuminating, heartwarming hours of my life. Gossett talked about the industry, but he also provided insight into being better community members, as well as striking comments on racism inside and outside the entertainment world.

Ijames asked Gossett how he got his start, and Gossett explained that it was in a Broadway play in 1953. He had never even seen a play before, but his English teacher, who was incredibly taken with Gossett, suggested he audition for “Take a Giant Step’’ by Lou Peterson. With an excited twinkle in his eye, Gossett told about how he was a teenager on Broadway getting to not only rub elbows with, but become endeared to stars such as Diana Washington and Kate Hepburn. Gossett then reached over for the photo of himself and his great-grandmother and talked about how she came to see him. Not only could attendees see Gossett smiling as he talked about the woman who gave up so much to raise three generations of children, but they could hear it in his voice as well.

After “Take a Giant Step,” Gossett started receiving movie roles in Hollywood. He talked about getting picked up from the airport in a beautiful eggshell-white hardtop convertible after his first flight to Los Angeles. This was the convertible that took him to and from the presidential suite paid for by the studio. 

Everything seemed idyllic, until Gossett was pulled over in the convertible by police officers who asked him, “Who do you think you are?” Reminiscing on it, Gossett remarked that he “didn’t know that [he] was not considered equal, if not better, than the average person.” Here he was, a young actor in L.A. for the first time for a movie shoot, being racially profiled on his first day. However, it didn’t end there. Gossett discussed a time when he went out in the convertible again to drive around celebrity homes, an activity many L.A. visitors partake in to this day. He didn’t go into all the details, but he said that within 30 minutes, the police had him handcuffed to a tree. 

These are not isolated incidents. Police brutality and racial profiling have been realities for Black Americans long before nonblack Americans started paying attention to media coverage about it. It was haunting to hear that Gossett had to be on set not long after being handcuffed. He “showed up kind of hurting, but then the theatre discipline kicked in.” Gossett told this story as calmly as someone giving directions. He wasn’t devoid of emotion at all, but it was clear he took time after being on set to process and reckon with the injustice he faced. 

Gossett’s hurt was real. The corruption in policing, especially in Los Angeles, is real. It’s gut-wrenching to hear, no matter how many times it’s repeated. However, Gossett’s approach to race and racism was eye-opening. After telling these stories, plus a few asides about how sweet Marilyn Monroe was, Gossett talked about how as he grew up, there was an awakening. He had this feeling of realization, knowing that he was not considered equal “on set or in a grocery store.” As a South Asian, I will never speak for or over a Black person, but as someone who has experienced a similar feeling, I was shocked to see someone put it into words so well.

Times in which I have felt like that have often led to anger and bitterness on my part, and I will admit that I still carry some of that with me. What Gossett said about anger pierced me.

“We all need each other desperately for our mutual salvation, regardless of what happened in the past and what will happen in the future,” Gossett said. “Ignore some of the mistakes that men who don’t look like us do so we can grow in this together […] we have something to offer […] we have to re-learn it because it was taken from us […] I’m an elder [because] I’ve been educated around the world. The first thing you do is wake up and see what you can do for the benefit of the whole tribe.”

What Gossett was saying was to put the anger and resentment aside and to instead channel that emotion into doing things that benefit society as a whole. This is what inspires his activism. He was essentially saying that the truest and most productive form of activism comes from doing nice things for people, for society as a whole. Anger can only get a person so far. 

In response to an audience member asking Gossett about the future of the industry, he said everyone must ask themselves, “What is it going to take to make this planet service the way it used to?” Those actions will not only drive the future of the entertainment industry, but the future of humanity as well. It was clear that for him, those two things are interconnected. 

Before wrapping up, Gossett discussed another play he did by Jean Genet titled “The Blacks.” 

“It was avant garde right out of Paris,” Gossett said. “It was a play within the play. There was an attitude of subversity of mystery. Jane Fonda came to see it once a week. [The audience] got a little paranoid […] all these Blacks, dressed like white folks, doing a minuet. We got them very nervous. We had a few heart attacks, a couple of people faint, because we created an atmosphere of ‘We got you now!’ By the end, we charmed them, [… and some of the] standing ovations [lasted] ten to fifteen minutes.”

During “The Blacks,” Gossett witnessed his fellow creators and production team harshly criticize each other, even to the point of yelling, as a way of making sure that they would be better next time. Even beyond “The Blacks,” Gossett and other Black creators carried this “self-berating [that was] allowed” that makes Black-created works so great. 

This spirit carried over into his performance in “An Officer And a Gentleman” (which made him the first African-American to win the Academy Award for best Supporting Actor), where he pushed himself to his creative best. Gossett is an enlightening, charming and gifted man, and it was an absolute privilege to share a space with him. His perseverance and compassion come through in everything he says and does, and his spirit is untouchable. People of all ages could stand to learn something from this legendary actor and human being.