Louis Gossett Jr. Looks Back on His Acting ‘Roots’

The impact of the 1977 miniseries “Roots” is still being felt decades later — notably by one of its stars, Louis Gossett Jr., who played the cunning Fiddler, and won an Emmy for the role. The actor, who initially graced our pages in a casting notice for his role in 1957’s Off Broadway revival of “Take a Giant Step,” is now starring in another miniseries about slavery, BET’s “The Book of Negroes.”

Did you read the review of “Roots”?

I must have. It comes from the old Broadway system of reading the reviews the next morning. Nobody expected it. We thought we would never work again. We thought it would never go any further. Up until that time, no one spoke about slavery and those atrocities in present-day society. So it was a cathartic thing. We were all shocked. Of course, we acted like we knew it all along.

What do you remember most about making “Roots”?

Vic Morrow, who played the master, apologized before he filmed the scene where he instructs a slave to whip Kunta Kinte into saying his name. He said, “I’m going to pull out all the stops.” He did it ice cold. But he was just doing the part. The acting was so good, I was transformed. When they cut LeVar Burton down, I said (the line), “Kunta Kinte, that’s who you’ll always be. It’s going to be a better day.” I don’t know where that came from. Alex Haley, who wrote the book, spoke about that later — he didn’t write that line. I almost don’t remember saying it.

How did you land the role?

I was chosen as one of a group of actors, but I didn’t know which part I was going to play. They finally said you’re going to play Fiddler, and I was highly insulted, because he was the Uncle Tom. But dissecting the character, I realized the most important thing is for him to survive. He’s trying to escape. He wants it so badly, he’d die for it. I had no concept of freedom. I didn’t understand how it feels to be free.

How did this role change your career?

It put me on the map.

How does it compare to “Book of Negroes”?

“Book of Negroes” is even better. It’s stunning to watch. Aunjanue Ellis has no idea how great she is. She’s very humble.

What have you learned about show business?

It’s kept me eating quite a bit! It’s given me a great international education, taken me places around the world I’d never have been, shown me an incredible tapestry of life. I’m very grateful to my English teacher who told me to go and try out for this play. What could you lose?

What’s been the secret of the longevity of your career?

Never to be typed. Sixty years later, I’m still doing it. I’m still grateful to be able to work. I still remember my lines. I still show up on time.

Which of your many roles has been your favorite?

Anwar Sadat. It was a challenge to play someone with history like that. His spirit was very much like Mandela’s. He transitioned from a hawk to a dove. He’d lost his brother and people he loved. He said he’d be willing to step into Israel in the name of peace. Mandela was willing to come out of prison with a smile on his face.

What do you look for in a role?

Difficulty and challenge. I find it very hard to play a normal person. I don’t fight for jobs. I just fight for life. Acting keeps me young.

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