Brooklyn-born actor Louis Gossett Jr., 84, reckons we’re never too old to learn something new – today spreading the word about the connection between music and brain health with his role as an Alzheimer’s patient in a heart-warming new film, The Cuban (link to info is here).
After making his Broadway debut at just 17, Gossett went on to earn an Oscar for his role in An Officer and a Gentleman and an Emmy for TV miniseries, Roots. Currently featuring in HBO’s Watchmen, he is a passionate social activist, author and speaker, but he still found time to speak exclusively to Senior Planet.
SP: The Cuban sees you play a Latin guitarist whose memory is unlocked by the music of his past. What attracted you to the part?
LG: My favorite movie is Awakenings. I was amazed how Robert De Niro played a man with Alzheimer’s and always wanted to do that for myself. I want audiences to understand what is going on in the mind. This man grew up playing music in Cuba but after Castro came in and closed down all the nightclubs, he can’t recall any of his life afterwards.
SP: Did you visit any memory care centers in your research?
LG: Yes, I’ve been in and out and I’m thinking about moving in next week! I have many friends in those places in Hollywood so I’ve visited a lot.
SP:You originally planned to be a doctor?
LG: Yes, I was a pre-med student at NYU. My best friend Justin had polio at four years old so I wanted to heal sick people and be a brain surgeon. I remember dissecting a dead cat and I pressed a part of the brain and its leg stuck up in the air. That’s what put me off medicine – I didn’t want that happening with a human! I promptly left that class and switched to theater. That’s my Frankenstein story!
SP: Is music a big part of your life like in The Cuban? I heard you play guitar.
LG: Music has been a part of my life forever, back from attending Baptist church in Coney island, listening to Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson. I segued into folk music after appearing in Jean Genet’s The Blacks  off-Broadway. I play (guitar) every day. I wrote an anti-war folk song called Handsome Johnny with Richie Havens. When I got my first residual check for $72,000, it kept me from being homeless in Hollywood.
SP: You have a remarkable legacy as a successful African American actor in Hollywood. Did you ever experience racism?
LG: As an adult, yes, but never as a child. I was a post-depression child in Brooklyn where all these European theater artists changed their names and moved to New York. I grew up with their children – Barbra Streisand, Arthur Miller, Neil Simon and Neil Sedaka. In that society, there was no racism. If my mother wasn’t home for dinner, I’d be eating gefilte fish, fried chicken, sauerkraut, lasagna or corned beef and cabbage. Sandy Koufax grew up the same.
SP: You must be happy to see the social change made by Black Lives Matter?
LG: Sidney Poitier came just before me. I went through a whole lot of changes and thank God I’m still here to enjoy the freedom, so Black Lives do matter but everybody’s lives matter and we are desperate for our mutual salvation. If we can set ourselves to mutually survive whatever is happening on this planet, then it wipes away racism and conflict.
SP: How have you kept busy during pandemic?
LG: I moved to the country outside Atlanta, Georgia less than a year ago so I did a lot of unpacking until I started to go a little crazy. That’s when I realized, what does He want me to do? And He wants me to do some deeper thinking and change my philosophy a little more; taking better care of myself and my children. I hope we will all come out the other end with a sense of positivity that everything is going to be OK. We have to be vigorously honest with ourselves and the people we encounter, for the benefit of us all.
SP: How do you keep fit?
LG: I’m aging, I think gracefully. I don’t work out as much as I did but I walk, stretch and breath, consistent with my age. I’ve lost so many dear people, so I’m always learning. School is never out.
SP: What do you hope is the take home from The Cuban?
LG: It’s a reminder to us all. The great Yogi Berra had it right: It ain’t over, till it’s over. It has to be teachable; receive a good lesson and pass it on, that keeps us in the mix of the rhythm of life. We stick around a little bit longer when there’s something for us to do on a daily basis.
SP: What’s your secret to aging with attitude?
LG: I seek out the young folk and have a lot of stories to share with them. I try to tap into how we did it in the old days where people took care of one another. There’s no time for enmity or war, if we do that. It creates an energy which keeps us on the planet. When that energy dissipates, that’s when you leave.
Curious? Watch the trailer!
THE CUBAN opens in select cities including New York’s Angelika Film Center and Symphony Space on July 31. Available to buy or rent from October 6.
Photo: Louis Gossett Jr. as Luis and Ana Golja as Mina in The Cuban, Courtesy of Brainstorm Media