The Sober Gentleman—Lou Gossett Jr.

By John Lavitt 06/03/16

The Fix Q&A with actor and advocate Lou Gossett Jr.—on spirituality, the 12 steps, letting go of expectations, and the importance of connection.

12 Questions About Alcoholism, Addiction & Recovery With Lou Gossett Jr.
Actor and advocate Lou Gossett Jr.

Born on May 27, 1936 in Brooklyn, New York City, Lou Gossett Jr. made his professional acting debut at age 17, winning the Donaldson Award as best newcomer to theatre. He went to New York University on a basketball scholarship and was invited to try out for the New York Knicks, yet he decided to continue his acting career with a role in the Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun. His later role as the tough drill sergeant Emil Foley in An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) won him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. As Jeriba "Jerry" Shigan in Enemy Mine (1985), he was the first male to be shown giving birth on screen. He also starred as Air Force pilot Colonel Charles "Chappy" Sinclair in the action film Iron Eagle (1986) and its sequels. 

Embracing a path of long-term sobriety, Lou Gossett Jr. is a passionate believer in the transformative power of the 12 Steps. As a public advocate, he founded the Eracism Foundation to help end racism by establishing Shamba Centers. The Swahili word for farm, the goal of the Shamba Centers will be to offer instruction in cultural diversity, historical enrichment and anti-violence initiatives for young adults, teens and pre-teens. The Fix is grateful to have the opportunity to speak with him.

On the Hazelden website, William C. Moyers heralds you as a true example of positive celebrity recovery. He quotes your description of early sobriety, "Finally, that's when I realized that the man inside of me—me—had to give in, stop trying so hard, surrender, have a commitment, willingness to change, clean up my own house inside and get rid of my defects of character... Suddenly, I faced a very pleasant dilemma... learning to live in sobriety." 

Can you describe what this pleasant dilemma has been like? 

The pleasant dilemma is now I’m normal. We have been so dark in our lives, but then we start working on these defects of character and shortcomings, and making amends through the Steps. We are able to clear the blockage of our past life and the light comes through us. People take notice. You’ve changed, and they want to know what it is. They often see it as a miracle, but the miracles that people talk about are not miracles. They are returning to normal. During that process, we realize how abnormal we’ve been for most of our lives, even before we started to use. 

We are back on the track of learning. We have to retrain ourselves almost from the point of childhood, addressing what happened that made us use in the first place. We have to make peace, forgive ourselves, and start from scratch. Some of us need to go back as far as six, seven, eight, nine or ten years old to find that blockage and get rid of it. When we get sober long enough, the blockage goes away so we feel beyond the pink cloud. We experience this wonderful feeling of freedom and exhilaration and being normal. That’s what happens to other people all the time. Because we have used and because we have these 12 Steps, we can get to this place in adulthood, and it’s exhilarating, but then we have to calm down and let our Higher Power be in charge. 

We have to let our Higher Power shine his light through our system and illuminate five areas: physical, emotional, mental, spiritual and psychical. That’s the natural growth of mankind. Now we return to something close to normal. Then we go from there to being in God’s grace. My Higher Power is God. We are in the palm of His hand, communicating with that energy—morning, noon, and night. The miracles then start from there.

Today, beyond your notable career as a film, television and stage actor, you have been sober for well over a decade. Since embracing the path of long-term recovery, you have become deeply connected to being of service to your community. How does being of service help you stay sober?

One more time, being of service is normal for the human being. We are a tribe of people: not African American or Chinese or Italian or Jewish. We are a tribe of human beings and our survival depends upon our interconnection and selfless service. It’s not me first; it’s us first. This becomes more apparent as long as we stay sober and do these Steps, especially that 11th Step Prayer, the St. Francis Prayer. The closer we get to that prayer, the better we are and the better the people around us are. We become attracted and we go back to normal one more time. We solve all problems if we do that, including the presidential debates and all of that, by gentle suggestion. We have to be of service to others. We have to be in that mode the first thing in the morning and the last thing at night. We have to continue in that direction and everything seems to fade in its path.

In The New York Times in 1989, you mentioned how the best part of achieving sobriety was finding the spiritual path that you had lost. You said, “Now, I know I have the innate spirit to survive and be happy. I know now I could make it, even if I had to get back to driving a taxicab.'' Can you describe your Higher Power to us? What does your spirituality look like, and how does it affect your life?

The priority is that once you do these Steps and you come to a particular place after being sober a long time and doing the do, you find out the most important thing is your inner spirit, your inner life. You work on getting your insides to match your outsides. You don’t have to lie anymore and you don’t have to pretend. Your cover is open, God is in charge, and you promote in all of your affairs—as it says in the book—a program of selfless service. Whether I’m a cabdriver or a superstar or whatever people call me on the outside, I have peace of mind on the inside. I keep going in the direction of the light. My serenity does not depend on when someone takes my money or I lose my career. It’s still there inside so I bring it with me to work and I bring it back home with me after. 

You recently told Christianity Today, “I figured when I won the Oscar and an Emmy, I'd get some great [movie roles], but it really didn't happen. It's not happening at all... The worst resentment that anybody can have is one you feel justified to keep.”

In the 12-Step Programs, there is a saying that an expectation is a resentment under construction. Do you think the expectations brought on by your success hurt you? For alcoholics and addicts, is success sometimes more dangerous than failure?

I think so, because once again it becomes an outside job. The expectations shouldn’t happen because it means we’re taking our power back from a Higher Power that has a timeframe that we have to adhere to, even if it’s not ours. I was at a meeting the other day, and I bumped into an old friend who is now eight years sober. She is very upset at God because God was supposed to bring her this glorious thing and she’s still waiting. She had her hands on her hips and she said, “I’m miserable because I’ve been serving God and he hasn’t paid attention to me.” She was fuming.

But that’s just another way of getting high. We can’t expect; we have to just do. We have to know deep in our bones through a complete unadulterated faith in a Higher Power that His time is better than my time. He’s the one holding the steering wheel and in the driving seat; not us, anymore. We are humble servants of the message. If we choose to side with those resentments, it’s just another way of getting high. That type of attitude from the old days is another way of getting stoned. The sooner we get rid of it, the better. 

After winning the Academy Award, you went into the deepest depression of your life. In 1989, you told The New York Times that before you got sober, "I had an Oscar, an Emmy, and yet I had this big hole in my soul. I was in a pit of self-pity and resentment." Beyond getting sober, how did you fill that big hole in your soul? What brought you back and restored a sense of meaning to your life?

Once again, the problem was expectations. I got three Emmys, I got an Oscar, and I’ve never made a million dollars for any movie. For all of us in this business, the rule was supposed to be that you win the awards and you get your million dollars, and you get your stuff and you live your life in a happy home. But that’s expectation. 

I have been doing this for close to sixty years. I am globally famous and respected, but I had to behave a certain way. Like that girl with the hand on her hips, I was waiting for the results of my work. I got shelves full of awards. One would think that I would be living in a mansion. There’s never ever going to be a satisfaction with what you achieve if you think about yourself first. If you back up and you go around to the supermarkets and to the theater and to your family, you really have accomplished what you are supposed to have accomplished. Your humility makes it even better. 

In my DNA, that monster disease that’s stronger than me can have an inroad to my psyche and my spirit if I focus on external things. Yup, you are in a mansion now, but you don’t have enough of this. Those thoughts just ruin your day. You have to remember how powerless we are and how much of a humble student we are of the process of being sober. You are looking at a Rembrandt, but all you can focus on is the loose thread on the lower left hand side. 

You won a Best Supporting Oscar for playing the tough-by-the-book Sgt. Emil Foley in An Officer and a Gentleman. Although you weren’t sober at the time, it seemed like you connected deeply with that character. What would the character of Sgt. Foley have said about your years of alcohol and drug abuse? What would he have said about your ability to later recover?

He would have said, “That’s my Marine!” As a Gunnery Sergeant, the philosophy of the Marines is that you have a great deal of love and care for your soldiers, your Marines, your recruits—but you have to sit on it because your job is to make them a man. In that scene, when Richard Gere said, “I’ll never forget you,” Foley almost broke down. 

The love is there. My dad had that kind of love. I didn’t know it until later. He never really patted me on the back or even gave me a handshake, but he was so proud of me and I didn’t even know it. When he passed away, I went to his room and he had all of these scrapbooks about my career. He was so proud, and I had thought he didn’t even care. Lessons never stop in this life. 

At the end of 2014, President Barack Obama congratulated you both in person and in a letter after your received a lifetime achievement award. Even though you played the President in 2005's Left Behind: World at War, did you think at that time you would actually see an African American president in your lifetime? Are you proud of what President Obama’s administration has been able to accomplish? 

I actually got to meet him before his presidency. For quite a few years, I was the MC at the Congressional Black Caucus, and I first met him there. Later, I also saw this young man speak and bring the house down—bring the world down—at the Chicago Democratic National Convention. My mind said, “Wow! He would make a great Senator. He’s the culmination of what we’re all thinking. He represents us all. I wish that things would be better so that he could possibly run for president.” Fade out.

Fade in. I am watching this debate between Hillary and Barack Obama. It’s going back and forth, and it’s wonderful. Even before that moment, at the Congressional Black Caucus, he met me with his entourage and he said, “Mr. Gossett, I’m Barack Obama and I’m running for president.” My mind said, “Fat chance, but thank you, keep trying, and I’ll support you anyway I can.” Fade out.

Fade in. Along with Cicely Tyson, I’m standing and looking up at a 45-degree angle to where he has his hand on the Bible. Cicely is standing on her chair next to me. It was kind of chilly out there, but we can’t feel anything. He’s got his hand on the Bible, and the guy makes a mistake. He made a mistake so deep that Barack said, “Will you please start again?” He started again, and he did not make the mistake. I saw Michelle, standing there, somewhat cold, standing there and watching him with his hand on the Bible. Finally, when it got to the last words that he had to repeat, I looked over at Cicely Tyson, and she collapsed off the chair and onto the ground. And I collapsed on top of her. We both began to blubber; we got so moved (voice breaking). Emotion came out of our bodies like a flood, like a film speeded up as everything came out of my system—all the lynchings, all the killings, all the negative things that had happened racially in my lifetime and before. I’m getting emotional again right now as I remember, because it emptied us out. We were exorcised. We looked at each other and we started hugging, then we got up and we hugged everybody we could see. Finally, we had come to this particular place in history. We had lost so many people before. We had lost the Kennedys, we had lost Dr. King, we had lost everybody. But today, here he is, the President of the United States. 

What a big job to do now; the reality sets in real quick. What a job he’s got to do. He has done in eight years the best job that I can remember that any president in the history of America has ever done. But in six weeks, his hair went from black to white. I can only imagine how many threats and rumored contracts he has on a daily basis. Yet, here is this incredible family, the first family of the world, looking as good and as evolved and as wonderful as they are. That’s God’s miracle. And he’s still there and stronger than ever. He has something to do with a conscious contact with some Higher Power somewhere, that has allowed him to stay alive and speak his mind and change the world.

You told Christianity Today, “I concentrate on what I think are healthy directions, rather than the unhealthy direction of my past... Sometimes anger would eat me up inside. That's where you get your cancers and your high blood pressure and all kinds of stuff, whether the anger is justified or not.” 

In a recent interview with Dr. Gabor Maté for The Fix, he talked about the disease-prone personality and the power of the mind-body connection. Do you believe anger and resentment have the power to make us sick? 

Absolutely! Negative thoughts and feelings have a negative effect on the mind, the heart, and stir up certain fluids in our bodies. It leads to heart attacks, strokes, dementia; all of that stuff comes from the natural disconnection of our contact with the earth and God. What we're talking about is a kind of early medicine that they called alchemy. From the earth back in the day, we would take some water and we put some minerals in it and we put it up on the shelf and we drink it in thirty days, and those negative elements would go away. We had a sense of being a tribe with everyone interconnected—everybody was fed, and everybody had a role to play at certain ages. We were locked into a mutual survival by being benevolent and selfless. Now we got resentments, we got angers, we have disease that are self-taught. People are making money by taking the symptoms and hiding them.

I think the answer to most of it—and this is just my gut feeling—is a conscious contact with a Higher Power and these Steps that we do to improve ourselves one day at a time. It helps us return back from certain disease. I’ve had cancer twice, and I’ve recovered. I hesitate to say that too much because I don’t want people to read it and say, “Let me try.” It doesn’t work like that. If we have as close as possible contact to the way that we are supposed to be on this planet, however, a conscious contact with a Higher Power—whomever you might call him—as long as your Higher Power does what my Higher Power does for me, a chemical reaction happens from the brain and the heart to the body and to the spirit in a positive way. I think we create some of these things. People are making a great deal of money on the illnesses. But I think most of the antidote happens with our conscious contact with the earth, our Higher Power, and our daily duties of being one of many.

On the Eracism Foundation website—a nonprofit organization aimed at creating entertainment that helps bring awareness and education to issues such as racism, ignorance, and societal apathy—you highlight an inspiring quote by Nelson Mandela: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate.” Mandela is talking about the development of stigma as children are taught to hate the other. Do you think this same stigma applies to the disease of alcoholism and addiction? In a sense, is the fight against the stigma of addiction an extension of the fight against discrimination and prejudice? 

I do believe it comes from the same part of the mind. I remember reading about the time when the alcoholic, the guy on the street, was lost and there were no programs to help him get better. We have now grown to the point where it’s the third most prolific disease on the planet; there’s cancer, there’s AIDS and there’s alcoholism. Today, we are sensitive to the disease, the dis-ease of drug addiction and alcoholism, and how it’s one of the offshoots of us falling off the train. When we are more sensitive to one another, we can catch some of these defects of character because everybody sees everybody. You can the people who are dis-eased in a room because they stick out like a sore thumb. With the sensitivity produced by being in the program, we can recognize those people in trouble and not in the program. We have been there and done that. That’s a good thing to do for us.

We are once again, one people who have to share our experience, strength and hope at meetings, through unions and in sponsorship. We are sensitive to one another, and we are growing in popularity and in necessity in this world. We have a selfless job of healing one another. It’s prevalent in people who rise from the ashes of use to become reliable citizens of the world. In fact, I think everybody needs some kind of 12-Steps or some kind of program in order to get there as well. The good fortune—and that’s the good dilemma I’m talking about—we have no choice but to go through those Steps, improve ourselves, and get as close to that power and to that light as possible. That’s our choice, whether we like it or not, and it’s suggested that we like it more than dislike it. 

You have been making a lot of faith-based movies funded by churches. You believe it’s a positive step for the churches to enter the entertainment business, saying, “They can singlehandedly maybe change the spiritual countenance of the country.” What do you see as the present-day spiritual countenance of the country, and what needs to change? 

I see today that we are going in the right direction. Maybe my mind has changed. I remember JFK saying to the people, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” I believe in taking that same phrase and turning it towards spirituality: “Ask not what God can do for you, but what you can do for God.” 

Faith-based movies are well done, and I just did an excellent one called The Reason (The film, based on the William Sirls book, follows a small-town pastor, his wife and their sick child as a mysterious man is sent to give them hope). There’s something about our service, our selfless service that we have to do, being of service the whole, and it makes things better. It puts a proper light on it and give us energy and strength as a result. There’s been a lot of movies out there about action and science, but this one kind of comes into the picture in a nice way. It’s a wonderful movie that may be able to show people that hope is out there if they are open to it.

In 2011, you received the Experience, Strength and Hope Award from Writers in Treatment for your artistic accomplishments, creative endeavors and carrying the message of recovery to a society struggling with addiction. Since it was connected to your recovery from alcoholism and addiction, did it hold a special meaning for you? What message would you like to give to people still struggling with the disease?

There is a message on the back of the t-shirt that I am wearing today, a message for all of the people out there struggling with the disease of addiction, and that message is, “There Is No Such Thing As Impossible.” Impossible is not in your wheelhouse. However, we do have to get ourselves teachable, humble, draw our ego away, and be willing to be retaught. 

I was told when I first got into the rooms, “There’s only one thing that you’ve got to change.” And I asked, “What’s that?” And they said, “Everything.” From my experience, I have learned that’s really true. We have to relearn so much, but we play catch up rather quickly when we do that. More things get revealed when we’re in that mode. Things and opportunities come past us on a daily basis, but we have to be receptive. In order to be receptive, we have to do the 12 Steps and get ourselves available to recognize the opportunities when they come. 

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.