Art and culture

Richard Gere Remembers Louis Gossett Jr.

It’s been more than 40 years since “An Officer and a Gentleman” became a surprise box office smash, but from time to time, star Richard Gere still gets called out about the classic military drama.

“Every once in a while, I hear people calling me from across the street, ‘Hey Mayo, Mayo-nnaise,’ and that’s Lou,” Gere tells Variety, reflecting on the legacy of the film following the death of his Oscar-winning co-star Louis Gossett Jr. on Friday at age 87.

In the 1982 film, Gere plays Zack Mayo, an aspiring Navy aviator who clashes with his hard-nosed drill instructor, Gunnery Sgt. Emil Foley (Gossett). Gossett went on to win the best supporting actor Oscar for his performance, making history as the first Black actor to win in that category and joining Sidney Poitier and Hattie McDaniel as the only Black performers awarded at the time.

“We were all proud of the film and Lou was proud of his work in it – and he should be! He was a humble guy,” Gere says of Gossett Jr.’s historic win. “We were pleased for him as an artist, and as a man, that he got that recognition.”

In a conversation with Variety, Gere reminisced about their time on set:

“As tough as Foley was, you always felt this warm heart beating in him. That’s why Lou was so effective in that role: he wasn’t just a ‘tough guy’; he was someone who really cared about all those kids that he was mentoring.

He worked hard to be Foley. He did a lot of research and spent time with a drill sergeant from Pensacola who was working with us. Lou was on him like white on rice, picking up everything he could. Lou was very smart and single-minded in not socializing with us. I didn’t see another side of him [while filming], but I didn’t need to. Some actors are just knowable. Their basic humanity, no matter what they’re doing, comes through. Lou had that. He was a good guy, but he had to be tough on us — and he was super tough. I can’t imagine anyone better than him playing that part.

Lou was a sweetheart. He was a very gentle, sensitive and intelligent guy. He really cared about his craft. He cared about creating a character and doing a good job. He was a team player, there to serve the story. For our scenes, we had to have a real trust with each other, and that evolved very quickly. We could trust each other not just as fellow actors, but as fellow human beings.

Louis Gossett Jr. and Richard Gere in “An Officer and a Gentleman.”
©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

Our fight scene was one of the most important in the movie. It’s not just a fight. It’s a whole internal struggle that my character is going through and a lesson that he knows I need to learn about myself.

We rehearsed for months. I was doing all the physical training that the cadets were going through, but before or after shooting, I’d spend an hour or two doing karate lessons and Lou was doing his stuff as well. We didn’t do the routines together until we actually shot it and we were going pretty full out. We didn’t want to hurt each other, but we wanted it to be real. We had different styles. He’s very strict classical karate, and I was coming from this other style of Taekwondo, kickboxing and everything mixed in, which took him by surprise when we were sparring.

This wasn’t a movie that people had high expectations of. It was a small budget, an under the radar production, but we all worked hard to bring out the best. I made a movie with director Akira Kurosawa [1991’s ‘Rhapsody in August’], and I was very surprised that he put ‘An Office and a Gentleman’ on his top 10 list. But I could understand because there was this sense of honor, dignity, self-sacrifice and self-acceptance in the movie.

And the primary agent of that was Lou.”

Louis Gossett Jr. after winning the Oscar for best supporting actor during the 55th Academy Awards.
Bill Nation/Sygma via Getty Images

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