Louis Gossett - all rich chocolate hues from his bald head to his velvet slacks - has had a year off irony. First he played the slave "Fiddler" in "Roots" which won him an Emmy Award and then he appeared as "Cloche" a Carribean villian in "The Deep," that left people wondering about toe image of blacks in the movies.
And now he's out promoting "Muntu" jewelry based on a symbol created by Sam Lax, a white man, to give back people a unified identity.
Gossett, who is in town to talk today about the jewelry at the Hecht Co. and also to attend a meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus, doesn't see a whit of irony in any of it.
"Both the characters I play had dignity. Fiddler has a dignity that everyone recognizes. And I hope that Cloche has too. There's room for both characters. I call taht variety and versatility."
Gossett says that the casting of "The Deep" - which some blacks viewed as a recist film because all the villains were black - was more a matter of economics than anything else.
"It was a matter of getting the big names to play in the film. Robert Shaw, Jacqueline Bisset, they were all hot at the time. After "Roots," my name was hot. It's a matter of getting the most people in the theater. Treece, he character that Robert Shaw plays, is not a white role, it's a multi-racial character. He tried wearing make-up, but he kept losing it in the water. If James Earl Jones' name was big, he would have played the character, but his box office is not as strong as Robert Shaw's. James Earl Jones, by the way, is my ideal."
As for the jewelry, Gossett says, "it was black minds that told Lax to do it."
He explains that his involvement with the symbol, which Lax fashioned while a prisoner in San Quentin and decided to market because of its popularity with black prisoners, came about because of Gossett's curiosity.
Called "Muntu," a Swahili word that means "soul," the jewelry features a black silhouette of the United States with roots inscribed on the continent of Africa.
"I kept seeing in one people and asked about it," recalls Gossett. "Then one day, I was in Schwabs in L.A. and this man, Sam Lax, sat down next to me and slapped the Muntu on the counter. I hear you've been looking for me," he says. It was like in the cowboy movies."
Gosset doesn't fell that the jewelry promotion has any exploitative elements about it.
"Muntu is, in a very real sense, a people's symbol. Not only do we hope that people will identify with it in this way, but Muntu will also work to benefit people culturally and spiritually."
It is the same feeling that Gossett says came from the national viewing of "Roots."
"You know as a theater person, one gets an immediate reaction from the audience, but in television and film you never really know how people feel, even if you hear about the number of viewers. But on this tour for Muntu, I've seen the people in person. Now I know."
Though Gossett expects to benefit from Muntu financially himself, he has also set up the Muntu Foundation, a non-profit corporation to benefit the arts, charitable organizations and individuals through the jewelry sales.
Muntu, as well as a perspective foundation for the arts, is one way in which Gossett says he hopes to get some mileage out of his current star status.
"We did it in New York several years ago with anti-poverty money. I got a grant for $17,500 and set up a 10-week program for 12-to-18-year-old street-gang members to learn about the theater. I broke up four warring gangs - one Italian, one black, one Puerto Rican, and one combination of them all. I think aspects of the theater can take the underprivilege child and after him vistas he's never considered."
A tiny glints from his car as he talks. It's a garnet, he says, explaining that he got his ear pierced when he was filming "The White Dawn," a film about three whalers at the turn of the century.
"We were 125 miles south of the Arctic circle and it so cold I could never tell whether the earring I had on was there or not, so finally I got my ear pierced. I secretly wanted to do it anyway.
He also wears a turquoise bracelet on one arm, an heirloom from his great-grandmother, Bertha. He says that some of the characteristics - the speech patterns and mannerism - of the character "Fiddler" are based on her.
"She used to have snuff in her mouth," he says, fondling the bracelet. "She raised me and about 20 of my cousins. The bracelet was from her husband, a Cherokee, who with his family walked the "Trail of Tears." He walked back to Georgia to marry her and brought the bracelet as a gift."
Despite his current big-name status, Gossett says he doesn't hang out with Hollywood luminaries, but with friends who have nothing to do with the movie business. "They knew me when I wasn't hot, they like me because of me," he says.
So he relaxes at his house in Malibu, doing meditation and running along the beach. Gossett, now divorced, is the father of a 3-year-old son, Eric Satie.
"When he was about three days old, he was crying something fierce and then I put on 'Trois Gymnopedies' by Satie and he became quiet. So that's what we named him."