Louis Gossett Jr. on 'Roots,' Working With Sidney Poitier and His Fight Scene With Richard Gere (Exclusive)

The Academy Award-winning actor reflects on making 'Roots' 45 years later and working with Sidney Poitier.

Louis Gossett Jr. is looking back on his iconic work. The actor sat down with ET to reflect on his most influential work, including the iconic ABC miniseries Roots. It's been 45 years since the eight-episode series hit the network and, as Gossett says, "woke people up."

The 1977 miniseries, based on Alex Haley's 1976 novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, follows the journey of an African man who is enslaved and shipped to North America, and his descendants. Gossett starred as an older enslaved man named Fiddler alongside a bevy of well-known faces, including LeVar BurtonCicely Tyson, Ben Vereen, John Amos, Madge Sinclair and more. 

The series won nine of its 37 Emmy Award nominations, as well as a Golden Globe and a Peabody Award. It holds the record for the third-highest-rated episode for any type of television series, and the second-most-watched overall series finale in U.S. television history. Roots is now available to watch on Digital, Blu-Ray and streaming on HBO Max. But before it earned all the praise and acclaim, Gossett reveals that ABC producers were apprehensive about how Americans would receive the short series.

"I remember [executives] deciding that it shouldn't be on once a week because the South would object," he recalls. "So they decided to put it on one day at a time for [8] straight days. The opposite happened, it woke up the South! Everybody watched it."

The 85-year-old actor reveals that he hadn't experienced "that kind of treatment" growing up with a diverse friend group in Brooklyn. It wasn't until 1966 when he was racially profiled by the police while driving in Los Angeles, that he related to the experience of being "separate and not being accepted." It made filming Roots all the more powerful for the actor.

"My best friend at the time was Vic Morrow, God rest his soul. He came up to me before that scene, that famous scene, and he apologized. I said, 'What are you apologizing for?' He says, 'You’ll see,'" Gossett remembers. "So I’m looking at LeVar -- fresh out of [the University of Southern California], my new best friend. And they got him tied up, being whipped, [yelling] "Say your name." And my heart started beating hard because I’ve got to be honest in front of that camera and tell our story."

Gossett recalls trying to "keep a straight face" as Burton and Morrow acted out one of the series' most memorable scenes, and feeling "something broke in my chest" as he watched the scene unfold.

"He cut him down and I went down and I put some water on his wrist. And I looked at Vic and I looked at Alex Haley, and I said, 'What do you care what that man calls you? Your name is Kunta Kinte. That's who you’ll always be. Toby, just let them say that,'" he says. "That’s the line. Then I looked at Vic and, it's not in the script but I said, 'There's gonna be another day, there's gonna be another day.' And then Alex said cut."

Gossett won an Emmy Award for his role as Fiddler, and he went on to experience more success, becoming the first-ever Black actor to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He won the award for 1982's An Officer and a Gentleman, which featured the infamous fight scene between Gossett's Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley, USMC, and Richard Gere's Aviation Officer Candidate Zack Mayo. 

Gossett has also starred alongside big names such as James Earl Jones, Godfrey Cambridge, Maya Angelou and Sir Sidney Poitier. The actor worked with the late Poitier in 1961's A Raisin in the Sun and describes him as "disciplined." He recalls watching the older actor learn to speak fluent English by reading The New York Times and being taught by the janitors of the American Negro Theater.

"When I met him, it was hard for me not to copy him, he was so good and so poetic," Gossett admits. "It made sense that he was, that was the only way to do those moments. So, it made me go deeper in myself to come up with my own unique way of doing that."

Considering Gossett's extraordinary resume, he's mastered it.