Intimidating. No-nonsense. Dramatic.
These words best describe Oscar- and Emmy Award-winning Louis Gossett Jr.'s screen personae. That is until "El Diablo," HBO's comedic Western adventure, which premieres Sunday at 8 p.m.
Gossett plays an aging gunslinger named Thomas Van Leek who helps a young schoolteacher (Anthony Edwards) rescue a beautiful young pupil from the clutches of the evil outlaw El Diablo. Van Leek chews tobacco and carries an arsenal of guns.
Van Leek is a definite 360-degree turn from Gossett's Oscar-winning role as the tough drill instructor in "An Officer and a Gentleman." He's not above shooting his enemies in the back to save his own skin. He puts cotton in the sensitive ears of his old horse every time he becomes embroiled in a gunfight.
"I had a ball doing stuff like that," Gossett said gleefully while relaxing on the leather sofa in the living room of his Malibu home. "For me it's a chance to be funny. It's not like 'Officer and a Gentleman' or 'Iron Eagle.' I got a chance to put tobacco in my mouth and get cantankerous and have fun."
"Very, very good actors come out of the woodwork to do comedy," said Peter Markle, who directed "El Diablo." "We always knew Tony (Edwards) was funny, but not Lou. I think he aged himself about 15 years and adopted this gravely voice as this gunslinger in his waning years. It's an excellent part and Lou is a real pro. He reminded me of Gene Hackman (whom Markle directed in "Bat 21"). He has a great sense of humor."
Before production began, Gossett created a history for Van Leek. "The history came with putting the wardrobe together," he said, petting one of his two cats. The actor opted for an old buffalo soldier cap, a makeshift military jacket and worn boots. "He's upwards of 60 and he's a gunfighter that's still alive. How do you do that? You don't give him a chance to face anybody. You shoot them in the back. That's how you survive. I got a gun for every occasion and three on my horse. You show your enemies that and most of the time they back off. He is weather-beaten and cantankerous. All of a sudden, he becomes fleshed out."
Gossett has been searching for roles that will get him away from his stern image. "I am going against 'Officer and a Gentleman,' " he said. "When I go around the world, people want me to look and act like that all the time."
Though Gossett has agreed to star in a sequel to both "Officer and a Gentleman" and "Iron Eagle," he turned down a series version of "Officer" and a commercial featuring his character. "It was a lucrative commercial," he said, "but I would have been stuck. The series would have been flat."
Actors, Gossett maintains, are divided into two groups. "There are people who get discovered at 21 and they look young and wonderful," he said. "Then 20 years later they are still trying to play the same part. It's terrible for your system. Then there are the Henry Fondas, the Jimmy Cagneys and Sean Connerys. They are the ones that grow gracefully in front of the camera. That is much healthier."
At 54, Gossett is happy and healthy and wants his roles to reflect that. "I want to stay as versatile as possible," he said. "Versatility is synonymous with longevity."
Gossett is not above taking smaller roles in low-budget features or cable movies such as "El Diablo." "I did one movie for Lifetime, 'Sudie and Simpson,' " he said. "It was a wonderful experience. ('Sudie and Simpson" is set to air Sept. 11). It wasn't a high-budget thing, but the part was wonderful. I think cable movies expand a career. You don't overload the budget of a movie and you get a chance to do things that are really relevant. I think 'El Diablo' is a major movie. It should be seen in the movie houses. It's a big budget looking movie."
Gossett is eager to ride the range again. " 'El Diablo' was my first big feature Western," he said. "There are some people in history I would like to do-James Beckworth, a mountain man who founded the Northwest Passage and became chief of the Crow nation, and there is Deadwood Dick and Railroad Bill. There are a lot of wonderful stories."
More importantly, Gossett wants to make audiences laugh. "I would love to do another comedy," he said. "It was wonderful to be funny. I have been serious too long. It's time for me to lighten up."