Louis Gossett Jr’s Little-Known Role in Late-Night TV History

Though he was best known as an Academy Award-winning actor, Louis Gossett Jr., who died today at the age of 87,  also played a pivotal role in what would end up making late night history.

In the early 1960s, in addition to performing as an actor, Gossett was also a part of New York City’s folk music scene, where he was considered a talented musician. It was then that he developed a close friendship with folk singer Richie Havens. 

Thirty years later, Havens would recall of first meeting Gossett, “He used to sing work songs and chain-gang songs, and he would just smack the guitar. You know, [sings] ‘Take this hammer’ – smack! ‘Carry it to the captain’ – smack! He’d sing all these great tunes. That’s how I first met him.”

In 1966, while Gossett was appearing in the Broadway show My Sweet Charlie, he and Havens co-wrote the song Handsome Johnny, which Havens recorded later that year.

A ringing protest of the War in Vietnam, Havens performed Handsome Johnny on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1967, where it clearly captured the nation’s mood at the time. At the song’s end, the studio audience rose to its feet, giving Havens a standing ovation that’s said to have lasted through at least one commercial break. (By some reports, it lasted through two commercial breaks–tragically, most of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show episodes from 1965-1972 were not preserved, leaving the details of this late-night milestone murky.)

When the ovation finally died down, Carson reportedly asked Havens to sing another song and invited him back the following night. Havens would later perform the song during his career-defining performance at the Woodstock Festival in 1969.

In a 2023 interview with the podcast No Root, No Fruit, Gossett recalled writing Handsome Johnny with Havens based on his own experience as he faced being drafted into a war that he didn’t support. He went on to describe being evicted from his home in Los Angeles some time later because he couldn’t pay his rent, when a royalties check for Handsome Johnny arrived–in the amount of $72,000. 

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *