I never intended to become a Hollywood actor. Maybe I thought about it in my youth but growing up in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s, made Hollywood seem like a distant world.

As children, my sister Donna and I performed on a variety show at Immaculata High School. We did some dance. Variety shows were big deals. Kids from throughout the neighborhood and the school participated. But that was it until high school and Miss Hilda Horn, my speech teacher, had me do a walk across the stage near the end of a school play. I wanted a part in the play and she wanted me in the play, but I was playing football.

I did readers’ theatre in college with Dr. Overstreet. It was fun. Again, football limited my time.

After college, I made a new discovery, one that would feed my soul, community theatre. Not just any community theatre, this was theatre at a very high level. The only professional thing we didn’t do was get paid. Still, I loved it. Working in management at BellSouth/AT&T, I’d shuck my suit every evening and head to the theatre for a rehearsal.

I was back working on a team goal.

There’s a feeling I’d get before playing a college football game. I describe it as an inner intensity that allowed me to run faster, jump higher and never get tired.  Theatre rekindled that for me. Backstage, before the show, you hear that audience buzz, the sound of anticipation. It is a major high. Fences, Master Harold and The Boys, I’m Not Rappaport, American Buffalo, Ali were all highlights.  

So how did I get to Hollywood? 

I was discovered (ha!ha!) doing community theatre in Birmingham, Alabama at the tender age of 31, ancient for a beginning actor.  Shirley Crumbley, a casting director, called one morning after the previous evening’s performance.  Shirley said the director Milton Bagby was doing a film in town. He had been at the performance the night before and wanted to write me into his film. I said yes! That was it, simple and easy. I did the part. Met some people I still know today and went back to my job.

Before long, with the connection of an Atlanta Agent, I went before Carroll O’Connor to read for the part of the city councilman in the television series, In The Heat Of The Night. I won the part. We shot the show in Covington Georgia. For the next six years, in a recurring role I played Ted Marcus. I learned Television. Plus, I got to keep my job and live at home!

After that series wrapped after 6 years, Miss Ever’s Boys and Big Ben Washington came calling. Miss Ever’s Boys for HBO shot all over the Atlanta area. I was Big Ben! It was a high level production with Hollywood stars at the top of their game, Alfre Woodard, Lawrence Fishburne, and director Joe Sargent. It is a great piece of work.

So how did I get to Hollywood? I’m getting there….

joyce, my wife and I attended the Miss Ever’s Boys premier in Los Angeles. We love premieres. They are big parties with a lot of dress up fun. You dress up. You stroll down the red carpet. People take your picture. Everybody is beautiful. Heeeyyy!

After the film, we feasted on good food, and acting compliments. Then… Todd stepped into the picture and altered our lives. Two weeks later, I was in Los Angeles with Todd as my agent.

I was in and out of Hollywood for the next 13 years. It was a great run, NYPD Blue, Fight Club, ER, Boston Legal, Jeepers Creepers 2, commercials, and theatre. I worked up and down California. After 13 years, Hollywood followed me back to the South. It moved to Atlanta and all over the Southeast. I’m back with my original agent. I do my auditions in my office, e-mail them to my agents and they put me in front of the decisions makers.  Oh yeah, I still feel that quiet intensity.

So, that’s it. That’s how I got to Hollywood… and back!

Best Gurl commemorates 30 years of business in May 2017 

Founder Thom Gossom Jr. “looks back” in a series of blogs

In The Heat of The Night, the long running television show from the late 1980s through the mid 1990s, kick started an unintentional acting career for me.

With my PR business, Thom Gossom Communications, running smoothly in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, and a good staff to keep the day-to-day running; I sampled the local theatre scene, something I’d always wanted to do but never got around to. Once I started, I did my first play at 29 years of age and began to flourish. A Soldiers PlayFences; My Children, My Africa; Ali; and later, Master Harold and The BoysA Christmas Carol; and my own play Speak Of Me As I Am all became successful hits on the theatre scene. For several years running, I was voted one of Birmingham’s best actors.

Then, the unthinkable happened!

After an inspirational evening performance, the next morning I received a phone call that would change my life. Out of the blue, I was offered a part in the film being shot locally. The director had happened into one of my performances and decided to write a part for me. It was a great break, but still one from which I had no deeper ambitions. The film struggled with distribution but it was a great experience. I learned a lot. I met several actors who became and still are good friends. I met my agent then, who is still my agent now. The thought began to roll around in my head that this could be a good way to make a living.

From that film, ShadowWaltz, a couple of television roles opened up for me in Georgia, and then it happened. I was offered a possible recurring role as the city councilman, Melvin Lemon, in one of television’s top shows, In the Heat of The Night.

I shot the job but the recurring part of the deal didn’t happen. I worked that one episode that year and that was it. Based on that, and being 37 years old, I decided no matter how the acting thing turned out I would keep my business. It was steady. It was fun, I was established and if other acting opportunities emerged, I’d do them both.

Still, like all actors, I wondered what happened to the city council recurring role. I questioned my agent. I questioned myself. Did I do something wrong? Did they eliminate the character?” With no intention of going any further and with steady clients in my business, it was back to local community theatre I went.

The following television season another phone call came. It was my agent; “You have an appointment with Carroll O’Connor to read again for the City Councilman’s role.” “What?” I questioned. This time the councilman’s name was Ted Marcus. I took off for Covington, Georgia.

In the outer room at the production office, several of us hopefuls waited for our turn to become Ted Marcus. The questions in my head continued. Should I do something different from last year? Why did they change his name?

My turn came.

I stepped into the room where Carroll and the other executive producer Ed Ledding awaited me. We exchanged pleasantries. Carroll asked, “Didn’t you play the City Councilman last year?”

“Yes.” I answered. Silence filled the room, as they looked me over. Silence in an audition is always uncomfortable. I then did something I’ve never done since. I seized the moment and blurted out, “So why are you trying to give my job to someone else?”

Carroll, smiling, fired back, “Then, I won’t give your job to someone else. It’s yours.”

I grin now thinking about it. For the next six years, Ted Marcus was mine. I was Ted Marcus on a top-ten television show, still living in Birmingham and running my business.

Life was good!

For many of us on that show, it was our first time on a series. We were a weekly top-ten television show and we all enjoyed the spoils. Around some of the Atlanta night clubs it was, “Whatever you want Ted.”

During the next six years I lived and learned episodic television. Carroll was a master. He knew what he wanted from this show. He knew what the legacy of a Southern Sheriff in Mississippi could be if he so desired. In full control, he wrote some of the episodes under the name Matt Harris.

It was a wonderful ride. My favorite actor from the show was Howard Rollins, one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with. I met many of the older stars, Carroll’s friends, Tippi Hedren, from The Birds, and Larry Hagman, from Dallas. Carl Weathers (Apollo Creed in Rocky) and I exchanged Christmas Cards for many years. Randall Tex Cobb, the heavyweight Boxer who took an awful beating from heavyweight champion Larry Holmes did a couple of episodes.

When The Heat phased out around 1995, I went back to my business full time and waited for the next phone call. It wasn’t long before it came. This time it was Miss Ever’s Boys with Alfre Woodard and Laurence Fishburne for HBO. I rode that one all the way to Hollywood.

Shortly thereafter, I became the title character Israel in the Emmy winning episode of NYPD BLUE: Lost Israel. I continued with Fight Club, Jeepers Creepers 2 and several recurring episodes of Boston Legal, Closer to Home, Jack and Bobby and recently Containment on top of many more episodes of television and hundreds of commercials.

It had all begun with an itch, a phone call, and the nerve to ask Carroll O’Connor, “Why are you trying to give my job away?”

I met the champ, Muhammad Ali, in 1973. I met him at Auburn University. He was on campus for a lecture entitled “The Intoxications of Life.”

As a part of our Journalism class, the professor arranged for students to cover Ali’s press conference. It was being held in the same building our class was in, Haley Center. Excitedly, we packed up our belongings and headed downstairs to see the champ.

I have been a Muhammad Ali junkie since 1964, when I was twelve years old and he beat Sonny Liston in Miami. A young potential athlete, I invested my time and attention on athletes who had a social conscience, who wanted to make a difference, who had something to say and who often became controversial if they chose to speak about human rights. Ali had something to say and the boxing ring could not contain him.

He changed his name from Cassius Clay, his given name, to Muhammad Ali, which he said meant, “worthy of all praise most high.” He upset the boxing world by beating the “Big Bad Bear” Sonny Liston. He became a Muslim minister. He declared himself the greatest heavyweight champ of all time, which did not set well with the previous generation. He shook up the world with, “Just take me to jail.” As a conscientious-objector, he refused to serve in the US Army after being suspiciously reclassified 1A. He had originally been disqualified for military service. Ali said that he would not fight the Vietcong, and was stripped of his title.

Ali lectured on college campuses across America. Gave people hope that they could have better lives. He became a different symbol of courage. Eventually the US Supreme Court unanimously reversed a lower court decision and granted Ali his conscientious-objector status. He came back to boxing and lost for the first time to his rival Smoking Joe Frazier, (a fight I saw closed-circuit in Columbus, Georgia). He lost to Ken Norton (saw that one too), who had broken his jaw. Now, he was in Auburn, just a few feet in front of me.

I sat there with my reporter’s pad and pen. I was in heaven.

The champ spoke about the “Intoxications of Life.” Ali talked about humbling himself after his two defeats, which he attributed to his immersion into life’s intoxications; too much money, too many women, long nights, not enough training, and not enough godly living. It seemed a perfect message for those of us from the past year’s football team. We had finished the season 6-6 after two seasons of 9-2 and 10-1. Perhaps we had gotten too full of ourselves as well.

After the press conference, Ali put on a show at my expense in the lobby of the auditorium. The photo captured by university photographer Les King, hangs on a wall in our home. The champ has a playful but serious look on his face as he squares off in perfect boxing form shouting at me, “JOE FRAZIER, JOE FRAZIER.” My hands are up in a defensive pose. My fists are not balled up and I am laughing really hard. I too am wary though. He was incredible fast. I dared not make a false move. Afterward, I was interviewed and asked what it was like to square off with the champ.

Our paths would somewhat cross again 22 years later when I performed the one man play “Ali” in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. I sought out the script and director, then played the champ as a young man who would morph into the older version of himself as he was beginning to struggle with the same Parkinson’s disease that eventually KO’d him. I prepped like an athlete. I researched Parkinson’s, watched film, read magazines, hit the heavy bag, listened to tapes of his voice, studied his walk, and trained… and trained. For the run of that show, to the audience, I was Muhammad Ali.

I still have the robe. Identical to the white one he wore in the ring with his name on the back in big red letters. I still have all the research materials, including the 1971 Life Magazine issue with Ali and Joe Frazier on the cover with photos from the epic fight taken by Frank Sinatra.

In his own words, Muhammad was the greatest boxer of all time. In the play he asks, “Do you know what it’s like to be the best in the world at something? The best in the world?”

He became more than a boxer. To many he was a symbol of hope. Also, in the play he says, “I could knock on anybody’s door in the world and they would invite me in.”

“I shook up the world,” he concluded.

Yes he did.

We all showed up at Screen Gems Studio in Atlanta with anticipation. We were there for an in-person audition for a network television show. In-person auditions have become rare in the high technology world of today’s television acting. What was once an actor’s pride, to enter a room with producers, directors, and casting directors and “win the room” has now been relegated to putting your audition on tape and e-mailing it to either your agents or a pay subscriber service (which I refuse to do). Things change.

The opportunity was a USA network episodic in its second season. The character, Mike runs an old dive bar somewhere in North Philadelphia. Mike acts as a counselor to the young actor playing one of the leads, Neil, whose father and Mike were friends in Vietnam. In terms of a character, Mike is interesting, a character with layers and the possibility of recurring work. Mike was worth the time and effort.

Long past the excitement of “being on television,” this opportunity from a business perspective meant a boost in pension pay, earnings toward family healthcare, a payday and perhaps several if Mike recurred. It was strictly business.

But then it turned into something else.

Walking into the audition waiting area, an impromptu reunion took place. The boys were there.

Gordon and I worked together a couple of years ago on the Television Movie Game of Your Life. We had fun and most of our scenes together. I like Gordon’s work. I like Gordon. He’s a great guy to spend 14 hours a day with for several weeks making television.

Charles was the odds on favorite for the job. He has the look. Television is about “The Look.” The producer’s creed is, “We can teach someone to act. We can’t teach a Look.” Charles wears a white beard. He’s short in stature and talks with a comforting tone. I’ve known Charles since we both worked on In The Heat Of The Night in the 1990s.

Alonzo, I don’t know. We share the same agent. Seems like a nice guy. He laughed a lot at the stories flying around the room.

Tony, I’ve never worked with. He had a nice run on a Tyler Perry show. He’s been searching for the next opportunity ever since.

We were all there to read for Mike. That’s “The Business.” There were five of us for the one job. We all had a 20% chance.

The job would begin shooting one week later. We all knew whoever got the job would be getting “The Phone Call” within twenty-four hours. The others would not. I always say not getting the job is like the country western song, If your phone don’t ring, you’ll know it’s me.”

The Director was an hour late. Veterans to the “hurry up and wait,” aspect of the business, we took it in stride and took time to catch up. We were all there for the same job, but we’ve been in the business long enough to not let that fact get in the way of our friendships. We laughed and told stories. Gordon and I caught up on life. Charles told stories of his civil rights days. Alonzo laughed a lot. Tony told stories but fretted over the job. It showed in his eyes.

I enjoyed the experience. It had been a while. Over the last few years, since moving back from Los Angeles to Florida, business opportunities, production of a documentary film, and writing another book had taken me in different directions. I had managed to stay in the game with Game of Your Life, Drop Dead Diva, recurring work on Reckless and commercials. But, being at Screen Gems that day, brought back memories of eight successful years of the business in Atlanta, and thirteen more in Los Angeles.

Over the years there had been some 75 episodes of television, a half dozen films, a half dozen television movies and hundreds of commercials as talent, writer, and producer.

The director arrived. The casting agent apologized for him. The director did not apologize for himself. I was third in line to go in to read for him. When I walked in, the director was eating. I thought “Damn, he’s an hour late and he’s sitting in the audition eating a smelly sandwich.”

The casting associate positioned himself behind the camera. He would read with me. We exchanged pleasantries and took off. I did what I’d prepared but also went with the flow of the scene. I know Mike. I’ve known many Mikes over the years. He was not a hard guy to inhabit. It felt good. I had the room. But then, the director gave me the kiss of death. He turned to the casting associate and said, “All of them are so good.” I knew I was dead in the water. He didn’t need to blow smoke up my dress and make me feel good if he was going to hire me. Hiring me would make me feel good. It was Charles’ job. We all knew it.

I thanked the director and the casting director and met Gordon and Charles in the parking lot. Tony split. Alonzo having gone first was long gone. The three of us laughed and talked for another hour. We all vowed to get together but we knew the next time would probably also be an audition.

The skyline of Atlanta loomed in the background. It felt good to hang out with the guys, where I began my career. Soon, it was time for me to hit the road. Other business interests, outside of the business, beckoned. I gave the guys a hug and drove out of Atlanta.

By the way, my phone didn’t ring.

Imagine the shock! As a parent you are worried and concerned. Your 2-½ year old child is not “normal.” You seek out specialists. The diagnoses are all the same. “Severe Autism” the parents are told. The doctors doubt if the child will ever speak. “Institutionalize him.”

Instead, parents Rick and Jo Soria of Fort Walton Beach ignored the doctors. They took their son Reid home and raised him like the rest of his siblings. Rick and Jo believed Reid was born with a gift, “just like every child.” They simply had to discover what his gift was.

I first saw Reid perform in a production by the Pyramid Players, a Fort Walton Beach theatre troupe of performers with disabilities. The house was packed. Proud parents, supporters and interested friends created a buzz in the theatre. Urged to attend the performance by my wife, I prepared myself for an evening of not- so-great theatre. I was pleasantly surprised! The production was refreshing with performers working through whatever physical disability they had to flourish creatively in the imaginary world of theatre. The performers gave and the audience received. I smiled a lot that night.

I’d heard of Reid from my wife and later met him through his parents. Urged by his parents to read my film and television credits, he was enamored with me. Reading and knowing his story, I was equally impressed with him. We formed a mutual admiration society. Through the chain of my wife and his parents, I sent Reid the proverbial actor’s good luck charm that performers and supporters give each other before any show, “Break-a-Leg.” He did.

Reid Soria soared that night and every time I have seen him since. He is a serious entertainer who works hard to please his audience. From his beginnings as an actor, and now as a singer/entertainer Reid and his team, parents Rick and Jo, sister JoAnna, his vocal coach and fan club, have embarked on a journey of entertainment and creative discovery.

His first CD is Imagine The Possibilities. He’s performed live from Pensacola to Panama City, and as far away as central Florida and Birmingham, AL. He prefers singing smooth songs, but can also rouse a crowd with his version of the Star Spangled Banner, which he sang for the Pensacola Wahoos and The Birmingham Barons Professional Baseball teams. He is on Facebook, You Tube and his CD sells on Amazon.

Rick, a retired educator, says, “I’m amazingly proud of him. He works harder than anybody I know.”

Reid, in a message for others facing disabilities says, “Autism isn’t a downer. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing and I have no problem with my diagnosis.”

Reid and his team have crafted a theme that chronicles his journey, “When words fail, Autism Sings.”

*April is National Autism month.

Got an idea for Thom? Send your idea to Media@BestGurl.com

It’s the Christmas Season! I’m in New York City, Times Square. It’s cold and overcast. People are everywhere. The Disney store is packed out. Horns blowing! There’s an excitement in the air! It begins to rain.

There’s a hole in my schedule today. Last night, was the black tie gala I attended with my niece, a student at NYU. Tomorrow is lunch with my publisher and dinner with business associates. Today, in a city of eight and a half million people, excluding tourists and visitors, I’m looking for something to do. The hotel concierge comes to my rescue.

The Lunt–Fontanne Theatre on West 46th is a block and a half from the hotel.

Being in “the business” for thirty years, I seldom get excited about a performance, whether mine or someone else’s. I’m too critical. Seeing things the general audience’s eyes don’t see sometimes makes a theatre performance or film a critical exercise rather than pure enjoyment.

The moment the hidden orchestra hit the familiar opening notes on the guitars and the smooth as gravy voice of David Ruffin slid into, “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day….” Motown The Musical was on!

When it’s cold outside I’ve got the month of May. Well, I guess you say, what can make me feel this way? My Girl, My Girl! My Girl.

The audience exhaled! We allowed ourselves to be transported back to innocence lost. I laughed. I cried. I sang. I held hands with the man next to me as instructed by “Diana Ross.” I danced. Yes, I was excited.

The storyline traveled back over the twenty-five year history of Motown. From the founder, Berry Gordy’s reluctance to attend the twenty-five year reunion, back to quitting his job 25 years earlier to establish a music empire that created “Race Music.” The Music of Motown changed minds, touched lives, and took the world by storm. Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smoky Robinson and The Miracles, Little Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, The Jackson Five, The Commodores, Martha Reeves and The Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, Rick James, Edwin Starr all came alive in the context of their music and its relationship to our lives.

The innocence of songs like ABC, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, I Heard it Through the Grapevine, I Hear a Symphony, Please Mr. Postman, and My Girl, gave way to more serious music like What’s Going On, Ball Of Confusion, War, and Super Freak.

The accompanying dancers and singers dramatized the era’s music and for many of us, those life moments permanently etched in our heads.

Watching the performers, I teared up when President John Kennedy was killed, that memory, taking me back to the sixth grade. There were the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the Vietnam War, first loves, the decadence of the 1980s and more. It was the music many of us in the theatre grew up on and those younger had heard before in movies, commercials, or on someone else’s iPod.

At one point, “Diana Ross,” asked us all to join hands over our heads and sway back and forth to the music. I grabbed the man’s hand next to me. He reciprocated, grabbing my hand and then his wife’s. We swayed back and forth. The Marvin Gaye character sang, What’s Going On. We all knew the words and joined in.

Mother, Mother, there’s too many of you crying. Brother, Brother, Brother, there’s far too many of you dying. We know we got to find a way to bring some loving here today.

What a show!

I left the theatre on a cloud. Walking back toward my hotel, it began to snow. Big, flakey snowflakes, softly floating to the ground. I smiled and thought, “Christmas in New York.” The promo material for Motown the Musical says, “An experience you’ll never forget.” I won’t anytime soon. 

Got a call from a student reporter who wanted an interview. I agreed. She stumped me when she asked what were my all time favorite roles as an actor. I’d never thought about it and had to give it some time. I came up with a list of my top ten. Thought I’d share them with you.

1. Three theatre roles share the top spot.

Speak of Me as I Am, One man play, written and performed by yours truly.

Characters: Rev. Bobby Lee White, Emmett, Smitty, Curtis, Coach Billy, Ralph, Tyronne, Malik, Zonnie

“Nine guys, three Saturdays, One barbershop in Birmingham Alabama. It’s 1999.”

Fences, By August Wilson. Character: Troy Maxson, garbage man, powerful, resentful, and conflicted. Would love to play him again.

Ali, a one man play. An honor.

2. In the Heat of the Night, Television. Multiple episodes. Character: Ted Marcus, Attorney, City Councilman – My first real TV gig. Learned a lot. Worked with pros, Carol O’Connor, Howard Rollins, Denise Nicholas, and many, many others. Made great friends.

3. NYPD Blue, Television. Episode: Lost Israel. Character: Israel. Homeless mute accused of sexual assault and murder of a child. Innocent. Tearjerker. Episode won an Emmy. Always an honor when someone mentions it. Five star.

4. Miss Ever’s Boy’s, HBO films. Character: Ben Washington. Story based on real life Tuskegee Syphilis study where the U.S. government allowed black men in Tuskegee, Alabama to die from the natural progression of untreated syphilis rather than treat them with newly discovered penicillin. The study was released while I was a student at Auburn University. Felt the obvious connection. Ben was a great character to inhabit. Worked with wonderful actors and friend, Lawrence Fishburne and Alfree Woodard. Release of film prompted a long overdue presidential pardon to the men of the Tuskegee Study.

5. Fight Club, Film.Character: Detective Stern. Cult piece. Got to work with David Fincher and Ed Norton. Got to meet Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston. Direction tid-bits from Director Fincher and Casting director Laray Mayfield. Favorite of many twenty- something’s. Young man in a bar told me he’d seen it 52 times. Scary!

6. Jeepers Creepers 2, Film. Character: Coach Charlie Hanna, a favorite. Brings a smile to my face. Enjoyed working with Director Victor Salva. He trusted me with his coach and I think I delivered for him. Worked several weeks from sundown to sun up at Tejon Ranch conservancy eighty miles north of Los Angeles. Cold at night. Another cult favorite. Popular with the younger set.

7. Game of Your Life, NBC film. Character: Billy Taylor Jr.; Great dad! Honest man of substance. Loved playing him. Inspirational film.

8. Miracle in the Woods, TV film. Character: Henry Cooper Jr. Another great character role; Played Della Reese’s long lost son. Had to work with a cat, a first for me. Worked with Meredith Baxter, Patricia Heaton, Sanaa Lathan. Met my good friend Joe Slowensky who wrote the script.

9. Cold Case, TV series. Episode: “Time to Crime”. Character: Mike Odum, Family man willing to take the rap for a killing he didn’t do to save his son. Funny thing, I’m from Birmingham, Alabama. Joyce Guy who I did not know beforehand, played my wife. She’s from Montgomery, Alabama and Reggie Currelley who played our son had gone to college at Alabama State University in Montgomery. Score one for Alabama.

10. Tie for 10th Jack and Bobby, TV series. Character: Joseph Ride. Another great dad. The District, TV Series, Character: Archie Cryer. Ran a government undercover drug operation. Great bureaucrat.

What about you? Are there any favorites of yours that didn’t make my list?