Yaphet Kotto – actor
Yaphet Kotto, who has died aged 81, was an actor whose commanding presence came to prominence when he played dictator Dr Kananga, the nemesis of James Bond in Live and Let Die (1973). As the film’s chief villain, Kotto’s character disguises himself as New York drug lord Mr Big. If some scenes looked straight out of the blaxploitation handbook, any badass attitude was upended during Kananga’s final tussle with Roger Moore’s Bond, when his body inflated like a balloon after he swallowed a gas pellet and exploded.
Kotto later made a more heroic appearance as doomed engineer Parker in Alien (1979), directed by Ridley Scott. By that time he had been Emmy nominated as best supporting actor for his portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin opposite Peter Finch and Charles Bronson in TV film, Raid on Entebbe (1976).
Latterly, Kotto became best known for his long-term tenure in Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-1999), as Lieutenant Al ‘Gee’ Giardello, the imposing commander of the squad throughout the programme’s seven series run. Kotto also penned several episodes of the show.
Along the way, he was also considered for roles that could have given him an even higher profile. These included Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Lando Calrissian in the second Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back. He turned down both, he said, to avoid any prospect of being stereotyped. While he later expressed regret at missing out on the Picard role, he continued to make his mark in a series of parts that took advantage of his statuesque build and imposing manner.
“If you're a black actor,” he once said, “you really don't have too many choices. If you keep turning things down, you might as well hit the unemployment office. If I didn't sometimes take small parts in small films I wouldn't get to play anything, and I do have to eat.”
A measure of Kotto’s charisma can be gleaned by the fact that in the mid 1990s a Californian hardcore punk band named themselves Yaphet Kotto.
Yaphet Frederick Kotto was born in Harlem, New York City to his mother Gladys, a nurse and army officer of Panamanian and West Indian descent; and his father Avraham, a businessman from Cameroon of royal ancestry who emigrated to America in the 1920s. Raised in the Bronx, Kotto’s father had embraced Judaism – Yaphet means ‘beautiful’ in Hebrew - while his mother was a Roman Catholic. His parents broke up when Kotto was a child, and he was raised by maternal grandparents.
Aged sixteen, Kotto was struggling to find work when he saw Marlon Brando in Elia Kazan’s corrupt union saga, On the Waterfront. The epiphany it prompted set Kotto on the path to becoming an actor.
He made his stage debut in 1960 in the title role of Othello. Liz White’s Shearer Summer Theatre production featured an all black cast and crew, and between 1962 and 1966 she filmed it. The result wasn’t seen until 1980, when it was screened at the black research based Howard University in Washington. The film has never been released commercially.
Kotto joined The Actors Studio, and understudied James Earl Jones on Broadway in The Great White Hope, before making his film debut in an uncredited role in western, 4 for Texas (1963). His first credited role came as a railroad worker in Michael Roemer’s depiction of everyday racism in small town America, Nothing But a Man (1964). On television, Kotto was cast in guest spots in popular serials including Bonanza (1968) and The High Chaparral (1968). On film, Kotto appeared in Norman Jewison’s stylish heist movie, The Thomas Crown Affair. The same year he played the ironically named Little George in Henry Hathaway’s western, 5 Card Stud.
In a diversion from acting, in 1967, Kotto applied his powerful oratory skills to a fusion of poetry and soul on a self-penned single, Have You Ever Seen The Blues / Have You Dug His Scene. Co-produced by Hugh Masekela and Stewart Levine, the record found Kotto declaiming over a funky instrumental background with the fervour of a street-smart preacher or civil rights activist.
Back on film, Kotto appeared in William Wyler’s crime thriller, The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970), and took the title role in Larry Cohen’s comedy crime caper, Bone (1971). He played a straitlaced cop in the Harlem set Across 110thStreet, which featured a song of the same name by Bobby Womack as its theme tune.
Following Live and Let Die, Kotto acted opposite Isaac Hayes and Scatman Crothers in Truck Turner, aka Black Bullet (1974), appeared alongside Pam Grier and Eartha Kitt in Friday Foster (1975), and took the lead in The Monkey Hustle (1976). Kotto later appeared alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Running Man (1987), and played Alonzo Mosley in Midnight Run (1988) with Robert De Niro. He reprised Alonzo for his final film, Witness Protection (2008). Other later films included Out-of-Sync (1995) with LL Cool J. In 2014, he resurrected his Alien role of Parker, voicing the video game, Alien: Isolation.
He is survived by his third wife, Tessie Sinahon and six children; Nastasha, Fred and Robert from his first marriage to Rita Dittman; and Sarada, Mirabai and Salina from his second to Toni Pettyjohn.
The Herald, March 27th 2021