Yaphet Kotto (1939-2021).
With his wife at his side, longtime actor Yaphet Kotto passed away on March 15th in the Philippines at the age of 81. He was one of those character actors I’d always hoped to meet someday, but this hope is sadly gone. At an imposing 6 ft. 3 inches tall, Kotto brought tremendous intensity and power to his roles, whether playing a Bond villain or a police lieutenant.
Kotto was arguably best known for his longtime role as Lt. Al Giardello on the TV crime drama “Homicide” (1993-1999), and as excellent as I’m sure that series is, it was not from where I first knew of him. My first memories of seeing Kotto on TV and films began when I was a little boy back in the early 1970s.
As a young horror geek in the early 1970s, I remember being a rapid fan of the underrated Rod Serling TV series, “The Night Gallery” (1969-1973). In its second year came a powerful holiday season episode called “The Messiah on Mott Street,” scripted by series host Rod Serling (creator of the legendary series, “The Twilight Zone”). The episode featured prolific Hollywood character actor Edward G. Robinson (“Little Caesar,” “The Ten Commandments”) in one of his last roles. In the episode, Robinson plays an elderly, impoverished Jew named Abraham Goldman living in the slums of New York while caring for his young grandson, Mikey (Rickey Powell). Goldman is on his deathbed. He can barely talk over his hacking cough (Robinson was in poor health at the time as well). Abraham tries to instill hope in his dispirited grandson with the tale of the Messiah, whose coming will bring an end to their suffering. When asked by Mikey what the Messiah looks like, Abraham tells the boy the Messiah is “tall and dark,” and that Mikey will know him when he sees him. Mikey, filled with the optimism of youth, runs out into the snowy streets of pre-gentrified Brooklyn to look for this ‘messiah,’ and finds a tall dark stranger named Buckner (Kotto), dressed in a black navy peacoat. Buckner allows Mikey to take him back to his grandfather’s apartment in an attempt to humor the distraught child. Buckner meets the old man, listens to his story, and even meets with the family doctor (Tony Roberts). Soon after his arrival, the mysterious Buckner is gone. No one seems to remember him being there, either, but suddenly, the elderly Abraham makes a remarkable recovery. Buckner then reappears to the curiously amnesic Goldman family as a postman bringing a sizable check from Abraham’s wealthy brother in California. The postman beams a warm smile, wishes the family a Happy Hanukah and leaves. So who exactly was this stranger Buckner? The supernatural elements of the story suggest that, for this desperate family, Buckner was indeed a messiah. This beautifully written teleplay was my first ‘introduction’ to Yaphet Kotto, and being roughly the age of Mikey at the time, I saw the actor as a figure of strength and enigmatic power.
Later, I would see Yaphet Kotto as the Bond villain Kananga, aka “Mr. Big,” in 1973’s “Live and Let Die.” Not one of the better Bond movies, though it was notable for being the first Bond film of actor Roger Moore, and for also featuring the first black actor to play a Bond villain. Kananga was a supplier of opium in the fictional country of San Monique, somewhere in the Caribbean. Sadly, the movie features a terribly racist depiction of West Indies blacks as frightening, voodoo-worshipping boogiemen, such as Geoffrey Holder’s henchman character of Baron Samedi. At a time when movies such as Richard Roundtree’s “Shaft” (1971) and Pam Grier’s entire movie canon (“Coffy,” “Foxy Brown”) were bringing new appreciation (and money) for black action movie stars, “Live and Let Die” reduces most of its black characters to stereotypes out of a bad 1940s voodoo-cult serial. That said, Yaphet Kotto easily held his own against Roger Moore, and would take his place among other Bond movie villain actors such as Donald Pleasance, Telly Savalas, Christopher Lee and many others. Not the best of roles perhaps, but groundbreaking nevertheless.
While I would catch “Live and Let Die” on television, I would see Yaphet Kotto for the first time on the big screen in the sharksploitation flick “Shark’s Treasure” (1975). The film featured a group of would-be fortune hunters/smugglers led by actor Cornell Wilde as “Jim Carnahan” (Wilde was also writer/producer and director) . Yaphet Kotto would costar as Carnahan’s right-hand man “Ben Flynn”. While the film featured a few jokes made at Flynn’s expense, the role was prominent. The movie was quickly shot and released a couple of months ahead of Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece “JAWS”, in an attempt to steal some of that heavily anticipated movie’s thunder. It didn’t work. “Shark’s Treasure” did but the tiniest percentage ($2 million) of its competitor’s monstrous box office (roughly $500 million worldwide). That said, the presence of Yaphet Kotto and the shot shark stock footage were the only elements of that movie I honestly remember.
Next came what was arguably Kotto’s most memorable role, in director Ridley Scott’s genre redefining “ALIEN” (1979), one of the seminal science-fiction horror films of the 1970s, which began a franchise that has survived well into the 21st century with multiple sequels, prequels, video games, books, etc. “ALIEN” took the time honored, 1950s drive-in movie idea of a monster loose on a spaceship and gave it an A-movie layering of rich production values and “Star Wars”-level world-building. Yaphet Kotto would feature very prominently in the film’s seven person cast, which also made newcomer Sigourney Weaver a household name. Kotto played engineer “Parker,” an ill-tempered mechanic who just wants to “go home and party” on the promise of a wealthy bonus from his space-mining employer. Unknown to Parker and his colleagues, the company seeks to retrieve a dangerous unknown organism for study back on Earth, with all seven of their lives listed as ‘expendable’ (eight, if you include the ship’s feline mascot, Jones). The role of Parker employed the maximum range of Kotto’s talents; alternating between surly, cynical, greedy, wise-cracking, and even unexpectedly heroic, as when he clobbers the menacing android “Ash” (Ian Holm) into a milky pulp. Like Weaver’s “Ripley” or Tom Skerritt’s “Captain Dallas,” the role of Parker wasn’t specifically written with a male or female identity in mind, let alone color or ethnicity. It was one of the reasons why writer Dan O’Bannon’s original story never used the characters’ first names—it was a means to keep the casting wide open for whomever was best for the part. At a time when sci-fi movies featured mostly white male actors in prominent roles (“Star Wars,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”), “ALIEN” broke new ground by featuring a commercial spaceship crew with two high-ranking women officers and a black male chief engineer. Kotto’s intensity as Parker would make him memorable for generations of sci-fi/horror fans to come. It is, in many ways, the actor’s defining role.
As one of the rumored finalists for the coveted role of Captain Picard in “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, Kotto wouldn’t get that part, but he would appear in a very different sort of sci-fi movie that same year. 1987’s “The Running Man” was directed by actor Paul Michael Glaser and based very loosely on a story by Stephen King, under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. In the tradition of sports sci-fi actioners like 1975’s “Rollerball,” “The Running Man” tells the tale of unjustly convicted ‘enemies of the state’ who are forced to outrun killer ‘stalkers’ in a barbaric reality TV game show. While the film smartly forecast the rise of real-life survival competition shows, it was too mired in big hair, spandex and Arnold Schwarzenegger camp to be taken too seriously. However, Yaphet Kotto would appear in the pivotal role of Laughlin, a member of the underground resistance who helps Schwarzenegger survive the earliest rounds of the sadistic game. Kotto, with his height and bearing, believably fought alongside Austrian oak Arnold, as they went toe-to-toe with various over-the-top assassins. “The Running Man” is a glitzy action spectacle with some rimshot commentary on 1980s greed culture, as well as a prescient forecasting on the rise of reality TV. Kotto’s presence gives the film a bit more oomph that it might’ve otherwise lacked, helping to make “The Running Man” a bit more than mindless action and empty entertainment calories. Kotto helped class up the joint.
Yaphet Kotto was an actor I’d always hoped to meet someday. I imagined he’d be at one of the hundreds of conventions I’ve attended over the last few decades, but unfortunately that opportunity never materialized. Kotto’s work in “ALIEN” continues to gain in popularity 42 years after its initial release; in fact, I remember seeing a spot-on “Parker” cosplayer at San Diego Comic Con in the summer of 2019. I’ve even seen a cosplayer wearing Kotto’s spandex outfit from “The Running Man” once, but sadly didn’t get a photo of that one.
With his tremendous body of work in TV, film, stage (“Othello,” “The Great White Hope”) and even music (the single “Have You Ever Seen the Blues” in 1967), Yaphet Kotto leaves behind an enormous legacy for generations past, present and future to enjoy. While he never gained ‘leading man’ popularity, he was such a reliable anchor for so many other memorable projects that it hardly mattered. The roles I’ve mentioned above were just a few that stood out for me. Some of you reading this will have your own memories from his career, and I’d love to hear about them in the comments section below.
Rest in power, Yaphet Kotto (1939-2021).
COVID Safe Viewing.
“ALIEN” can be streamed on HBOMax (or via Hulu) or rented on AmazonPrime Video/YouTube (prices vary). “Live and Let Die” can be streamed via AmazonPrime video ($3.99 US). Rod Serling’s “The Night Gallery” can be streamed for free on NBC.com. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are around 532,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, several vaccines have been developed and inoculations have began in earnest (I myself have received my first shot of the Moderna vaccine), but it will take time for herd immunity. Even with vaccines, the overall situation is far from safe. Many questions remain regarding the coronavirus variants, or if vaccines fully prevent unwitting transmission from an asymptomatic carrier. So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible. Some theaters promise safety for their screenings, but the CDC guidelines currently don’t advise indoor dining or indoor theaters, so please bear that in mind.
Take care and be safe.