Yaphet Frederick Kotto (November 15, 1939 ‐ March 15, 2021) was an American actor known for numerous film roles, as well as starring in the NBC television series Homicide: Life on the Street (1993–99) as Lieutenant Al Giardello.
A commanding presence in features and television since the early 1970s, Yaphet Kotto played physically powerful, often intimidating African-American men in such popular films as Live and Let Die (1973), Blue Collar (1978), Alien (1979) and Midnight Run (1988).
He emerged from the New York stage in the early 1960s, working steadily in small but significant roles in features like The Thomas Crown Affair (1967) before moving up to supporting roles and leads in Across 110th Street (1971). His star-making turn came as the villainous Dr. Kananga in Live and Let Die (1973), which marked Roger Moore's debut as James Bond and preceded a long run as a popular character actor in such major features as Alien (1979) and Brubaker (1980).
Kotto was stranded in minor-league acting features for much of the 1980s, though he rebounded in the early 1990s as the formidable Lt. Al Giardello on the critically acclaimed Homicide: Life on the Street (NBC, 1993-2000). Throughout his long and varied career, Kotto's performances were marked by an unerring sense of gravity, honesty and intelligence, which served him well in avoiding many of the career pitfalls suffered by African-American actors.
Born Nov. 15, 1939 in New York City, Yaphet Frederick Kotto was the son of Avraham Kotto, a businessman from Cameroon, and his wife Gladys, a nurse and army officer. Both of Kotto's parents were Jewish, which contributed greatly to a rough childhood spent defending both his faith and his race. As a teenager, he wandered into a screening of On the Waterfront (1954) and became captivated by Marlon Brando's performance. Kotto soon began studying at the Actors’ Mobile Studio and made his professional debut as a performer at 19 in a production of Othello. More stage roles preceded his first feature film appearance as an uncredited extra in the Rat Pack Western comedy 4 For Texas (1963).
The following year, he gave a supporting turn in Michael Roemer's pioneering independent film Nothing But a Man (1964), a low-budget drama about contemporary black life produced outside of the studio system. Kotto soon returned to the stage, co-starring with Ossie Davis and Louis Gossett, Jr. in The Zulu and the Zebra in 1965 before replacing James Earl Jones in The Great White Hope (1969). Between plays, he turned up as a professional thief in The Thomas Crown Affair (1967) and a sympathetic bartender in 5 Card Stud (1969) with Dean Martin and Robert Mitchum.
Kotto avoided many of the stereotypical roles offered to African-American actors during the 1970s, though he would admit in interviews that the paucity of quality projects required him to occasionally participate in Blaxploitation features like Truck Turner (1974) and Friday Foster (1975). But even in those films, he projected an innately masculine strength and confidence that elevated him above the material.
Kotto found better showcases for those qualities in films like The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970), as a young man who exacted terrible revenge on the white landowner who had beaten him, and Across 110th Street (1971), a gritty crime drama which pitted his young police lieutenant against Anthony Quinn's aging lion of a police captain while pursuing crooks with stolen Mob money. During this period, Kotto also directed in The Limit (1972), a little-seen action-thriller about a motorcycle cop, played by Kotto, who took on a biker gang led by Ted Cassidy.
Kotto's work for MGM on Across 110th Street led to his casting as Dr. Kananga, a Caribbean dictator who secretly operated a heroin business in the James Bond adventure Live and Let Die (1973). The international exposure afforded by the film led to more dramatic roles in high-profile projects including Roots (ABC, 1977) and Irvin Kershner's Raid on Entebbe (NBC, 1977), an all-star TV movie based on Operation Entebbe, a raid carried out by Israeli special forces against Palestinian terrorists that had taken an Air France plane and its passengers hostage in Uganda.
Kotto received an Emmy nomination for his performance as the charismatic but megalomaniacal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. He soon returned to features, giving memorable performances as an autoworker who robbed his union headquarters in Paul Schrader's Blue Collar (1978) and as an inmate who aided warden Robert Redford in reforming a troubled prison in Brubaker (1980).
Kotto was also a standout in the ensemble cast for Ridley Scott's science fiction classic Alien (1979) as Parker, the chief engineer on an ill-fated spaceship stalked by an aggressive extraterrestrial. Shortly after completing the film, Kotto was approached by director Irvin Kershner to play Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), but declined, citing fears that the character would result in his being typecast as a science fiction actor.
Kotto moved fluidly between features and television throughout the 1980s, earning critical acclaim as a former slave who led an uprising in A House Divided: Denmark Vessey's Rebellion (PBS, 1982). But the quality of Kotto's film projects went into decline as the decade wore on, with such genre pictures as Warning Sign (1986), Eye of the Tiger (1986) and the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle The Running Man (1987) relying more on his imposing physical presence than his acting abilities.
He received a rare comic showcase as an FBI agent with a penchant for stealing cigarettes in Midnight Run (1988), with Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin, but kept a low profile until 1993, when he was cast as Lt. Al Giardello on the critically acclaimed series Homicide: Life on the Street.
A highly cultured, articulate man of Italian-American and African-American heritage, Giardello served as mentor for the detectives of the Baltimore Police Department's Homicide unit throughout the series’ seven-season run, as well as a reunion TV feature, Homicide: The Movie (NBC, 2000), which saw Giardello suffer a fatal shooting while running for mayor. Kotto was reportedly displeased by the lack of substantive storylines given to the character, and turned to penning scripts for several episodes, including a well-regarded 1997 story in which a murder suspect holed up in a former African Revival Movement headquarters.
Kotto's screen appearances were limited in the years following the cancellation of Homicide. He preferred instead to devote his energies to writing, which produced not only his first novel, Slow Dance in the Promised Land (1987) but an autobiography, Royalty (1997), in which he alleged that he was descended from both the royal lines in Cameroon and England, which converged in the late 19th century when Edward VII had an affair with Princess Nakande of Cameroon, which produced a line of mixed heritage that included his father.
The statements received widespread attention in the press, as well as a terse statement from Buckingham Palace, which refuted the claim. He also operated an artists’ retreat resort in the Philippines that focused on holistic healing and creative inspiration.
November 15, 1939
March 15, 2021
- He was the first black actor to play a James Bond villain.
- He made guest appearances on both of the longest running prime time dramas in US television history: Gunsmoke and Law & Order.
- Turned down the role of Lando Calrissian in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. He feared that Lando would be killed in the movie, and that he would be forever typecast.
- Campaigned for Steve Forbes during his bid for the Republican nomination for the Presidency in the 2000 primaries.
- Moved from Littleton, Colorado to Canada, because he felt it would be safer to live there. Two years after moving, he saw the news coverage on Columbine, and recognized some of the kids fleeing the school.
- He was the son of a Cameroonian crown prince.
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