R.I.P. Yaphet Kotto: Of Harlem and Homicide

Just learned of the passing of Yaphet Kotto (b. 1939).

I grew up on Kotto’s performances and at the moment, I can’t think of anyone I ever thought was cooler. Kotto mixed machismo with intelligence (always catnip to me), and possessed a wonderful cat-who-ate-the-canary smile that added a soupcon of weirdness to whatever he did. He was too intriguing to ever be forgettable. Despite playing key roles in numerous films and tv shows, I’m not sure many people knew his name. His best known turns include the villain Mr. Big in the James Bond film Live and Let Die (1973), Idi Amin in Raid on Entebbe (1976), Parker in Alien (1980), the cop who pursues Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin in Midnight Run (1988), and half-Italian police lieutenant Al Giardello on the series Homicide: Life on the Streets (1993-2000).

Kotto’s father was a Cameroon Jew. It’s a thing — look it up! Yaphet is a Hebrew name. Kotto claimed he was descended from African royalty, as well. He was born in New York and attended the Actor’s Studio. Many of his earliest credits were in vehicles with a black consciousness angle, such as the critically acclaimed independent film Nothing But a Man (1964) with Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln; the Broadway shows The Zulu and the Zayda (1965-66) and The Great White Hope (1968-70) and William Wyler’s last film The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970). He was also memorable as one of the gang (the driver) in the original 1968 The Thomas Crowne Affair. Work in blaxploitation films and TV westerns and crime dramas constituted a lot of his output through the ’70s. Other well-known movies include Blue Collar (1979) with Richard Pryor, Brubaker (1980) with Robert Redford, Rage! (1980) with George C. Scott, Eye of the Tiger (1986) with Gary Busey, The Running Man (1987) with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991), the 6th installment in the Friday the 13th series.

Kotto seems to have retired following Homicide, reappearing just once, somewhat inexplicably, to take a role in the Larry the Cable Guy comedy Witless Protection (2008), his most recent screen credit. Somehow, it seems in keeping with his perverse sense of humor. Yaphet Kotto always seemed to be laughing at private jokes he keeps to himself. Now he knows the answer to the ultimate mystery.