I always thought Yaphet Kotto was one of the greatest names in film history. It sounds more like a place than a name. And where would that place be? Africa, Asia, the Middle East? Who knows? I loved the sound of his voice too. It had this great resonance. And when the words left his lips, it was as if they came from a mouth that had a tongue residing within that was just a little too large. Kotto had this bit of a slur when he spoke. Yet somehow, he was never hard to understand, it just made him distinctive. There was no way on earth to confuse the voice of Yaphet Kotto with any other human being.
Kotto’s film career began in the mid-’60s, but it wouldn’t be until 1972 when Kotto delivered a one-two punch that would put him on the map with movie goers. First came the solid urban cop drama Across 110th Street (the theme song of which was put to great use by Quentin Tarantino in Jackie Brown) which gave Kotto his first starring role as a young cop partnered with a grizzled Anthony Quinn chasing down a murderous trio. Later that year, Kotto received what was possibly the greatest exposure of his career as a Bond villain in Live and Let Die. While neither of those movies would be considered classics, they were significant career boosters for Kotto.
Over the next two years, Kotto did time in a handful of blaxploitation thrillers (Truck Turner and Friday Foster being the most notable), but perhaps his greatest role came in 1978 in Paul Schrader’s criminally undervalued auto labor union drama, Blue Collar, starring across from Harvey Keitel, and in a rare straight dramatic role, Richard Pryor. As a trio of Detroit auto workers caught between a corporation only slightly less corrupt than the union, Blue Collar was the rare film that took no sides with any institution or even its protagonists. The message of Blue Collar was simple. If you put people in desperate situations with no way out, they may just become the very thing they are railing against. Of the three leads, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to choose a standout among them. Keitel was at peak, Pryor was a revelation, and Kotto was their equal – which lord knows, is really saying something. Blue Collar is one of the great lost films of the ’70s and is ripe for rediscovery.
Just one year later, Kotto followed up Schrader’s largely unseen classic with an all-time great film that has become a part of our culture like few sci-fi films ever have – Alien. As part of the ill-fated crew (Sigourney Weaver and Jonesy aside) of the spaceship Nostromo, Alien crossed over several genres until it simply became one unto itself. The sci-fi and horror aspects are obvious, but Alien often plays like a haunted house film too. As Parker, Kotto may not get the best death (that one will always belong to John Hurt), but he was a part of a completely convincing cast whose comradery at no point felt forced. While Weaver’s role is the largest, the chemistry of the supporting characters is essential in making you feel the one by one, almost Agatha Christie-like inspired deaths (well, if Agatha’s weapon of choice was a double-jawed xenomorph that is hands down the scariest movie monster I’ve ever seen onscreen).
The ’80s weren’t nearly as kind to Kotto as the ’70s were. He did have a strong part in the undervalued Robert Redford prison drama Brubaker as well as a notable role in Martin Brest’s classic bounty hunter comedy, Midnight Run. And I suppose depending on how you feel about the Schwarzenegger vehicle, The Running Man, you might mark that film on the credit side of the ledger for Kotto.
Kotto’s final great role came on television in David Simon’s critically acclaimed (if ratings challenged) Homicide: Life on the Street. Homicide ran from 1993 to 1999 and sired a one-off TV film in 2000. Kotto played Lieutenant Al “Gee” Giardello. As the world weary leader of the Baltimore homicide shift, Kotto played a man who was good at his job, but bad at politics, which kept him from getting well-deserved promotions despite his record. In the 2000 TV film (a de facto series finale), Giardello is finally offered that promotion, but he turns it down because it would require him to leave homicide. As Omar Little from David Simon’s masterful HBO series The Wire would go on to say, “Man’s got to have a code.” Al Giardello had a code, his was homicide, even though a part of him hated it.
Kotto worked sparsely after Homicide came to a close. In fact, his last credit is for voicing Parker in an Alien-based video game.
Somewhere out there in the heads of movie lovers there is a long list of beloved “character” actors. Names like Dennis Farina, JT Walsh, and Peter Boyle can be found there. And if they are doing that list right, the name of Yaphet Kotto will be found on the roll call as well.
Sasha, Ryan, and Clarence have been stuck with me since April 27, 2018. Co-creator (with Ryan Adams) of the Reframe feature, staff writer, interviewer du jour, and a proud member of GALECA and the Indiana Film Journalists Association. I also scribe on boxing at NY Fights. My essay "My Black Grandpa" was shortlisted as "Best of Folklore" by The Bitter Southerner in 2018. My first work of fiction, "Eat 'Em Up, Tigers!" was published in Detroit Stories Quarterly in the 2020 summer edition.