There’s a scene in “Blue Collar” (1978) where Yaphet Kotto complains about doing the work of three men in an automobile plant, and those words to some degree were indicative of his productive acting career. Perhaps remembered mainly for his roles as Parker in “Alien” (1979) and on the television series “Homicide: Life on the Street” (1993), the enormously gifted actor died March 15 in the Philippines. He was 81.
“I’m saddened and still in shock over the passing of my husband Yaphet of 24 years,” his wife Tessie Sinahon wrote in a Facebook post. “He died last night around 10:30 pm Philippine time. Rest in peace Honey, I’m gonna miss you every day, my best friend, my rock. I love you and you will always be in my heart. Till we meet again!”
Kotto’s large, imposing physicality often obscured his versatility as an actor, and many will recall that his size was even more massive when he stood next to Richard Pryor in “Blue Collar.” In more than 50 films and numerous television roles—from Jocko in “Nothing But a Man” (1964) to “Witless Protection,” his last film in 2008, Kotto portrayed a wide variety of characters.
He must have relished his role as Lt. Pope in “Across 110th Street” (1972), which brought him close to where he was born in Harlem on Nov. 15, 1939. Kotto traced his ancestry back to the Cameroons where his great-grandfather was king in pre-colonial days. His father, Abraham, a former businessman-turned construction worker, emigrated to America in the 1920s, and his mother was a nurse and army officer.
After his parents divorced, he was raised by his grandparents in the Bronx. His attraction to the world of entertainment came in part from an aunt who ran a dance academy, and who studied with Marlon Brando and James Dean. Kotto mentioned on several occasions that it was Brando’s performance in “On the Waterfront” that inspired him to pursue acting. Four years later, in 1958, he made his debut as Othello and later reprised the role on screen in 1980. He joined the Actor’s Studio and began his career in such major films as “The Thomas Crown Affair” and “5 Card Stud.”
But it was as the evil Kanagan/Mr. Big in “Live and Let Die” (1973), a James Bond movie, that Kotto had a deeper role and it was probably instrumental in his being chosen to play Idi Amin, the Ugandan leader, in the telemovie “Raid on Entebbe” (1976). Soon, he was as noted for the film roles he refused as those he chose, including turning down a role in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1987), which he later regretted.
A flood of comments appeared on social media platforms, extolling Kotto’s great acting career. Among them was director Ava DuVernay, who said, “Yaphet Kotto. My mom’s favorite. He’s one of those actors who deserved more than the parts he got. But he took those parts and made them wonderful all the same. A star. Rest well, sir.”
And Kotto gets the last word in a comment on his character Al Giardello from “Homicide,” a TV drama: “Giardello is one of the few characters on television that presented a positive Black man in a positive role with strengths and weaknesses and all the rest,” he said. “When they created Giardello, they created a bigger-than-life character. Consequently, people who grew up on John Wayne and the kind of bigger-than-life characters like Clark Gable that Hollywood used to give us, saw Giardello as a father figure or maybe an uncle. I know this because of the way people reacted to me and the character publicly and privately.”