Yaphet Kotto, the African-American actor best known for memorable roles in Alien and the 007 film Live and Let Die, as well as the hit TV series Homicide: Life on the Street, has died aged 81 in the Philippines.
The news was announced in a Facebook post by Kotto’s wife Tessie Sinahon, who wrote: “You played a villain on some of your movies but for me you’re a real hero and to a lot of people also. A good man, a good father, a good husband and a decent human being, very rare to find … Rest in Peace Honey, I’m gonna miss you everyday, my best friend, my rock. I love you and you will always be in my heart. Till we meet again!” The cause of death was not given.
Kotto said he was inspired to go into acting by watching Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront as a teenager, and later by Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones, which was released in 1958: “Standing right there on the screen was this tall black man and I said to myself, ‘I could be like him.’”
Kotto scored an early role as a railroad worker in Michael Roemer’s pioneering 1964 independent Nothing But a Man, but US cinemas’ reluctance to screen the film meant it was not the breakthrough it should have been. A small role as one of the heist crew in the successful Steve McQueen vehicle The Thomas Crown Affair in 1968 gave him more visibility, as did a high-impact supporting role in Hollywood veteran William Wyler’s final film, The Liberation of LB Jones in 1970, in which Kotto’s character shoots a white policeman dead in a brutal act of revenge – according to Kotto, “No one had seen a black man kill a white man onscreen prior to that”. In 1969 Kotto had also taken over the lead role of boxer Jack Jefferson from James Earl Jones in the opening Broadway run of The Great White Hope, a thinly fictionalised account of the career of boxer Jack Johnson.
Having proved his ability, Kotto was then handed his first lead role in the home invasion satire-thriller Bone by Larry Cohen, in the feature directing debut of the film-maker who went on to become a legend of the exploitation movie circuit. Kotto plays a robber who is mistaken for a handyman by a married couple, and who is then enlisted by the wife to kill her husband. He then went on to play a straight-arrow cop on the track of gangsters in the blaxploitation thriller Across 110th Street, before being cast in the lead villain role in Live and Let Die, the blaxploitation-influenced Bond film that marked Roger Moore’s first appearance as 007.
Live and Let Die, released in 1973, required Kotto play two characters: Harlem crime lord Mr Big, who is in fact the disguised alter ego of Dr Kananga, the leader of the fictitious Caribbean island of San Monique. Kotto saw the role as another pioneering effort, later saying: “Live and Let Die was the first time you saw a black guy out to do James Bond. We’d never seen a black man chase a white man across the screen. He was a hero!”
Kotto subsequently worked steadily: his best-known films include Truck Turner, another blaxploitation film in which he played a pimp attempting to take out bounty hunter Isaac Hayes; the hit TV film Raid on Entebbe, for which his performance as Idi Amin was nominated for an Emmy award; and Blue Collar, Paul Schrader’s directorial debut, in which Kotto plays one of three factory workers who clash with corrupt union officials.
Kotto was then cast in arguably his most enduring film role: as Parker, chief engineer of the Nostromo in the Ridley Scott-directed space horror Alien. Another ground-breaking role for a black actor, this time as a major character in a sci-fi film, Kotto’s performance included his noble – and ultimately fruitless – self-sacrifice trying to save Veronica Cartwright’s Lambert from a vicious xenomorph.
Anxious not to be typecast, Kotto turned down the role of Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back, as well as Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation, which was first broadcast in 1987. Kotto expressed regret over the latter, saying: “I should have done that but I walked away. When you’re making movies, you’d tend to say no to TV.”
In the 80s his highest-profile performances were supporting parts in The Running Man, the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle in which Kotto played a resistance fighter in a future dystopian US (set in 2017), and Midnight Run, as an FBI man. However, he did agree to take a long-running TV role, as Al Giardello, the avuncular station house commander, in the Baltimore-set police series Homicide: Life on the Street. Kotto appeared in all seven series of Homicide, which ran from 1993-1999, as well as the spin-off TV movie which revolves around a murder attempt on Giardello.
Kotto effectively retired from film acting in the mid-90s, though he had a final role in the 2008 crime comedy Witless Protection, which starred Larry the Cable Guy. In 1999, he published his autobiography The Royalty: A Spiritual Awakening, in which he said his father Avraham Kotto was descended from a Cameroonian royal clan, and that he was descended from Edward VII. (The latter was denied by Buckingham palace’s press secretary.) Kotto also said his father was Jewish, and that he “instilled Judaism” in him.
Kotto was married three times: to Rita Dittman (1959-1976), Toni Pettyjohn (1975-1989) and Sinahon, who he married in 1998; he had six children.