Know Your Role: Yaphet Kotto
Character actors may not get the leading man limelight, but the good ones do enjoy career longevity. Yaphet Kotto is not just a good character actor, he is a great one and he has the 40 plus year career to prove it.
One of the things that makes Yaphet Kotto so great is the man always brings his A game. It didn’t matter if he was working with seasoned professionals like Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin in Midnight Run or if he was working with former porn star Traci Lords in Intent to Kill, Kotto gave it his all and was always at his best.
While Kotto may be most known for his work in the sci-fi classic, Alien, or the long running television police drama, Homicide: Life on the Street, a good chunk of Kotto’s career was spent in the world of action entertainment…
Across 110th Street
Yaphet Frederick Kotto was born in New York City on November 15th, 1939. It is fitting that one of Kotto’s first major movie roles was a film set in his birthplace. The movie was Across 110th Street and also starred the legendary Anthony Quinn. Across 110th Street was one of the first to follow in the footsteps of the highly successful The French Connection, with Kotto and Quinn playing two New York City cops who are pursuing two small time hoods who made the mistake of stealing money from the Mafia and killing two cops in the process.
Live and Let Die
In 1973, Kotto would etch his name into the annals of the longest running movie franchise in history, when he played Kananga opposite of Roger Moore in the James Bond movie, Live and Let Die. Not only was Kotto the first black actor to play a Bond villain, he was also the youngest to play the main villain in a Bond film. (Kotto was 33 at the time the movie was filmed).
Kotto would play the heavy once again in the 1974 blaxploitation film, Truck Turner. Isaac Hayes starred as Truck Turner, a bounty hunter who ends up becoming the hunted. Yaphet Kotto plays Harvard Blue, the man who has been paid to hunt down and kill Truck Turner. Kotto would dabble in the blaxploitation sub genre a few more times, including the 1975 movie, Friday Foster, where Kotto (playing Colt Hawkins) teams up with “The Queen of the Blaxploitation Scene” Pam Grier. The movie also featured an early movie role for Carl Weathers and if you ever wanted to see Yaphet Kotto vs. Carl Weathers, then Friday Foster is the movie for you!
The Running Man
In 1987, Kotto would star in one of his biggest action movies with arguably the biggest action star of all-time, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The movie was The Running Man and featured Kotto and Arnold competing on a barbaric game show of the future. But it was one year before The Running Man that Kotto took part in a film that has become my personal favorite Kotto actioner…
Eye of the Tiger
In Eye of the Tiger, Gary Busey calls upon Yaphet Kotto to help him rid his town of some drug dealing bikers, who have all but taken over while Busey’s character, Buck Matthews, was spending time in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Kotto plays J.B. Deveraux, an old friend of Matthews and a deputy on the local police force. Deveraux is also a pilot and his plane has its own theme song and that theme song is performed by “The Godfather of Soul” himself, James Brown! It doesn’t get any better than that. Kotto also delivers on of the greatest quotes in the history of cinema in Eye of the Tiger.
In 1993, Kotto was part of an all-star cast in the movie Extreme Justice. The movie about an elite police unit in Los Angeles also starred Lou Diamond Phillips, Scott Glenn, Andrew Divoff and the late, great Ed Lauter. In the film, Kotto’s character Larson really makes a bold fashion statement in his cowboy inspired attire. I’ve always wondered if this was an homage to some of Kotto’s early work in western movies and TV shows…
And speaking of TV, Some movie actors may have turned their nose up at the prospect of working on television, especially back in Kotto’s heyday. But ever the professional, Kotto never had a problem working on television shows and made for TV movies. Kotto was a guest star on action TV shows like The A-Team and SeaQuest 2032. He was also in a number of TV movies like Raid on Entebbe with Charles Bronson, The Park is Mine with Tommy Lee Jones and he was reunited with Gary Busey in Chrome Soldiers.
It is with great honor that I salute the incomparable Yaphet Kotto. One of action entertainment’s finest character actors and a true one of a kind.