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Yaphet Kotto, Star of Live and Let Die and Alien, Dies Aged 81

Steve Palace
Getty Images

The celebrated actor Yaphet Kotto has passed away aged 81. Comfortable with both supporting parts and lead roles, he performed opposite some of the biggest stars in Hollywood.

His most familiar characters were Dr Kananga in Bond movie ‘Live and Let Die’ (1973), Parker in ‘Alien’ (1979) and Lt Al Giardello in TV’s ‘Homicide: Life on the Street’ (1993 – 2000).

Dr Kananga, aka “Mr Big”, was the villain in a different type of 007 outing. As well as introducing Roger Moore as Bond, the story’s Harlem setting chimed with the “blaxploitation” genre of ‘Shaft’. A far cry from the adventures of Moore’s predecessor Sean Connery.

Kotto acting alongside Leif Erickson in the television series The High Chaparral in 1968

Kotto acting alongside Leif Erickson in the television series The High Chaparral in 1968

When Kotto traveled into deep space for ‘Alien’, he once again broke boundaries. Ridley Scott’s atmospheric horror with its little-seen xenomorph became hugely influential. It was a key moment in his career, as he discovered years later.

Remembered by The Hollywood Reporter, Kotto spoke about the film at 2003’s Toronto Film Festival. He mentioned the time he took his daughter to Washington – specifically the place where the young actor heard Martin Luther King Jr’s iconic “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963.

Kotto was surprised when a group of Japanese children rushed up to him: “there was one thing that blew me away,” he revealed, “the fact that they were all saying one word: Alien.”

For an emotional Kotto, it was the moment he knew his dream – one of many articulated that day by Dr King – had been realized.

Born in late 1930s New York, his parents were Njoki Manga Bell or Avraham Kotto and Gladys Marie. She was a nurse and US Army officer. He worked as a businessman.

Yaphet Kotto had some interesting things to say about his father, as written in 1999 autobiography ‘The Royalty: A Spiritual Awakening’. The Guardian describes how Avraham Kotto “was descended from a Cameroonian royal clan, and that he was descended from Edward VII.”

Inspired by Sidney Poitier and Marlon Brando, Yaphet trod the boards professionally aged 19 in a production of ‘Othello’.

Credit: www.celebrity-photos.com. CC BY-SA 2.0

Credit: www.celebrity-photos.com. CC BY-SA 2.0

The big screen was to follow. Early roles in independent movie ‘Nothing but a Man’ (1964) and commercial hit ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’ (1968) suggested greatness ahead.

Kotto’s debut as a lead happened in cult director Larry Cohen’s comedy ‘Bone’ (1972). Crime thriller ‘Across 110th Street’ was released the same year. Kotto co-starred with Anthony Quinn.

Other notable entries include ‘Truck Turner’ (with Isaac Hayes, 1974), ‘Blue Collar’ (with Richard Pryor, 1978), ‘Brubaker’ (with Robert Redford, 1980), and ‘The Running Man’ (1987), a sci-fi actioner starring Arnold Schwarzenegger that satirized extreme TV.

Kotto may have gained a following through the likes of ‘Alien’. However he didn’t see the stars in his future. He could have been ‘Star Wars’ anti-hero Lando Calrissian but rejected the part to avoid typecasting.

The producers of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ wanted him to play Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Kotto wasn’t interested in a big TV role at that point, though expressed regret later.

When he did take a job on the small screen, it was as Lt Giardello. This lengthy and successful period saw Kotto get involved behind the scenes as a scriptwriter.

His last screen appearance was in the comedy ‘Witless Protection’ (2008). Kotto’s character was referred to as “Alonzo Mosley”, a reference to his role in much-loved Robert De Niro action comedy ‘Midnight Run’ (1988).

Kotto passed away in Manila. A cause of death has not been reported. Writing on Facebook, wife Sinahon Thessa described him as: “A good man, a good father, a good husband and a decent human being, very rare to find.” The couple married in 1998. Kotto tied the knot 3 times. He leaves behind 6 children.

Ava DuVernay, who directed MLK drama ‘Selma’, tweets Kotto was “one of those actors who deserved more than the parts he got. But he took those parts and made them wonderful all the same.”

Writer David Simon, who both inspired and wrote ‘Homicide: Life on the Street’, forever remembers him as “the unlikeliest Sicilian, gently pulling down the office blinds to glower at detectives in his squadroom.”

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Actor Tony Todd (‘Candyman’) calls him a “Tremendous talent and inspiration”.
“We lost a great one tonight. Rest In Power” says author Don Winslow. Yaphet Kotto, 1939 – 2021. RIP.