A few years ago, Yaphet Kotto realized that his reputation as a groundbreaker had finally caught up with him.
“My agent sends me casting breakdowns, and I read one and it says, ‘African-American, 6’5”, powerful guy, dignified, a man with presence – a Yaphet Kotto type,” Kotto said with a slight bit of incredulousness. “I was so bummed out, I said, ‘what the hell is this? A Yaphet Kotto type?’”
Unfortunately for casting directors, there is no other, starting with the fact that Kotto is bona fide royalty. The son of a Cameroon crown prince, Kotto grew up in New York City where he became renowned on the stage before seguing into a big screen career that has spanned four decades as perhaps one of the most recognizable character actors around. As a result, he broke down barriers for African-American actors by often taking parts in films that worked within an established genre and twisted them around.
One such film is “Alien,” which is being re-released this week in a brand new director’s cut across the country. Kotto, who plays Parker, the carefree enforcer who gets more serious as the film does, insists that the new version, which restores 10 minutes of footage that clarifies some of the characters’ backstories, is superior to the 1979 cut.
“Out of fear, because the movie was so scary, the studio had taken some of the main parts out of the movie, and they tempered it because audiences were reacting so sharply to it. Audiences were running out of the theater – they were frightening the daylights out of them, so they tried to make it more palatable for people at that time. When they put the movie back together again, people will be seeing ‘Alien’ for the very first time.”
As it happens, Ridley Scott’s sci-fi/horror hybrid would be one of Kotto’s first steps away from Blaxploitation films, which dominated his early film career as he appeared in such genre classics as “Friday Foster,” “Truck Turner” and “Across 110th Street.”
“I started the Blaxploitation film,” Kotto says now as a matter of fact since he starred in “The Liberation of L.B. Jones” at the start of the ‘70s. “It was done by William Wyler at Columbia Films and it was the first time a black man had killed a white man on the screen. After that, that whole generation of black guys being tough, give us our keep, was after I had made that movie.”
Kotto would redefine how African-Americans were portrayed beyond that performance, representing the first person of color to appear in a James Bond film as well as stirring things up in comedies such as “Blue Collar.” Eventually, he would become a portrait of stoicism and fortitude as a police chief in films such as “Midnight Run” and on television where he played Lt. Al Giardello in the critically acclaimed cop show “Homicide: Life on the Street.”
In recent years, however, Kotto has stepped back from the spotlight to spend time with his family. While part of his decision to take a break was based on personal reasons, professionally he has discovered the burden of being an original – the eventuality of being imitated without room for other original voices to break through. Still, his career speaks for itself.
“It was strange because when you’re sitting with four or five scripts a week that you’ve got to make a decision about what you want to do, the only thing I was looking for was not whether or not the role was sufficient, but whether the role was different enough that it would bring about change, in terms of how we were viewed. Remember, I grew up in an era when I would watch all these Charlie Chan movies and I swear as a kid, I was going to change that. So none of the roles I would play were stereotypical. I wasn’t building houses for nuns or saving blind girls or doing something wonderful.”
Of course, his body of work testifies to the contrary.