We first met actor Yaphet Kotto, in 1998 while he led the cast of Homicide: Life on the Street. Larger than life, Kotto had the most infectious laugh and went out of his way to make sure we were comfortable on the set of the acclaimed series. He was, in a phrase, simply lovely.
Upon learning of his passing today, many of our crew were taken aback and lamented the many missed opportunities to reconnect with Kotto. They talked in low murmurs about neglecting to learn more about his steadfast determination in an industry that never knew exactly how to cast him.
“Yaphet Kotto was another Sidney Poitier – regal in his deportment, oozing of raw talent, and exacting in his delivery of most any role before him,” University College of London graduate student, Izola Hinton told Acumen. “Studying his films, I saw the control Kotto had over movements and emotions. He was calculating and precise, which made almost everything he did, believable.”
Kotto sought a career in acting after watching Marlon Brando in The Waterfront and Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones.
“Standing right there on the screen was this tall Black man and I said to myself, ‘I could be like him,” Kotto once remarked.
Best known for memorable roles in Alien and the 007 film Live and Let Die, Kottto was a regular subject of Acumen’s Popular Eugenics in Television and Film course – which examined several of his roles under the “Tropes of Black Masculinity” sessions. These included: Sonny Boy Mosby, in the 1970 film drama, The Liberation of L.B. Jones, Jocko in Nothing, but a Man, Lieutenant Pope in Across 110th Street, Kanango / Mr. Big in 007 Live and Let Die, Alonzo Mosely in Midnight Run, and Lieutenant. Al Giardello in Homicide: Life on the Street.
Kotto often worked outside the box, walking into auditions, and accepting roles initially written for White or younger characters. In doing so, he opened up the possibilities for young theatergoers who made those celluloid dreams, tangible.
“Our problem is hurting ourselves on barriers that we create. The only ghetto is of the mind,” Kotto once told the New York Amsterdam News. “Live and Let Die was the first time you saw a Black guy outdo James Bond. We’d never seen a Black man chase a White man across the screen. He was a hero!”
The Bond film was not the only vehicle that placed Kotto in racial power struggles with others.
“Kotto had regard for the race, and so the race had regard for him. Take the character Sonny Boy Mosby in The Liberation of L.B. Jones – it was a character most Black men could relate to because he was running back into a racist space to avenge himself. He wasn’t out to save the community, but to realign his own pride and assert his personhood through revenge,” Shantella Sherman, Acumen historian said.
Sherman adds that this type of classic masculinity showed up in many of Kotto’s roles – most notably Lieutenant Al Giardello in Homicide: Life on the Street.
“This strapping dark-skinned man made it clear that he had African and Italian heritage, which at the time, was an extremely powerful nuance. The character spoke Italian, was a protector of the Black community, and a stand-up commander,” Sherman said. “Kotto’s delivery gave legitimacy to the millions of people of mixed-race and mixed-culture families being forced to choose one part of their heritage over the other. Kotto was an example of how to unapologetically live their combined cultures.”
In 1999 Kotto published his autobiography The Royalty: A Spiritual Awakening, detailing his father Avraham Kotto’s ancestry as a Jewish descendant of a Cameroonian royal clan. That clan shared a bloodline with England’s royal family, through Edward VII. That book, ironically, had disappeared from the available stock of book retailers globally.
Kotto died aged 81 at his home in the Philippines. Kotto is survived by his wife, Sinahon, and his six children.