Considering the deadly path torn by Covid over the past year, it is remarkable that it’s been almost a year since our last “In Memoriam”. Then again, maybe we were just being lazy (our apologies!). If you know of the actor Yaphet Kotto, you probably know him from his role as Parker in the enduring classic Alien from 1979. However, Kotto had a long career in Hollywood, with several notable roles in some great films and TV shows. Kotto never headlined a blockbuster movie franchise, or garnered a boatload of award recognition, and I’m sure Kotto will not get the massive round of applause at this year’s Oscar death reel, but he was a hard working actor who racked-up 95 credits (per IMDB) over a 50-year career. (He did win one Emmy for “Outsanding Performance by a Supporting Actor in a Comedy or Drama Special ” for Raid On Entebbe in 1976). Sure many of those 95 roles were in one-episode TV stints and in long-forgotten movies, but he had a knack for making the most out of the good opportunities that came along. Here are some of our favorite roles of his.
Dr. Kananga/Mr. Big – Live and Let Die (1973)
Kotto had been consistently getting work in both TV and film since the mid-60s, but his breakout performance was as Bond villain Mr. Big, a Harlem mob boss who also turns out, after removal of a prosthetic face, to be a corrupt Prime Minister of a Caribbean country. This was Roger Moore’s first Bond film, and the first one to be set predominantly in America and the Caribbean. Kotto was a badass in this, and an interesting departure from the line of previous Bond villains. Kananga tries to kill Bond first with crocodiles, and then with sharks. My guess is that our current woke Twitterverse would have plenty to take issue with if this film was released today, but I think it’s one of the more unique Bond films and one of the best Roger Moore entries.
Parker – Alien (1979)
Alien was hardly expected to be the huge hit it was, considering the script/production issues and the risk the studio took giving the reins to young, newbie director Ridley Scott. But it was a hit that continued to build a following over time, particularly in the 1980’s in the new video rental business. Kotto played the blue collar role with both a breeziness and a bit of a chip on his shoulder – mumbling lines about the working folk getting screwed over by “the company”. Although he initially argues with Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley about fixing the grounded ship, he later becomes the hero, saving her from the homicidal android Ash in a key scene. Spoiler alert: Parker is the last of the crew to die, leaving Ripley to battle the alien creature alone. Kotto left a memorable legacy with sci-fi fans due to this film, but he also had a memorable role in the sci-fi action film Running Man (1987) as a resistance fighter, alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger’s protagonist.
Special Agent Alonzo Mosely – Midnight Run (1987)
Midnight Run is one of my favorite comedies of all time, and it also featured my favorite role of Kotto’s career. Robert DeNiro plays a former-cop-turned bounty hunter Jack Walsh, trying to get bail jumper and mob-trial witness Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas (Charles Grodin) across the country to Los Angeles. Kotto plays Agent Mosely, an FBI special agent in charge who is pursuing both of them. Kotto is mostly serious in this, but he had a good understanding of the material and landed a few solid comedic moments. There’s a running gag where Walsh advances his journey by impersonating Mosely (having stolen his wallet/badge early on). Later in the film after one of his agents reveals Walsh again impersonated him, Mosely barks out in frustration “I’M agent Mosely!” In the end, Walsh convinces Mosely to team up to bring down the mob boss in a tense airport terminal scene in Las Vegas. As far as I know, Kotto never did any other comedies after that, which is a shame because I think he had a knack for it with the right role.
Al Giardello – Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-1999)
His most high profile role after Midnight Run was as Lieutenant Al Giardello in the NBC series Homicide: Life On The Street. He was one of only four actors to be in the full run of seven seasons of the gritty cop series. There had been many cop shows before, and many since, but Homicide was a watershed show for its gritty approach and no-nonsense dramatic realism. The show was based on the book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon, who would go on to continue the path this show forged with his own cop series The Wire on HBO. Homicide received a ton of critical praise and a number of Emmy nominations, but Kotto was unfortunately overlooked for an Emmy. Kotto’s fellow cast member Andre Braugher received most of the Emmy love for the show, although Kotto was nominated for an NAACP image award in 1997 and 1999. The series ended with a movie in 2000 where Kotto’s character, Giardello, runs for Mayor but is assassinated, and the current and former detectives from the show come together to try and find out who did it. Although there was a lot of talent among the actors playing detectives: Braugher, Richard Belzer, Jon Polito, Mellisa Leo, etc., Kotto was a key center of this show and his contributions to making the show great were underappreciated at the time.
DJ: It’s amazing to me Kotto hadn’t worked for awhile. He was a mainstay in the 70s and 80s. He was one of my favorite Bond villains and loved him in Midnight Run. I was surprised to remember that he had been in the Running Man. I have been wanting to see Raid on Entebbe to see his take on Idi Amin. He was a good and dependable character actor that always seemed to give whatever role an A level effort.