Yaphet Kotto — A Life On Screen

At the Movies Blog

Yaphet Kotto and Robert De Niro in Midnight Run.

I’m always saddened to hear when an actor whose work I love has passed away. Yaphet Kotto was 81, and at least he had a long and successful career on screen. 

The first time I saw him on screen was on the small screen, watching the first James Bond movie starring Roger Moore — Live and Let Die (1973). It was on regular TV, at least five years after it was released. From the opening McCartney theme song, I was digging everything about it. It’s the first time I saw an actor play two different characters in the same movie (Kotto played corrupt Carribean dictator Dr. Kananga, as well as drug dealer Mr. Big [this would be decades before anybody heard of Carrie Bradshaw’s boyfriend of the same name].)

A few years later he made a splash in Alien (1979), as technician Dennis Parker. Sure, most people probably remember John Hurt more because his stomach hurt after…an alien popped out of it. And on a day when we’re still talking about the Oscar nominations, the bigger character in Alien was Ripley. We were all surprised that Sigourney Weaver got an Oscar nomination for the part (it was well-deserved); but Kotto was the underrated character in that cast. 

Those bulging eyes always seemed to be perfect for the range of emotions he displayed on screen.

When I told my wife of his passing as she got out of bed, she replied, “Wasn’t he terrific as Idi Amin?!” [Raid on Entebbe]

I had barely remembered that 1977 TV movie. I only saw clips of it, but he looked amazing. Kotto got an Emmy nomination for it (as did Peter Finch, in his last role). 

I barely remember Kotto in The Running Man (Arnold Schwarzenegger). At the time, I just got a kick out of the fact that Richard Dawson (Family Feud) played the host of the game where prisoners are hunted down and killed. This was way out in the future. The year — 2019! Who would’ve guessed that in that year, we would have so many reality shows; and that we’d wish the folks on those shows were hunted down! But I digress.

I remember when writing a piece on James Earl Jones, mentioning he was in the movie The Great White Hope (about boxer Jack Jeffferson). I found out at that time that Kotto played the part on Broadway, and I think he would have been better in the role. 

The biggest film Kotto did early in his career was The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway.

I remember being a little underwhelmed with the movie Brubaker (1980) with Robert Redford, but he was solid in it as Dickie Coombes (you gotta wonder about character names on screen sometimes). 

When glancing at his list of movies, which is always fun to do with an actor you love — you sometimes see the most bizarre titles. Apparently he did the film Witless Protection with Jenny McCarthy and Larry the Cable Guy. I’m guessing if that ever comes across my sights I’ll probably skip it. 

Two If By Sea got horrible reviews (Denis Leary wrote and starred in it with Sandra Bullock), but my best friend and I (rest in peace, Joe Hight), thought it was a serviceable film when we caught it at the theatres.

Kotto played federal agent O’Malley (he looks Irish, doesn’t he?). It seemed Kotto often played either the heavy, or a federal agent. He played an FBI agent in what I consider one of the Top 5 comedies in movie history — Midnight Run (Robert De Niro, Charles Grodin). He played Alonzo Mosley, a name that seems to fit him a bit better than O’Malley. It also makes for a funny gag, as De Niro has stolen his ID and changed the photo, but looks nothing like a person named Alonzo Mosley.

If you haven’t seen it, watch it. You’ll be glad you did.

I’m not familiar with all the TV work he did (he was on Homicide: Life on the Street through most of the ‘90s).

And when writing these types of stories, I like to focus on their film work, not their personal lives. But for those interested, he was married three times, and has six kids. His last wife of 24 years, announced the news of his death from their home in the Philippines. That’s probably how a Filipino friend of mine found out the news a day before we found out in the States, and posted it on his Facebook page.

As a movie lover, I hate to admit, I’m not thinking about the kids and grandkids an actor in his 80s left behind. I’m instead thinking…this is now the 4th person of the 7 member crew of the Nostromo (John Hurt, Harry Dean Stanton, Ian Holm), that have now left the Earth. 

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