Friday, February 11, 2011

The Content of Their Character Actors: Yaphet Kotto

By Odienator
(click here for all posts)

Some years ago, I wrote a piece on Black folks in outer space.  The primary focus of this piece was Lando Calrissian, the suave, raunchy bruva who used to own the Millienium Falcon before Han Solo. I noted that, usually when a bruva went into space, he didn’t come back. I cited Capricorn One and Alien among others. The victim in Alien was Yaphet Kotto, one of the toughest looking people to grace a screen. If Kotto couldn’t survive in space, Black folks like me don’t stand a chance. In fact, I’d better stay my ass of Space Mountain.

Yaphet Kotto has been mentioned before here, and not just earlier this week when I riffed on Blue Collar. I joked about his toughness in my Scary Negroes piece, and quite frankly that’s how he’s been employed onscreen since 1970, when he provided an ironic yet vengeful ending to Willie Wyler’s The Liberation of LB Jones. Though I haven’t seen that movie, at least not out of utero (this was the film my Mom saw the day before I was born), I understand that Kotto’s character pushes a racist White man into his own thresher. And this guy couldn’t survive the Nostromo?

Despite his unconventional looks, Kotto never appeared out of place in his movies. In Alien, he looks like the type of blue collar worker (figuratively AND literally, as he’d done Blue Collar the year before) who’d work on a spaceship like the Nostromo. Unfortunately for him, while he manages to avoid the standard “Black Guy” dies first rule in horror movies, he still manages to die horribly in a scene of literal black on racially Black crime.

After L.B. Jones, Kotto next appeared in Bone, a Larry Cohen film that must be seen to be believed. Cohen says it’s his favorite movie.  He also says it’s a comedy. You can figure that one out for yourselves. Kotto plays a crazed thief who breaks into the house of a supposedly wealthy White couple. Mucho mayhem ensues as things are not what they seem at all. I won’t tell you anything about it except that Larry Cohen’s batshit crazy if he thinks this is an outright comedy.

Next, Kotto teamed up with Anthony Quinn for one of the seminal Blaxploitation pictures, Across 110th Street. Shot exactly where the title says it is, Across 110th street is about police officers Quinn and Kotto trying to crack the case of a Mafia robbery designed to start a gang war. A friend of mine has a scene in this picture with Anthony Quinn, which would have made me insanely jealous except that I was 2 when this picture came out. So if I had a scene with Quinn, I would probably have thrown up on him. Shockingly violent and politically incorrect as Hell, Across 110th Street boasts a better New York mise-en-scene than The French Connection and a killer theme song by Bobby Womack that summarizes what to expect when you view this classic. Quentin Tarantino used it at the beginning of Jackie Brown, and also during the beautiful ending shot of Pam Grier.

When the Bond series got colorized to capitalize on the burgeoning Blaxploitation trend, the Broccolis called on Yaphet Kotto to portray Roger Moore’s welcoming committee. On his maiden voyage as Bond, Moore got a Black villain, and Kotto makes the best of the ridiculous things Live and Let Die makes him do. He sells heroin under the guise of a double identity, and the entire Black community of Harlem seems to be following Bond per Kotto’s request. As an exploitation attempt/commentary, Live and Let Die is completely clueless. We don’t need Roger Moore here—we need Pam Grier (more on her in a minute).  This is the first Bond movie I ever saw, so while most people swear allegiance to Sean Connery as the ultimate Bond, I grew up with Roger Moore’s Bond. Every generation gets a Bond for its time, and this is also true for Bond villains. It’s just unfortunate Kotto is so wasted and unmemorable here.

One of my favorite Kotto performances is in Truck Turner, which I’ve written about before, Kotto plays a henchmen in service to a profoundly, superbly profane Lt. Uhura from Star Trek. His mission is to kill Truck Turner (Isaac Hayes). Named Harvard Blue, Kotto clashes with Turner but should really keep a closer watch on Lt. Uhura. She’s far less scared of him than he should be of her. He may be the baddest pimp around, but he’s no match for neither Truck nor Uhura. Michael Kahn edits it all, 11 years before he’d cut Miss Sofia into The Color Purple. Seemingly as a reward for being so game here, Kotto portrayed Pam Grier’s boyfriend in Friday Foster the year after Truck Turner.

Spoofing his numerous cop/agent roles in Mdnight Run yields comic gold. As an agent out to get Charles Grodin, he is constantly impersonated and one upped by Robert DeNiro.  Kotto’s increasingly pissed off responses are hilarious, and his frustration with being outsmarted is palpable. When Kotto tells DeNiro he’s going to get ten years for impersonating an FBI officer, DeNiro asks why he hasn’t been arrested.

Blue Collar holds Kotto’s best performance, but for second place, I’d vote for one of these two:  On Homicide, producers Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana gave him another police officer role, this time as an elder statesman alongside Andre Braugher. And in the little seen Report to the Commissioner, he’s excellent as Michael Moriarty’s partner, a cop who once worked with Moriarty’s father. It’s not on DVD, but occasionally it shows up on cable and TCM. It’s worth seeking out.


Anonymous said...

Roger Moore was my Bond, too!

And I might get to meet Billy Dee Williams at the Phoenix ComicCon in May. I'd actually like to get him to autograph a can of Colt 45 for me!

Great read, as always.

odienator said...

psantacruz, if you get a picture of Billy Dee and you holding a can of Colt 45, I will post it and write a new Colt 45 commercial for it!

See if you can get him to say "you gonna let my hand fall off?"