Regular readers of my blog (hi Rod!) will no doubt recall that A Walk on the Wilde Side – my homage to the cinema of Cornel Wilde – threatened a separate post about Yaphet Kotto, just so I could keep saying the name Yaphet Kotto over and over again as I typed it. After all, this is the man who not only faced off against Roger Moore in Live and Let Die but suffocated to death in a paint shop in Blue Collar AND got to play Idi Amin in Raid on Entebbe (and did a much better job than either Forest Whitaker or Tom Hanks). Laurence Olivier, eat your diamonds! Yaphet Kotto is the man! Now, I want you all to say his name aloud every time you encounter it in this post, and tell me it doesn’t possess a unique magical power.
Yaphet Kotto (say it!) was born in New York, the son of a Cameroonian Jew who had emigrated to the States in the 1920s. Kotto’s Panamanian mother converted to Judaism before marrying. Growing up in the Bronx as a black Jew “going to shul, putting a yarmulke on meant,” according to Kotto, “that on Fridays, I was in some heavy fistfights.” At 19, he made his professional acting debut in (surprise, surprise) Othello and got his break on Broadway in The Great White Hope, no doubt putting his boxing chops to good use (though the film version stars another great black actor, James Earl Jones). Kotto then landed a supporting role in the inexplicably cultish The Thomas Crown Affair, but for the true discerning cult film fan, his first performance of note is in Larry Cohen’s Bone aka Beverly Hills Nightmare, Dial Rat for Terror and Housewife. This is essentially a four-hander which feels like an opened-up play, with all the psychological twists and turns you’d expect from Harold Pinter or Roman Polanski. Indeed, the plot – in which a rich white couple are taken hostage by a black burglar, only for the tables to turn repeatedly – has echoes of the Manson murders and the paranoia which gripped white America in the late 60s/early 70s. You can’t say it ls exactly a good film but it taps a nerve in a wonderfully mischievous fashion, and set the pattern for much of Kotto’s career.
For a while it looked like YAPHET KOTTO would be condemned to a (not entirely disagreeable) existence in superior exploitation/ Blaxploitation flicks like Across 110th St, Truck Turner, Drum and Shark’s Treasure, the last of these less a superior exploitation flick than an inferior Cornel Wilde flick, which is about as bad as it gets. Then deliverance, in the form of James Bond and Live and Let Die, ironically a film which borrows heavily from Blaxploitation.
Now, I’m no Bond fan, and certainly no admirer of Roger Moore (not even ironically – he was just a bad actor, and the very embodiment of tax-avoiding Tory/UKIP scum) but thanks to YAPHET KOTTO as Bond’s would-be nemesis Mr Big/Dr Kananga, a surfeit of safari suits and some glorious leopard-skin decor, Live And Let Die is a passable Roger Moore/Bond adventure.
After the afore-mentioned Raid on Entebbe, Kotto then got one of his greatest roles in Paul Schrader’s 1978 film Blue Collar. Heralded by some as that rare beast, a Marxist Hollywood movie, it is naturally nothing of the sort. There is no acknowledgement in the film of the pre-eminent part the Communist Party play in organising the masses, although the contempt for mere unions does have a certain Marxist ring to it. Essentially this is the same tired old American Myth of the little man (here men) against “the system” (i.e. capital and syndicate acting in cahoots) so really it’s a right-wing anarchist movie, and as such totally at home in Hollywood/the USA. It does boast great performances from Kotto, Richard Pryor and (as the token white friend) Harvey Keitel, however, plus a Paul Schrader script which, it need hardly be said, is totally awesome.
The following year Kotto (YAPHET KOTTO!) played Parker in Ridley Scott’s Alien, and, as the only black crew member, he almost survived. But it would have been a touch too politically correct for the self-confessed fascist Scott to have a woman AND a black man win the day, so of course he gets offed by the alien, and it’s been pretty much all downhill since then. Women of San Quentin, Badge of the Assassin, Eye of the Tiger… only Quentin Tarantino would find any virtue in those. Fortunately, the undemanding nature of these films gave Kotto time to research his family history and his autobiography Royalty: A Spiritual Awakening (£171.94 on Amazon) reveals that he is – get this – descended from kings. But we knew that. Yaphet Kotto, you rule!