Yaphet Kotto: The One and Only
Not only is Yaphet Kotto an immensely talented, versatile actor, he’s an icon. His character “Parker” all but stole the show in the 1979 Ridley Scott sci-fi horror masterpiece “Alien”, and his character “Smokey” did the same in the 1978 Paul Schrader film “Blue Collar”.
Among a long list of movie and television credits so far spanning five decades, he’s been a Bond villain (“Kananga” in “Live and Let Die”), a foil for Robert DeNiro in the action/comedy “Midnight Run”, and he currently runs his own website for science-fiction fans: www.sci-horrorchannel.com.
When did you first know you wanted to be an actor?
I was roaming around Manhattan looking for work; in fact I had just come from an employment center in New York called ‘Warren Street’ where you can buy a part-time job for about ten bucks. On this particular day I didn’t feel like delivering lunches, or pushing a dolly truck through lower Manhattan, so I went up to 42nd Street around Times Square, which at the time looked like a circus: porn theaters on one side of the street and b-movies on the other. I stopped before one particular theater and there were gangster photos all over the marquee. The movie must have cost about seventy-five cents, so I went in and sat down and saw “On The Waterfront”. I was so blown away after that day – it was Brando’s performance that made me leave the streets to become an actor.
Any standout memories working with Anthony Quinn in “Across 110th Street”?
I can’t stop laughing about Mr. Quinn. He wouldn’t let me have anything. When I told him about how rough I had it as a kid in Harlem, he told me how he was hanged by the neck in Russia and left for dead. I told him I’d love to win an Academy award. “Don’t bother, I’ll lend you mine”. “You don’t know how rough it is coming up black in America”. “Listen Yaphet, until you have been a Mexican, you don’t know what rough means!” When we were shooting 110th in Harlem… I said to him: “Finally, I’m with my people”. “Your people? My great-grandmother was a slave in Alabama!”
My fondest memory of Tony was the day we were walking through Central park on our way back to the Navarro Hotel where we were staying, and I started talking about how performing live on stage was the real challenge, not just acting in front of a camera for an editor to create a performance. Right there and then Quinn started to do his song and dance routine from “Zorba the Greek”, attracting a crowd of about five hundred people. That was it for me. “That’s it Tony, you’re the king”.
You directed one film, “The Limit”, in 1972… How was it stepping behind the camera?
Well, when you’re directing, it’s an opportunity to teach. Especially if you’re dealing with actors who were not fortunate like myself to have had the Actors Studio in New York experience and summer stock and off b’way… People don’t realize this, but I’ve done seventy-five plays both in the U.S. and England. So directing gave me a chance to share a little of my experience with others.
What was it like working with Issac Hayes in “Truck Turner”?
He was all right. He asked me to do that film with him. I didn’t take it serious because he wasn’t an actor and it was a joke. We got along great. He watched me do the death scene and that’s all he talked about afterwards: “Man, you all see the way my man Yaphet did his death scene?” I can’t take too much credit for that scene, I had seen it in “The Young Lions” with Marlon Brando and that gave me a skeleton to work from.
For the James Bond film “Live and Let Die”, where you play the main villain, did you study any past Bond villains for the role?
No, there were so many problems with that script… I was too afraid of coming off like Mantan Moreland… I had to dig deep in my soul and brain and come up with a level of reality that would offset the sea of stereotype crap that Tom Mankiewicz wrote that had nothing to do with the Black experience or culture. The way Kananga dies was a joke… and… well… the entire experience was not as rewarding as I wanted it to be. There were a lot of pitfalls that I had to avoid, and I did.
How did you set upon playing “Kananga” differently than the other Bond villains of the past?
That’s a great question. That’s exactly what I’m writing about in my book. Jeez, it was the first black Bond villain… I wanted to be original… but there was nothing I could draw on from Tom’s script. It was a trap. If I had played it the way it was written, every Black Organization in the world would have been on my case. I had to draw on a real life situation I was going through and that saved me… As a result, Kananga is real mostly because of a personal situation I was going through at that time.
Was there a lot of improvisation in “Blue Collar” between you, Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel (the morning-after scene comes to mind)?
First of all, by this point in the shoot we had gone so far off the script. I’m told Paul Schrader was annoyed, at least that’s what I’m told. The whole thing had become one improvisation after another, but if my memory serves me correct, he told me and Harvey and Richard to improvise. He said we were “Director Proof” actors and to “improvise when you feel it’s necessary”. Then when we did as directed, I’m told he was annoyed. Well I don’t really know if he was or not. But he was lucky to have had us. The movie is a classic.
How was it filming the “Blue Collar” death scene in the paint room?
It was all right, no problems. We took about two days to shoot if my memory serves me right. The only thing that bothered me was that it was the second film in which my character dies and that bugged me a little. Otherwise everything else was cool.
What was the most challenging scene in “Alien”?
All of the scenes were challenging, particularly when you know you have to act against sets that were huge. The special effects determined where you could walk. Then you ask yourself how can you survive in acting against a monster. Will you be remembered? Ridley Scott was cool. He gave us a ninety-page outline detailing each of our characters and then he disappeared behind the camera. That’s how he directs; he operates his own camera.
Was there much improvisation on “Alien”?
The “Alien” script was tight. It was one of the best scripts I have ever read, so there was very little improve. They cut my “Do I look like Flash Gordon to you” line.
Any other memories of “Alien” you want to share?
Well, one of the things that I want to straighten out, because I don’t know if Ridley ever did. I liked Sigourney Weaver from the moment I met her. Ridley told me “No, no, don’t start cozying up with Sigourney”. He wanted me to annoy the crap out of her, which I did. He told me to get on Sigourney’s nerves; stop speaking to her on the lunch breaks, dressing rooms, etc. All for the end of the movie at that moment when she blows up at (me) “Parker” and takes over leadership. I did exactly as Ridley told me. To this day, I don’t know if he ever told her. I will never let a director do that to me again! I asked him when I saw him in Canada at their film festival and the release of the Director’s Cut and I don’t think he had.
How was it working on “Midnight Run” with Robert DeNiro?
That was another difficult shoot. DeNiro is very spontaneous and it always helps to work with an artist like that. But Marty Brest! “Herr Director” shot so many takes of the scenes that I lost all joy in doing the film. It became hard and tedious work. Then he stopped eating during the shoot and became thinner and thinner each day, until he looked like a ghost behind the camera. When I met Marty at the Universal studio with DeNiro, he looked healthy and strong, but as filming went on, he began to turn into someone you’d see in Dachau. It was weird. I got sick and for the whole of the film I had a fever and was under the weather for most of it… I was shocked when it came off so funny… It sure wasn’t funny making it.
What was your experience like on the TV series “Homicide”?
I felt like I was a beggar doing “Homicide”. Begging to act. Begging for scenes. The writing was not obviously for me. It mainly focused on others. I went from a movie star playing leads to a bit player doing one line here and one line there. The rest of the week I would be hanging around Fells Point waiting to come in and do my one line. When I asked if they could write more for me to do, they’d say “You’re doing great. You’re the anchor of the show. “Anchor? I’m an actor, let me out!” I finally ended up writing for the show and gave myself something to do… Nine years of not acting.
The camerawork on some films and many TV shows is shaky and fast moving… Do you find it difficult acting to this?
The constant camera movement does not bother me because I had been broken in to this style of shooting by cinematographer Haskell Wexler from “The Thomas Crowne Affair” that I did with him and Norman Jewison; he was the first cinematographer to employ this technique?
What is your documentary “Marmora 2012” about?
Man, listen… I don’t care who calls me crazy. I went to this farm in Canada and I and two-thousand people saw an orb or disc dancing in the sky… Now the people there were Catholic and they say it was a “Miracle in the sun”. I say what I saw was a UFO, it had to be. If the sun were dancing like that we wouldn’t be here. It was spinning and going up and down and then golden snowflakes started to cover the trees, people running and screaming. It was the end of the world and all that type of stuff… The government should stop bullsh--ing people and come out with the truth about this kind of thing. They need to stop lying.
Your official website is sci-horrorchannel.com… What goes on at this site?
I’m there mostly for writers and lovers of science fiction… it’s not a news channel, or a sports channel… It is there for science fiction. Hopefully somebody will write an “Alien” and post it.
Interview by James M. Tate
Yaphet Kotto’s official site: www.sci-horrorchannel.com
JMT’s facebook fanpage for “Blue Collar”
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