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Yaphet Kotto, Actor in ‘Homicide: Life on the Street,’ ‘Live and Let Die,’ and ‘Alien,’ dies at 81

The New Yorker received an Emmy nomimated for portraying Idi Amin but passed on playing Lando Calrissian and Jean-Luc Picard.

Yaphet Kotto, the compelling character actor who portrayed police lieutenant Al Giardello on Homicide: Life on the Street, a space traveler in Alien and a supervillain in Live and Let Die, has died. He was 81.

In a message posted on Facebook, Kotto’s wife, Tessie Sinahon, said that the actor died Monday. “I’m saddened and still in shock of the passing of my husband Yaphet of 24 years,” she wrote. His agent said he died near Manila in the Philippines; no cause of death was revealed.

A presence at 6-foot-4 and more than 240 pounds in his prime, Kotto also was known for his eerie Emmy-nominated performance as the brutal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in Raid on Entebbe, a 1976 NBC movie.

In 1969, the Harlem native stepped in on Broadway for James Earl Jones in The Great White Hope, portraying the boxer based on heavyweight champ Jack Johnson for about eight months in the original Tony-winning production.

He was memorable in supporting roles as resistance fighter William Laughlin in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s The Running Man (1987) and FBI agent Alonzo Mosely in the comedy Midnight Run (1988), starring Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin.

Kotto also wrote, directed and starred as a California highway patrolman who gets involved with a motorcycle gang in The Limit (1972) and starred with Harvey Keitel and Richard Pryor in Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar (1978), a heist drama about three autoworkers who steal from their corrupt union.

In his signature role, Kotto was superb as the no-nonsense, Baltimore-raised Alphonse “Gee” Giardello in 122 episodes over seven seasons (1993-2000) of the acclaimed NBC drama Homicide: Life on the Street.

Kotto 'Homicide: Life on the Streets'
Courtesy Everett Collection
Kotto was a series regular in the award-winning police procedural ‘Homicide: Life on the Streets.’

“Yaphet has great credibility, a simple strength, a quiet passion,” Homicide executive producer Barry Levinson once said.

His portrayal of the half-Black/half-Italian lieutenant reflected his own multicultural background.

While Kotto was in production on Alien, Irvin Kershner, who had directed Raid on Entebbe, approached the actor about appearing as Lando Calrissian in another movie set in space, The Empire Strikes Back.

Kotto, though, turned down the opportunity for what would prove to be Star Wars immortality (the part, of course, went to Billy Dee Williams), opting instead to play prison trustee Dickie Coombes opposite warden Robert Redford in Brubaker (1980).

“I wanted to get back down on Earth,” he said in a 2003 interview. “I was afraid that if I did another space film after having done Alien, then I’d be typed.

“Once you get one of those big blockbuster hits, you better have some other big blockbuster hits to go with it too and be Harrison Ford, because if you don’t … you place yourself right out of the business.”

Mr. Big
Courtesy of Everett Collection
One of Kotto’s best-known roles was the Bond villain Mr. Big in 1973’s ‘Live and Let Die.’

He also passed on portraying Captain Jean-Luc Picard — a role made famous by Patrick Stewart — on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

“I should have done that, but I walked away,” he admitted in 2015. “When you’re making movies, you’d tend to say no to TV. It’s like when you’re in college and someone asks you to the high school dance. You say no.”

Yaphet Fredrick Kotto was born on Nov. 15, 1939. His father, Abraham, was a businessman and a Black Jew from Cameroon, and his mother was a nurse with Panamanian roots. (Yaphet means “beautiful” in Hebrew, and the youngster wore a yarmulke each day while growing up.)

His parents divorced when he was young, and Kotto was raised by his grandparents in the Bronx while his mother served in the U.S. Army. After dropped out of high school at 16 and casting about at odd jobs, Kotto was inspired to pursue acting after seeing Marlon Brando work his magic in On the Waterfront.

“Right away I knew I would have to learn something about diction and speech,” he told Roger Ebert in 1972. “I spoke in this very hip Harlem way … so I tape-recorded all of John Cameron Swayze’s newscasts and imitated them.”

Kotto made his movie debut with an uncredited role in the Rat Pack film 4 for Texas (1963), appeared in Nothing But a Man (1964) and played on Broadway in the 1965 musical comedy The Zulu and the Zayda.

Kotto also found work on such TV shows as The Big ValleyBonanzaThe High Chaparral and Mannix and in films including 5 Card Stud (1968), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970) and the hilarious Bone (1972), written and directed by Larry Cohen.

Kotto then starred as the evil Caribbean diplomat Dr. Kananga, who also masquerades as the New York drug lord Mr. Big, in Live and Let Die (1973), featuring Roger Moore as James Bond.

The actor said that he did not mind that his Alien character, the chief engineer Parker, was killed off.

“I wouldn’t want Parker to go on because I’d be caught up in the franchise,” he said. “I wanted to get back to being an actor. And so I chose to get back to it. And this was not bullshit. … I think I learned these choices by having a New York stage background. What you learn in New York is: Don’t pull the same trick twice.”

His film credits also included Bill Cosby’s Man and Boy (1971), Across 110th Street (1972), the great Blaxploitation pic Truck Turner (1974), Report to the Commissioner (1975), Friday Foster (1975), The Monkey Hustle (1976), Fighting Back (1982), The Star Chamber (1983), Warning Sign (1985), Eye of the Tiger (1986) and Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991).

Kotto, who was married three times and had six children, claimed to have been a distant relative of Queen Elizabeth II, which inspired the title of his 1997 autobiography, The Royalty.

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Written by The Editor

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