R.I.P. Yaphet Kotto

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 16, 2011)

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I was sad to learn actor Yaphet Kotto has passed away at age 81. Most of the headlines today are along the lines of “Yaphet Kotto, star of Live & Let Die…” Well yes, his “Mr. Big” was one of the more memorable Bond villains, but that was hardly his defining role! His other big-screen credits included Nothing But a Man, Across 110th Street, Blue Collar, Alien, Brubaker and Midnight Run. He was also an accomplished stage actor.

He had a stereotype-shattering role as Lt. Al Giardello on David Simon’s brilliant police procedural series “Homicide” (1993-1999) which showcased his considerable acting chops.

My favorite Yaphet Kotto feature film performance is in Paul Schrader’s 1978 drama Blue Collar (co-written by his brother Leonard). Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Kotto portray Detroit auto workers tired of getting the short end of the stick from both their employer and their union. In a fit of drunken pique, they pull an ill-advised caper that gets them in trouble with both parties, ultimately putting friendship and loyalty to the test.

Akin to Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, Schrader subverts the standard black-and-white “union good guy, company bad guy” trope with shades of gray, reminding us the road to Hell is sometimes paved with good intentions. Great score by Jack Nitzsche and Ry Cooder, with a memorable theme song featuring Captain Beefheart (“I’m jest a hard-woikin’, fucked-over man…”).

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Kotto was also a good sport. In 1994 he appeared “as himself” as part of this fascinating social experiment conducted by Michael Moore for his 1-season series TV Nation. This bit presages the “prank with a point” that has become stock-in-trade for Sacha Baron Cohen.

Same as it ever was. Rest in peace, big man.

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