Starring Yaphet Kotto

Criterion Channel collection gives a great character actor his due as a leading man

When Yaphet Kotto died in 2021, most of us knew him as a character actor from hundreds of film and tv appearances.  Given his 1964-2008 run, you can pretty much date yourself by the time you first saw him on-screen:  robbing banks with Steve McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair (1967), gleefully trying to kill James Bond in Live and Let Die (1974), a disgruntled space engineer in Alien (1978), up against Schwarzenegger in The Running Man (1987), or his six-year stint solving crimes on the tv series, Homicide.  Those are his best-known roles, and in some truly iconic films, but Kotto rarely had the lead.  Criterion Channel’s “Starring Yaphet Kotto,” a six-film spotlight on his lead roles, is a mixed bag, but still manages to reveal Kotto’s depth and range when he got the chance.

Born in 1939 in New York City, Kotto was of West Indian, Panamanian, and Cameroonian descent, and raised Jewish.  Tall, powerfully built, darkly complexioned, and with eyes that he can make sparkle, see right through you, or radiate with malevolence, Kotto often towers over his castmates.  Whether playing men with power or not, his presence alone commands respect.  His imposing physique, and (when he chose to project it) his aura of violence, plays a big part in why he got cast in two of Criterion Channel’s more entertaining entries, the lightweight blaxploitation pics Friday Foster (1975) and Truck Turner (1974). He plays a private eye alongside Pam Grier in the first, and a pimp out to kill Isaac Hayes in the second.

Midnight Run (1988) remains endlessly watchable, and some of its biggest laugh belong to Kotto’s agent Alonzo Mosely, a hardcase federal agent, but one with an Oliver Hardy-level slow burn for every time Robert DeNiro eludes him.  It’s one of the few times onscreen anyone undermines that personal authority of his, and it’s hilarious.  The best of the lot, Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar (1978), costars Kotto with Harvey Keitel and Richard Pryor as Detroit auto workers getting even with their corrupt union.  Kotto’s Smokey James has a checkered criminal past, but we quickly see he’s the most noble of the three.  He’s able to fight the union man to man on its gangster terms, but not when outmaneuvered and outnumbered by its ruthless organizational side.

The most obscure of the six, A House Divided: Denmark Vesey’s Rebellion (1982).  It’s also the only in which Kotto works with a Black director (Stan Lathan).  Enslaved as a boy, Vesey quickly learns to read and as a man buys his own freedom, but cannot buy his family’s  Inspired by the Haitian revolution, Vesey and a group of slaves allegedly plotted to overthrow the slavers who enslaved them and escape to Haiti.  It’s stiff, and limited for budgetary reasons, but boasts a cast that also includes Ned Beatty and Antonio Fargas. Kotto’s physicality, the burning moral outrage in his eyes, and his indomitable dignity finally come together with the most powerful motivation of any character he ever played.

“Starring Yaphet Kotto” might be an uneven series, but the curators found a consistency of quality and range in Kotto here that few actors can match.

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Ben Schwartz

Ben Schwartz has written for Billy Crystal, David Letterman, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

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