Yaphet Kotto is one of those actors who had the chops to transcend the blaxploitation era, and honestly, he never quite received the accolades he was due. In fact, He began his acting career right before the blaxploitation explosion, and at first did his best to avoid being lured into roles in films that promoted negative stereotypes. In the mid-70’s when he did finally start taking roles commonly associated with blaxploitation today, it was usually as a cop or a scofflaw with a heart of gold. Most of these films were so well done and widely marketed, it’s probably open to debate whether they should even be considered blaxploitation films at all. This month we’re just going to go with what we believe to be popular opinion and leave the debate over the finer points for some other time. This is a celebration dammit!
Why We Love and Respect Him: Things were looking good for Yaphet Kotto in the early 1970s. During his beginnings as an actor, critics praised him as being a talented and he was able to find some high profile roles quickly. One such role was that of Mr. Big, the main bad guy in the James Bond film Live and Let Die, which was Roger Moore’s first Bond movie.
With the momentum seemingly going his way, he switched gears completely and played a violent pimp in the blaxploitation classic, Truck Turner, alongside Isaac Hayes. You gotta love a career move like that.
We also love the fact he appeared as a cop, detective, or private investigator, so many times during not only the blaxploitation era, but throughout his career. He was outspoken against the negative stereotypes portrayed in many films featuring black characters in those days, and he seemingly set out to be the counterbalance for those shortcomings through his “good guy” roles.
He seemed to choose his roles carefully, so when you see his name on the cover, or in the opening credits, you can almost be assured, you’re going to see a well-made film.
The fact that he continued to be a successful actor until he was damn near 70, is yet another reason you have to respect his talent.
Best Known For: His propensity for playing cops and detectives. Most people also know him from his later work such as The Running Man (1987) with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Blaxploitation Role Call:
Bone (1972) as Bone, a thief: Sometimes sold under the title Housewife, Bone invades the home of a rich married couple with violent intentions, but as the crime unfolds, he learns the marriage is on the rocks and his objective slowly changes.
The Limit (1972) as Mark Johnson, a California Highway Patrol Officer: Mark is a motorcycle cop whose interactions with members of a biker gang called The Virgins, results jealousy and a split within the gang. He becomes a marked man because of it.
Across 110th Street (1972) as Lt. Pope, NYPD: Lt. Pope does his best to solve an organized crime killing of seven people, despite the potentially corrupt, and racist, officers in his own precinct.
Truck Turner (1974) as Harvard Blue, Pimp: Harvard Blue is out to kill Truck Turner to avenge the death of fellow pimp, Gator, and capitalize on his stable of hos.
Drum (1976) as Blaise, a slave, pit-fighter, stud, and revolutionary: Blaise is a pit fighter who is sold to be a stud on a slave farm. Things get rough, and Blaise decides he can’t take it any more. He and Drum revolt.
Friday Foster (1975) as Colt Hawkins, Private Detective: Colt Hawkins teams up with Friday Foster to thwart a plot to kill black political leaders.
The Monkey Hu$tle (1976) as Daddy Foxx, Hustler: Daddy Foxx mentors a group of small-time hustlers in Chicago, and runs a con game using corrupt politicians to prevent a construction project from destroying the neighborhood.
Jewish Negro Actor Lands Broadway Role; From the Kentucky New Era, June 17, 1969
Yikes, my how times have changed. This does, however, give us some insight into how things were right before the Blaxploitation era exploded.
The writer says this about Kotto, “He is among the most promising of the new breed of negro actors.”
“When I came out of Harlem, I couldn’t speak. I had a street voice with a high nasal pitch and I punctuated everything with, ‘Hey, man’,” Kotto said.
“I’ve had to prove myself 8 times as much as the white actor.” – Kotto
The Soul of Diversity; From People Magazine, January 31, 1994
“Socially, he says, his religion was less of a burden than was his ebony hue. ‘Black girls told me I was ugly because of my dark skin, thick lips and broad nose,’ he says. ‘That’s why, lo this day, I have a problem with black women.’ Still, in an oblique way their rebuffs got him interested in acting, especially after he saw On the Waterfront. Kotto identified with Marlon Brando’s character: ‘He seemed so defiant. Plus, he really couldn’t express his feelings to the girl [Eva Marie Saint]. It reminded me of my relationships with black girls—the rejection I felt.’
Interview with Yaphet Kotto; Roger Ebert, June 19, 1972
Kotto wasn’t a big fan of the way things were going in regard to what would become known as blaxploitation, but he did eventually appear in some key films in the genre. This interview was regarding a film he wrote, directed, and starred in, The Limit.
“’You know what it’s usually like,’ he said. ‘It’s just rape her, beat her up, take her into the back room. The so-called black movies today are mostly junk and rip-offs. They pander to violence, sex and obscenity and say they’re telling it like it is. I can’t dig that. A movie like ‘Sweet Sweetback’ degrades black women.’”
Good luck finding The Limit. It takes a little bit of effort to find any information on it at all online, and most sources regard it as one of those “lost” films.