Yaphet Kotto, the longtime character actor and Emmy-nominated performer, has died. He was 81.
Best known for his roles in Ridley Scott’s Alien, the James Bond film Live And Let Die, and the acclaimed TV drama Homicide: Life On The Street, Kotto got his start in theater. While also picking up small parts in film and TV, he eventually garnered attention for his Broadway turn as boxer Jack Johnson, taking over for James Earl Jones in the original award-winning production of The Great White Hope. But playing Bond villain Dr. Kananga, a.k.a. drug lord Mr. Big, in 1973's Live And Let Die, brought the actor wider attention, as did his performance as dictator Idi Amin in the 1976 TV movie Raid On Entebbe, for which he was nominated for an Emmy. He found further success in films like Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar, opposite Richard Pryor, and then as Parker in the hit sci-fi horror Alien.
While he continued to grab notable parts throughout the ’80s in movies like The Running Man and Midnight Run, it was his work on the long-running and critically acclaimed NBC drama Homicide: Life On The Street that found Kotto embodying what many believe to be his signature role, that of police lieutenant Alphonse “Gee” Giardello. He was on the series for all seven seasons of its run, from 1993 to 2000, as well as the subsequent TV movie that served as the finale.
Kotto famously passed on several iconic roles, that of Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back (helmed by his Raid On Entebbe director, Irvin Kershner) and Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation, saying he didn’t want to be typecast at the time as an “outer space” guy. Instead, he focused on grounded roles in films like Brubaker, with Robert Redford—though he did occasionally appear in genre fare, like 1991's Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare. His final performance was voice work in the video game Alien: Isolation, reprising his performance as technician Dennis Parker, in 2014.
However, Kotto also recorded a soulful spoken-word single back in 1967, “Have You Ever Seen The Blues.” It’s maybe an odd footnote in the actor’s impressive career, but a fitting testament to the versatility and charisma of the longtime performer: