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Yaphet Kotto, Magnetic Actor With A Long And Varied Career, Dies At 81

Yaphet Kotto, the charismatic actor who faced off with James Bond, a deadly alien and devious criminals in his long career, has died at age 81.

Kotto's death was announced by his wife, Tessie Sinahon, in a Facebook post, saying she was sad and in shock after losing her husband of 24 years. Kotto died in the Philippines, she added.

"You played a villain on some of your movies but for me you're a real hero and to a lot of people also," Sinahon said, calling Kotto her best friend. "A good man, a good father, a good husband and a decent human being, very rare to find."

With his stout frame and imposing glare, Kotto was often called on to smolder and intimidate, playing villains like Dr. Kananga, a.k.a. Mr. Big, in Roger Moore's debut as Bond in 1973's Live and Let Die. But his ability to rattle off rapid-fire dialogue with Shakespearean fluency, even while summoning an infectious grin, brought an intelligence and depth to his roles that the material Kotto was working with sometimes lacked.

"You were so memorable in every role you did. Your presence and talent were undeniable and magnetic," Viola Davis said in a tweet addressed to Kotto.

"He's one of those actors who deserved more than the parts he got," director Ava DuVernay said. "But he took those parts and made them wonderful all the same."

Kotto starred opposite Anthony Quinn in 1972's Across 110th Street, playing a young Black police officer who is paired with an older and prejudiced partner. The movie has stood up as a classic from the Blaxploitation era; it also helped to secure Kotto's standing as a movie star.

In 1978, Kotto appeared alongside Richard Pryor in Blue Collar, portraying the world-wise Smokey James in a story about a struggle between auto plant workers, their union and the company where they work.

Kotto appeared in Ridley Scott's Alien one year later, playing the chief engineer, Dennis Parker. Years later, Kotto said he was glad his character died in the film, because it spared him from being in any sequels.

Yaphet Kotto was born in New York City, the son of a father who traced his roots to royalty in Cameroon and a mother who was a nurse and army officer, according to his biography on the IMDB website. He was raised by his grandparents in the Bronx.

It may come as a surprise that Kotto, an actor known for his burly intensity, credited Barbara Stanwyck with being his "guru," after the two worked together in the 1960s TV series The Big Valley. Stanwyck, who played a straight-talking mother (in the traditional sense) on the show, was one of several women whom Kotto said boosted his career.

"I did Big Valley with her, and she took over my life. Brother, every move I made, she was following me," Kotto told an interviewer in 2003. "And I had Mary Astor calling me from the old-age home, ragging my a** all the time."

In addition to those two stars, Kotto said, the actress Judy Holliday produced a staging of Othello that Kotto appeared in when he was just 19.

Astor constantly critiqued his work, Kotto said. And it was Stanwyck who advised him not to get a publicist.

"The work will speak for itself," she told him.

Kotto has said he turned down the role of Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back -- director Irvin Kershner asked Kotto to take the part after they teamed up for Raid on Entebbe. But Kotto declined because, he later said, "I wanted to get back down on Earth. I was afraid that if I did another space film after having done [Alien] then I'd be typed."

Instead, Kotto was looking for a performance film: Rather than join the Star Wars franchise, he spent months working with Robert Redford on the prison drama Brubaker.

Kotto showed more of his range in 1988's Midnight Run, drawing on his comedic chops to play Alonzo Mosely, the harried FBI agent who tries to corral Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin.

And in the 1990s, Kotto endeared himself to a new generation of fans with his portrayal of Lt. Al Giardello on the hit police show Homicide: Life on the Street, set in Baltimore.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.