The World According to Yaphet Kotto
The actor discusses curse words, religion and almost working with Al Pacino
Welcome back to “The World According To …” a new series in which we solicit advice from people who are in a position to give it. Our newest installment is Yaphet Kotto, whose career is a highlight real of television and film; over more than a half-century, he’s played a Marine on Hawaii Five-O, a Bond villain (Live and Let Die), Idi Amin (Raid on Entebbe), an FBI agent in Midnight Run, and, perhaps most famously, a gruff police lieutenant on Homicide: Life on the Street. At 79, he’s entertaining a number of projects, but with a stipulation: “I refuse to play any more police officers.” Just off a bout of the flu, the actor talked to InsideHook about prayer, his favorite Jewish novelist and the afterlife.
What makes you happy?
My children make me happy. My daughter is an attorney, graduated from Georgetown. My son is a police officer. They’re all struggling, of course, but they didn’t cause me too much grief. When they’re happy, I’m happy; when they’re not happy, then I’m not happy. Money, success, people calling my name when they see me walking down the street—Hey, Yaphet! I don’t care about that stuff. It’s all so transitory.
What’s the most interesting place you’ve visited?
There is a lot of African history to Spain — the Carthiginians in North African Morocco! So many buildings, so many castles and streets and statues that Africans built are still standing there. If you are a student of African history, don’t get on a plane to Africa. Go to Spain, and you will see so much of what the Africans did. The history of Africa is in Spain.
Do you have a favorite curse word?
There are so many curse words that come out of my mouth that I don’t know which one is a favorite. When I was a kid, and my mother would come home from the Army, my grandmother would say to my mother, “Would you please stop cursing in front of that boy! He’s gonna grow up learning how to curse!” My mother is passed on, but I learned a lot from her.
When you visit a city, what’s the first thing you look for?
The hotel! Then the restaurants, to see if there’s a delicatessen somewhere nearby. If I’m not working, I stay in the room. I used to [look for a synagogue], but the rabbis want to get to know you and so forth and so on, and they constantly want you to move to wherever you are. So now I don’t look for a synagogue when I go out of town.
What would you have been, had you not been an actor?
A rabbi, probably. Look at all the films I’ve made. People say, How did you do it? I say, “Do you realize how many movies I’ve made? No agent or manager got me those jobs! It’s my faith that’s gotten me everything.” You have to have that blind faith. Spielberg brought it out in The Last Crusade where Indiana had to have that blind faith to save his father’s life. I’ve always had that faith. I still have it.
What words would you want on your tombstone?
I don’t even think about that. There are these things in the Bible about my name, Yaphet, which is spooky. This guy in special effects, he kept marking sections of the Bible for me to read. I said, “This is about me! This is weird shit!” I was wondering, “What is my name doing in the Bible?” Yaphet’s going to do this, Yaphet’s going to do that. Maybe someday someone will write something nice about me—one of my kids or something. Who knows?
The end has to come as if you thought you were awake and now you’re asleep, because you’re just going to switch from this world into the afterworld, and the afterworld is very much like this world. You can’t tell which one is different, because they look the same, only one is brighter.
Do you ever watch your old movies?
I don’t watch them when they’re through. I don’t want to see myself. I see myself in the mirror every morning when I get up.
Your dad was the crown prince of Cameroon. What was his lasting gift to you?
I still open every book I read from the back page to the front. He instilled Judaism in me. Everything the Jewish religion stands for, from an African’s point of view, he left those things in me—especially things that had to do with the New Testament, which he was thoroughly, totally against. He said it was BS. If it weren’t for him, I would have probably gone to hatred or violence or drugs or alcohol. I escaped all of those things because of Judaism.
Do you have a favorite Jewish writer?
Budd Schulberg. On the Waterfront, What Makes Sammy Run?, The Harder They Fall. I learned from Budd. I learned how to write from him. I learned character structure from him. I learned rhythms from him. We were very close friends. We opened this school and launched the Watts Writers Workshop and because of him, I went down there and taught writing. While I was teaching writing, Budd was teaching me. I write like him now. I analyze like him.
Budd took me to a lot of fights. I liked that he was always a fighter. He wanted to box all the time. All he and I did was sit around talking about who was the greatest fighter. He came to see me in The Great White Hope when I replaced James Earl Jones in that damn fight.
Who is the first director who really taught you something lasting?
The woman who started my career in Harlem, the late Elizabeth White. When I was nineteen years old, she wanted me to play Othello. I learned everything from her. I learned how to get out of my street mode, how to stop talking like I was hip. She helped me to pronounce my Ds and Ts. She took me off the streets and scrubbed me up. I learned more from her than any single human being on this planet.
I wouldn’t be upset if you played Othello on Broadway.
Myself and Al Pacino were just getting ready to do that. David Merrick called us in. Al and I did rehearsals. I said, “This guy’s going to be a challenge.”
When I went to New York City to meet Al, I said to my wife, “You can’t trust God. You can’t trust Him. Let’s not count our eggs before they’re hatched, because He’s probably looking to see how anxious I am to do this. You got to be cool, because He’ll find a way to keep us from doing it.” Sure enough, three weeks later Merrick dropped dead, and that was the end of it.
Of all your characters, whom do you most identify with?
Parker, from Alien. He decided to give his life up for the woman. He’s totally a hero. He never blinked once. He knew he wasn’t going to make it off the ship and he knew he was going to protect Lambert, and that’s what he did. He was more of a hero than Sonny Boy Mosby, who was a different kind of an angry hero; the act of killing the Caucasian male in The Liberation of L.B. Jones had never been done before in Hollywood. The only thing we got close to was a slap from Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night. But the next year, Willie Wyler said, “You’re going to be the first black man to strike back violently.”
That role psychologically impressed me, but he was not the hero—he was the antihero. But Parker is a hero, completely. I’ll never forget that character. He was ready to die.
When do you pray?
I don’t. He knows what I’m doing. He knows where I am. I talk to Him, but I refuse—I absolutely refuse—to say any prayers, ask for anything special. Whatever He gives you, you’ve got to trust He’s going to let you out of it. The minute you ask for help, He puts it off. The minute you start begging, that’s where the problems start.
For an actor, you seem very well-adjusted.
I think I’m well-adjusted because of the streets of New York, man. You can’t grow up in New York City — grow up in Harlem and the South Bronx—and survive it by being stupid.