Author Topic: Yaphet Kotto interview  (Read 1086 times)

Offline Hypestyle

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Yaphet Kotto interview
« on: August 01, 2016, 05:56:30 am »
It would be great if some new TV or film projects could bring him back into the spotlight. 


Yaphet Kotto: The One and Only
Yaphet Kotto interview pictureNot only is Yaphet Kotto an immensely talented, versatile actor, he’s an icon. His character “Parker” all but stole the show in the 1979 Ridley Scott sci-fi horror masterpiece “Alien”, and his character “Smokey” did the same in the 1978 Paul Schrader film “Blue Collar”.

Among a long list of movie and television credits so far spanning five decades, he’s been a Bond villain (“Kananga” in “Live and Let Die”), a foil for Robert DeNiro in the action/comedy “Midnight Run”, and he currently runs his own website for science-fiction fans:


yaphet kotto as bond villianWhen did you first know you wanted to be an actor?
I was roaming around Manhattan looking for work; in fact I had just come from an employment center in New York called ‘Warren Street’ where you can buy a part-time job for about ten bucks. On this particular day I didn’t feel like delivering lunches, or pushing a dolly truck through lower Brando picManhattan, so I went up to 42nd Street around Times Square, which at the time looked like a circus: porn theaters on one side of the street and b-movies on the other. I stopped before one particular theater and there were gangster photos all over the marquee. The movie must have cost about seventy-five cents, so I went in and sat down and saw “On The Waterfront”. I was so blown away after that day – it was Brando’s performance that made me leave the streets to become an actor.

Any standout memories working with Anthony Quinn in “Across 110th Street”?
I can’t stop laughing about Mr. Quinn. He wouldn’t let me have anything. When I told him about how rough I had it as a kid in Harlem, he told me how he was hanged by the neck in Russia and left for dead. I told him I’d love to win an Academy award. “Don’t bother, I’ll lend you mine”. “You don’t know how rough it is coming up black in America”. “Listen Yaphet, until you have been a Mexican, you don’t know what rough means!” When we were shooting 110th in Harlem… I said to him: “Finally, I’m with my people”. “Your people? My great-grandmother was a slave in Alabama!”

My fondest memory of Tony was the day we were walking through Central park on our way back to the Navarro Hotel where we were staying, and I started talking about how performing live on stage was the real challenge, not just acting in front of a camera for an editor to create a performance. Right there and then Quinn started to do his song and dance routine from “Zorba the Greek”, attracting a crowd of about five hundred people. That was it for me. “That’s it Tony, you’re the king”.

You directed one film, “The Limit”, in 1972… How was it stepping behind the camera?
Well, when you’re directing, it’s an opportunity to teach. Especially if you’re dealing with actors who were not fortunate like myself to have had the Actors Studio in New York experience and summer stock and off b’way… People don’t realize this, but I’ve done seventy-five plays both in the U.S. and England. So directing gave me a chance to share a little of my experience with others.

Issac hayesWhat was it like working with Issac Hayes in “Truck Turner”?
He was all right. He asked me to do that film with him. I didn’t take it serious because he wasn’t an actor and it was a joke. We got along great. He watched me do the death scene and that’s all he talked about afterwards: “Man, you all see the way my man Yaphet did his death scene?” I can’t take too much credit for that scene, I had seen it in “The Young Lions” with Marlon Brando and that gave me a skeleton to work from.

Yaphet Kotto actingFor the James Bond film “Live and Let Die”, where you play the main villain, did you study any past Bond villains for the role?
No, there were so many problems with that script… I was too afraid of coming off like Mantan Moreland… I had to dig deep in my soul and brain and come up with a level of reality that would offset the sea of stereotype crap that Tom Mankiewicz wrote that had nothing to do with the Black experience or culture. The way Kananga dies was a joke… and… well… the entire experience was not as rewarding as I wanted it to be. There were a lot of pitfalls that I had to avoid, and I did.

Live and Let DieHow did you set upon playing “Kananga” differently than the other Bond villains of the past?
That’s a great question. That’s exactly what I’m writing about in my book. Jeez, it was the first black Bond villain… I wanted to be original… but there was nothing I could draw on from Tom’s script. It was a trap. If I had played it the way it was written, every Black Organization in the world would have been on my case. I had to draw on a real life situation I was going through and that saved me… As a result, Kananga is real mostly because of a personal situation I was going through at that time.

Was there a lot of improvisation in “Blue Collar” between you, Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel (the morning-after scene comes to mind)?
First of all, by this point in the shoot we had gone so far off the script. I’m told Paul Schrader was annoyed, at least that’s what I’m told. The whole thing had become one improvisation after another, but if my memory serves me correct, he told me and Harvey and Richard to improvise. He said we were “Director Proof” actors and to “improvise when you feel it’s necessary”. Then when we did as directed, I’m told he was annoyed. Well I don’t really know if he was or not. But he was lucky to have had us. The movie is a classic.

How was it filming the “Blue Collar” death scene in the paint room?
It was all right, no problems. We took about two days to shoot if my memory serves me right. The only thing that bothered me was that it was the second film in which my character dies and that bugged me a little. Otherwise everything else was cool.

Yaphet Kotto in AlienWhat was the most challenging scene in “Alien”?
All of the scenes were challenging, particularly when you know you have to act against sets that were huge. The special effects determined where you could walk. Then you ask yourself how can you survive in acting against a monster. Will you be remembered? Ridley Scott was cool. He gave us a ninety-page outline detailing each of our characters and then he disappeared behind the camera. That’s how he directs; he operates his own camera.

Scene from Alien


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Was there much improvisation on “Alien”?
The “Alien” script was tight. It was one of the best scripts I have ever read, so there was very little improve. They cut my “Do I look like Flash Gordon to you” line.

Any other memories of “Alien” you want to share?
Well, one of the things that I want to straighten out, because I don’t know if Ridley ever did. I liked Sigourney Weaver from the moment I met her. Ridley told me “No, no, don’t start cozying up with Sigourney”. He wanted me to annoy the crap out of her, which I did. He told me to get on Sigourney’s nerves; stop speaking to her on the lunch breaks, dressing rooms, etc. All for the end of the movie at that moment when she blows up at (me) “Parker” and takes over leadership. I did exactly as Ridley told me. To this day, I don’t know if he ever told her. I will never let a director do that to me again! I asked him when I saw him in Canada at their film festival and the release of the Director’s Cut and I don’t think he had.

Yaphet Kotto in Midnight RunHow was it working on “Midnight Run” with Robert DeNiro?
Deniro in Midnight RunThat was another difficult shoot. DeNiro is very spontaneous and it always helps to work with an artist like that. But Marty Brest! “Herr Director” shot so many takes of the scenes that I lost all joy in doing the film. It became hard and tedious work. Then he stopped eating during the shoot and became thinner and thinner each day, until he looked like a ghost behind the camera. When I met Marty at the Universal studio with DeNiro, he looked healthy and strong, but as filming went on, he began to turn into someone you’d see in Dachau. It was weird. I got sick and for the whole of the film I had a fever and was under the weather for most of it… I was shocked when it came off so funny… It sure wasn’t funny making it.

What was your experience like on the TV series “Homicide”?
I felt like I was a beggar doing “Homicide”. Begging to act. Begging for scenes. The writing was not obviously for me. It mainly focused on others. I went from a movie star playing leads to a bit player doing one line here and one line there. The rest of the week I would be hanging around Fells Point waiting to come in and do my one line. When I asked if they could write more for me to do, they’d say “You’re doing great. You’re the anchor of the show. “Anchor? I’m an actor, let me out!” I finally ended up writing for the show and gave myself something to do… Nine years of not acting.

The camerawork on some films and many TV shows is shaky and fast moving… Do you find it difficult acting to this?
The constant camera movement does not bother me because I had been broken in to this style of shooting by cinematographer Haskell Wexler from “The Thomas Crowne Affair” that I did with him and Norman Jewison; he was the first cinematographer to employ this technique?

What is your documentary “Marmora 2012” about?
Marmora 2012Man, listen… I don’t care who calls me crazy. I went to this farm in Canada and I and two-thousand people saw an orb or disc dancing in the sky… Now the people there were Catholic and they say it was a “Miracle in the sun”. I say what I saw was a UFO, it had to be. If the sun were dancing like that we wouldn’t be here. It was spinning and going up and down and then golden snowflakes started to cover the trees, people running and screaming. It was the end of the world and all that type of stuff… The government should stop bullsh--ing people and come out with the truth about this kind of thing. They need to stop lying.

Your official website is… What goes on at this site?
I’m there mostly for writers and lovers of science fiction… it’s not a news channel, or a sports channel… It is there for science fiction. Hopefully somebody will write an “Alien” and post it.

Interview by James M. Tate

Yaphet Kotto’s official site:

« Last Edit: August 01, 2016, 06:02:11 am by Hypestyle »
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Offline Hypestyle

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Re: Yaphet Kotto interview
« Reply #1 on: August 01, 2016, 06:02:22 am »

Blessed with a refined bravado and a sly smile, acclaimed stage and screen actor Yaphet Kotto could charm a snarling xenomorph out of its deadly nest.  Still an imposing presence at 75, he's starred in a wealth of classic movies, such as Live and Let Die, Alien, The Running Man and Midnight Run, appearing in more than 70 films and TV series in a vibrant career spanning five decades.
Blastr visited with the jovial and sometimes bitter Kotto at last month's Wizard World Portland Comic-Con, where he regaled us with a candid exploration of his life as an accomplished Hollywood actor.

You bring such a force of personality to your roles, who were your favorite actors as an aspiring performer?
Marlon Brando.  Period.  Nobody else.  I studied all his movies.  Went to the same school he went to, the Actor's Studio in New York City.  Hung out with the same people.  That was the only actor that existed.  And I'm told he felt the same way about me.  Except he once said, "There's only one other person that has a strange name like mine and that's Yaphet Kotto."

Everyone loves the character of Parker in Alien.  What did you bring to the role that gave it such universal appeal?
Parker was going to be bigger than life.  And I thought that Parker had to be, because one look at Ridley's sets on Alien, the hugeness of those sets, as big as this room, I said this character is going to get lost in this and so he's got to be big.  Bombastic and big.   If I'd have played him smaller he'd be just another guy.  Because he was bigger than life, the audience felt comfortable around Parker even when he was facing the alien.

You and Harry Dean Stanton (Brett) had some amazing chemistry on Alien.  Was that bond intentionally written into the script or was it improvised on the set?
(Laughs) Harry and I are friends, man.  OK? And our friendship goes beyond the normal ... Look, just imagine two guys from Woodstock deciding to go make a movie, and now you know who Harry and I are.  We come from a different scene of life.  If you know what Woodstock was doing, where they were at, then you know Harry and I are together even though we're not together.  Ridley knew what we were going to do and where we were coming from.  We were carrying on, you know. (Simulates inhaling a joint) Yeah right, check it out.

These two rowdy dudes on the Nostromo, Parker and Brett, are the only ones with stress outlets. You guys were loose, right?
Right.  (Cracks up)

Did Ridley Scott instruct you to intentionally badger Sigourney Weaver on set to increase tension?
Yeah, it's true, but Ridley's a copout Irishman, or Scotsman, because he made me f*** with Sigourney and then after the show was over he never told her.  He never even said a single word about it.  Ridley needs an ass-whippin.'  He'd say, "Keep messin' with that chick.  Don't talk to her no more.  When you go into the dressing room, aggravate her."  Damn.
Want to share some of your best tactics?
 I'm not telling you.  Because then you'll try it.  Then somebody's gonna kick your ass and you're gonna blame me and when they ask me I'm gonna say nothing, just like Ridley.

Last year was the 35th anniversary of Alien.  When were you aware it could be something extraordinary?
I knew that two years before the movie had a deal.  Knew it from the first 72-page script, that was the version Dan [O'Bannon] and Ronnie [Shusett] wrote.  They were my friends long before the movie was made, long before Fox bought it.   When I got that script I turned down movies for two years because I was afraid that movie would be produced and I'd be doing something else.  Then, when it got that deal, I got a call from my agent saying Fox wanted me to go to England.

How epic was that first glimpse of Alien's amazing sets at Pinewood Studios?
Crazy, man.  The spaceship was insane, big as this convention center, maybe bigger.  I said then, uh-oh, I'm in trouble.  How am I gonna act against this?  This is going to wipe me out.  So I made the character even larger than the sets.
In your death scene, when the xenomorph chomps down on your skull, what was your mindset as you screamed?
That was Derek, the cinematographer, standing on my foot.  That's why I was screaming so loud.   

Another Alien rumor claims you got into a real fight with Bolaji Badejo, the 7-foot Nigerian actor inside the creature suit.   Any truth to that?
Lemme get this straight right now.  I am so tired of reading s*** about how I'm challenging him, he's challenging me, I knocked him down, he knocked me down.  I spoke to him twice!  Bolaji was a nice guy, I liked him.  One time he had the damn alien head off and I asked him if he was hot.  The other time he was coming onto the stage and I was going out.  The Internet created these tales about it.  Look, I'm a professional actor, I don't go around doing stuff like that, it's insane, and I resent people who write those kinds of things about my character.  They said, "Oh, Yaphet was touching this guy and finally Bolaji got up and knocked the sh*t out of Yaphet." Number one, this guy was too skinny to knock me out.  Number two, I hardly spoke to him.  He was a guy they found on the street somewhere in London, and they gave him a job and he was very professional, very African, and I had the utmost respect for him.  Sorry, movie fans, make up some other s***.

What was your initial introduction to science fiction?
I was having extraterrestrial experiences from the time I was 10 years old.  Weird experiences.  First they took me to a psychiatrist, priest, rabbi and no one could dispute it. Why would I be making things up at 10?  I saw the damn things.  I'm looking out the window at my friends playing stickball.  I'm being grounded in the house for coming home late from school.  I get tired of watching and turn to leave and standing right at the edge of the doorway to my room was a figure of what we now call The Grays.  He leaped out of the way like he didn't want me to catch him.  I looked down the hall and there was nobody there.  I asked my grandmother if there was anybody in the house and she said, "No, just you and me."  But I never forgot that.  And as I got to be a teenager and an adult, I realized that, holy s***, that was an alien.  It didn't mean anything to me back then, but looking back I thought, wait a minute brother, these guys are real.  I didn't accept it fully until I was 35-40 years old.  A lot of the time I never talk about it.

What was your most memorable moment shooting Alien?
The aftershock of that thing bursting out of his chest.  I started to figure maybe I should get some other career, something with a little more dignity or class in it.  You begin questioning your motives and start thinking maybe I should just do Hamlet.  I come all this way and the guy has this monster erupt out?  I should go be a Shakespearean actor and get some class.  The thing about that script was the simplicity in which it was written.  72 pages.  The average script is 103-130 pages.  Try to write something with that kind of power.

1987's The Running Man has a huge cult following, and it keeps getting rediscovered.  What is it about the film that still resonates?
People ask me a lot about that picture.  I think it's because of me and Arnold.  We're friends. "Yaphet, If you need me, call me." Those were his parting words.  Yeah, we had a lot of fun.  Especially when they put too much of a discharge in an explosion and Arnold and I disappeared because they overloaded the tubes.  BOOM!  No more Arnold and Yaphet.

With you, Arnold, Jesse Ventura, Jim Brown all together on the set, that's a lot of testosterone.  What was the vibe like?
A lot of people were afraid to come on The Running Man set, they said so.  A lot of growling and joking around going on.  Not to mention Arnold's bodyguard, Sven, who's bigger than all of us.  It was like a pack of lions, you had to have guts to come on our set.  And all the other guys Arnold had around, 7-foot Teutonics, German dudes, big blond guys!  Don't blame it on us.  Blame it on the whole Arnold thing.  If you were a coward, I wouldn't advise you to come around.

Some of the actors on Predator went on to do Running Man.  Were you offered a part in McTiernan's Predator?
I was asked to do Predator and I said no.  It just seemed too predictable.  I didn't want to have anything to do with it.  It's kind of hard to top Alien.  Running Man was not predictable, but Predator was.  I didn't want to be associated with anything that loses.  A lot of people come to me with movies.  I only take movies I think are going to make money.  If it's not going to make money and you being all esoteric and write these wonderful things, count me out.  My record of one hit after another shows I know what I'm doing.

Have you heard that they might reboot The Running Man?
No, I haven't.  My character is demised.   Even if they bring him back or write me a cameo I'd turn it down.  I don't want to go back and do something I've done before.

What was that awesome silver/red jumpsuit like to wear?
Nice, I liked it.  It's in my house.  All kinds of people ask me for it.  I got offered $20,000 for it.   I'm not selling that s***.   No way, Jose.  My clothes from Alien I've got.  The blue headband.  Everything.  I even have my white sneakers Parker wore in Alien.  Man, those are no props, those were my clothes!

Do you enjoy the fan experience at conventions?
People are so sweet, they want you to come talk to them.  It's really nice.  I remember the first time seeing a movie actor walk up the street.  My heart jumped in my chest.  Oh my god, that's Sidney Poitier!  I ran home and told everybody about it.  So I know how that feels.
You resurrected Parker for the new Alien: Isolation videogame.  How was it getting back into that character again?
Not good.  Reliving something.  It's over.  I'm not going to do that anymore.  No more Alien anything!  It was all day, a couple of days.  They paid me a lot of money.  I don't mind that but I don't want to go back.  Don't come to me with offers or anything that even looks like Alien.  The answer is hell no.  Take your little money and go somewhere else with it.

Director Irvin Kershner first offered you the part of Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back but you wanted back to Earth after Alien.  Over the scope of your career, any regrets for roles you passed up or lost?
Yeah!  Blue Thunder was written by Dan O'Bannon specifically for me.  And I'm not in it because the producer of Alien, Gordon Carroll, would not allow me to play that role because my skin was black and he was wrong.  I was even told by the studio that my name can't be first in the Alien credits because people might think it's a black movie!  They ended up giving me a solo line right across the screen.  And then they had the nerve to call and ask me if I'd change out my billing because it was interfering with their poster artwork.  I told them to go to hell.   No one in Alien was as well known as me!  I'm still pissed off I didn't do Blue Thunder.  They told me they couldn't show a black man going crazy in a helicopter.  What, are we all Martin Luther King?  Who gets to play the part?  Roy Scheider.

Any other notable movies you were refused due to race?
Minority Report was written for me.  It ends up in Tom Cruise's hands and changed.  It was adapted by Ron Shusett for Yaphet Kotto.  If I was white I would have been playing those roles.  If I told you all the big movies that went to white actors that were written for me because of racism you'd be shocked.

You were good friends with some legendary Hollywood tough guys and hard drinkers like John Wayne, Dean Martin, Steve McQueen and Robert Mitchum.   What life lessons did you learn partying with them after hours?

(Sits back and laughs) Yeah, how to eat something in between rounds and when it's time to sleep.
« Last Edit: August 01, 2016, 06:05:04 am by Hypestyle »
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