Yaphet Kotto, the actor known for indelible roles in Homicide: Life on the Street, Alien and Midnight Run, as well as for being the first major Black James Bond villain in Live and Let Die, has died. He was 81.
Kotto’s wife, Tessie Sinahon, first revealed the news on Facebook, and Kotto’s agent confirmed his death to Variety. “You played a villain on some of your movies but for me you’re a real hero and to a lot of people also. A good man, a good father, a good husband and a decent human being,” Sinahon said.
Born on November 15, 1939, in New York, Kotto got his start in the 1960s guesting on such popular TV series as Tarzan, The Big Valley, The High Chaparral, Mannix, Gunsmoke and Hawaii Five-O. He also had small roles in features The Thomas Crown Affair, starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, and 5 Card Stud with Dean Martin and Robert Mitchum.
Kotto’s first big role was playing the villainous Kananga and alter ego Mr. Big in Roger Moore’s first Bond movie, Live and Let Die, in 1973. Kotto would go on to have other signature roles in films, playing the hapless FBI agent Alonzo Mosley in Midnight Run, opposite Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin, and space technician Dennis Parker in Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi classic Alien starring Sigourney Weaver.
Kotto’s 1980s film credits also include Brubaker, Terminal Entry, Love You to Death and The Running Man with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
But he would land his signature role in the 1990s.
On NBC’s acclaimed crime drama Homicide: Life on the Street, he played the imposing Baltimore Police Lt. Al Giardello, shift commander of the homicide unit. One of only three characters to appear in all seven seasons of the 1993-99 show and its 2000 reunion movie, the role earned him four consecutive NAACP Image Award nominations. The series was based on the 1991 book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon, based on his time as a crime reporter for The Baltimore Sun. Simon went on to create HBO’s The Wire and Treme.
Homicide won Emmys for writing, directing, casting and lead actor Andre Braugher; was on the WGA’s list of 101 Best Written TV Series; and featured an impressive list of guest stars from Robin Williams, Lily Tomlin, Alfre Woodard and Anne Meara to Charles Durning, Bruno Kirby and — in a riveting role as a doomed man who made a misstep while boarding a subway train — Vincent D’Onofrio.
The cast also included Ned Beatty, Melissa Leo, Richard Belzer, Clark Johnson, Kyle Secor, Jon Seda and Giancarlo Esposito, who played Giardello’s son in the final season.
Kotto earned an Emmy nom for playing Uganda President Idi Amin in the 1976 drama Raid on Entebbe.
Later in his career, Kotto notched up credits on Law & Order and other series, while his wife said that he was still receiving offers of work, including a Tom Cruise project. Sinahon added that Kotto planned to release a book.
Calling Kotto a “Hollywood Legend,” Sinahon wrote, “Rest in Peace Honey, I’m gonna miss you everyday, my bestfriend, my rock.I love you and you will always be in my heart. Till we meet again.”
Middle of Nowhere filmmaker Ava DuVernay was among those who paid tribute to Kotto:
Yaphet Kotto. My Mom’s favorite. He’s one of those actors who deserved more than the parts he got. But he took those parts and made them wonderful all the same. A star. Rest well, sir. pic.twitter.com/BqeuVc7DSB
— Ava DuVernay (@ava) March 16, 2021
Erik Pedersen and Greg Evans contributed to this report.