Man, would I love to see Yaphet Kotto on Finding Your Roots, if for no other reason than to see the DNA test that showed for sure whether or not his story of being descended from Queen Victoria is correct or not. (He claims an ancestress had an affair with Edward VII while he was Prince of Wales. While Edward VII is believed to have had some fifty-five or more affairs in his life, he had no acknowledged illegitimate children.) He says his father was a Cameroonian crown prince who emigrated to the US in the ’20s. Frankly, if even half of what he says about his family history is true (the family originated in Israel centuries ago and have been Jews that whole time?), you could do a full hour on just him.
Even if none of it is true, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing interesting about Kotto himself. For one thing, he did have the experience of growing up a black Jew in the Bronx in the ’40s. (Apparently, Anthony Quinn spent their time together on the set of Across 110th Street one-upping him about whose life had been harder.) He got into acting because one day, he couldn’t face the variety of part-time jobs available and went to the movies instead; On the Waterfront convinced him that he wanted to be an actor. He’s played everything from Othello to Idi Amin. And he ended up writing scripts for Homicide: Life on the Street because his character actually got to do something in the scripts he wrote himself.
And he turned down Captain Picard, which is an interesting thing to consider. What might’ve happened to Patrick Stewart’s career if Kotto took the job? Might he have ended up on Homicide instead? Because Star Trek: The Next Generation was before that, and its success might have been why Kotto took that job; he says he rejected Picard because he was a movie actor and wasn’t considering TV at the time. Though I would personally add the caveat of “beyond guest shots,” because he actually did quite a lot of TV.
Actually, he’s said that he took a lot of jobs over the years simply because, as a black actor, he can’t afford not to. Only so many jobs have been offered to him, after all, and it’s not exactly as though he’s tripping over scripts the way some other actors are. One assumes that explains choices like The Monkey Hu$tle; I’ve never seen it, but replacing a letter with a symbol is in my opinion seldom a good sign in a title. Even after Alien, there was Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare.
And, of course, Alien. He says it’s the tightest script he ever saw. The actual work experience was difficult—the sets were huge, and the blocking for the monster was complicated—but he liked working on the movie, liked working with Ridley Scott. I would imagine he’d tell you, if you asked, that there are considerably worse movies to be connected with for the rest of your life. He was also the youngest primary Bond villain in history, which is also not to be sneezed at?