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SYFY WIRE obituary

Yaphet Kotto, 'James Bond' villain and fan favorite 'Alien' star, dies at 81

By Josh Weiss
Yaphet Kotto Alien

Yaphet Kotto, the iconic 6''4 actor who played a James Bond villain in Live and Let Die and Nostromo engineer Parker in Ridley Scott's Alien, has passed away at the age of 81. The unfortunate news was confirmed on Facebook by the actor's third wife, Tessie Sinahon.

"I'm saddened and still in shock [over] the passing of my husband Yaphet of 24 years," she wrote. "He died last night around 10:30 p.m. Philippine time. This is a very painful moment for me ... We still have a lot of plans that we discussed. You have a lot of interviews waiting; and you have movie offers, like G.I. Joe and the movie [with] Tom Cruise and others. You still plan to release your book and build a religious organization based on Yogananda's teachings. You played a villain [in] some of your movies, but for me, you're a real hero, and to a lot of people also. [You were] a good man, a good father, a good husband and a decent human being — very rare to find. [You were] one of the best actors in Hollywood. A Legend. Rest in Peace, Honey. I'm gonna miss you everyday — my best friend, my rock.I love you and you will always be in my heart. 'Till we meet again!"

"I knew Yaphet prior to Alien," the actor's Alien co-star Tom Skeritt (Captain Dallas) wrote in an an exclusive statement to SYFY WIRE. "His approach and goal was [like that of] Marlon Brando. He’d stir things up, then throw himself into [the] performance. Sorry he’s gone. Nostromo crew is now down to three."

"I first knew Yaphet working as an assistant director on The Thomas Crown Affair," added Walter Hill, co-founder of Brandywine Productions (producer of the Alien franchise). "We instantly got along, and loved to kid each other. A few years later, I was happy to recommend him for the role of Parker in Alien. David Giler and I always had him in mind when we rewrote the script (Parker was named after Dave Parker, first baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates). Yaphet was a man of enormous presence. Great smile. An excellent actor with complete command of his gift."

"Yaphet Kotto is one of the handful of actors who are great in everything," said Brandywine president Bobby Woods. "It makes you happy to see him every time he hits the screen. His performance as Parker in Alien is unforgettable. Everyone knows that. One damn cool guy."

Born in Harlem in November of 1939, Kotto began to study acting at the age of 16 at the Actors Mobile Theater Studies, writes Variety. Three years later, his career began in earnest with a 1958 stage performance of Shakespeare's Othello. He made his onscreen debut in 1964's Nothing But a Man, a dramatic examination of racial discrimination in the United States. From that point forward, Kotto would go on to appear in nearly 100 different projects, whether they were television shows (Night Gallery), made-for-TV movies (Raid on Entebbe), or feature films (The Thomas Crown Affair).

Yaphet Kotto

In 1973, Kotto secured his big screen legacy when he took on the dual role of Bond antagonist Kananga/Mr. Big (scheming ruler of the fictional Caribbean nation of San Monique) in Live and Let Die — Roger Moore's very first outing as 007. A reflection of blaxploitation cinema, the film is famous for introducing Sheriff J.W. Pepper, its depiction of voodoo, and the opening theme song performed by Paul McCartney and Wings. Speaking with The Big Issue in April 2015, Kotto confirmed that he was discouraged from doing press for the release and wasn't allowed to attend the premiere.

"They were afraid the public would react negatively to a black villain so they didn’t play my character up," he said. "That hurt me a lot, man. I went through a lot of god d*** emotional hell because they were afraid people would be angry that a black guy was not being Sidney Poitier. I was the opposite of everything he created."

He continued: "When I read that script, I said, 'Man, if this is played the wrong way…' I had to play Kananga in a way that was so believable you became mesmerized. You see a guy who is completely together — almost as together as James Bond himself."

"We are very sorry to learn that Yaphet Kotto, who played Dr. Kananga in Live And Let Die, has passed away at the age of 81. Our thoughts are with his family and friends," tweeted the official Twitter account for the 007 franchise.

During an interview with SYFY WIRE in 2015, Kotto remarked that he lost out on several projects due to the color of his skin. 

"Minority Report was written for me," he said. "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."

Six years later, the actor blasted off into outer space for 1979's Alien, in which he played Parker, the easygoing engineer aboard the Nostromo. Only interested in collecting his salary once the crew returns to Earth, he attempts to dissuade Captain Dallas (Tom Skeritt) from landing on LV-426. If only Dallas had listened...During the infamous Chestburster sequence, Parker helps restrain Kane (John Hurt) before the infant creature violently pushes its way out of the man's chest cavity.

"When I walked onto the set I said, 'Hold it just a second,'" Kotto remarked during the above-mentioned interview. "The entire crew were wearing jumpsuits and helmets and masks and gloves, like a hospital. There was a big grin of Ridley’s face, which made me suspicious. We all looked at each other [like] 'What the hell is going to happen here?' When that moment came BOOM! an explosion of blood and guts went up to the ceiling and came down as bloody rain. And when Ridley said cut he started laughing."

Alien chestburster scene

Along with Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), Parker is one of the last of the Nostromo crew to be killed by the Xenomorph. Kotto would later reprise the role in voiceover for 2014's Alien: Isolation video game. During his 2015 chat with SYFY WIRE, the actor proclaimed that the experience was "not good."

"Reliving something. It's over," he told us. "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."

SYFY WIRE attempted to get in touch with Kotto last summer shortly after the passing of his Alien co-star, Ian Holm. Sadly, the interview never took place. As Mr. Skeritt mentioned, the only living cast members of the sci-fi classic are now himself, Cartwright, and Sigourney Weaver (Ellen Ripley).

“Every day Yaphet Kotto blew me away on the set of Alien,” Weaver wrote in a statement provided to Variety. “He just went for it in every scene, making the stakes higher and higher and giving each scene a terrifying reality. It was a nonstop master class for me and I will always be grateful to him. Rest In Peace Parker…Over and out, Ripley.”

Kotto's other notable genre roles included William Laughlin in The Running Man (1987) and Doc in Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991). Interestingly, he turned down the role of Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The part eventually went to and was made famous by Patrick Stewart.

"I think I made some wrong decisions in my life, man," he told Big Issue. "I should have done that, but I walked away. When you’re making movies, you’d tend to say no to TV. It’s like when you’re in college and someone asks you to the high school dance. You say, 'No.'"

Yaphet Kotto

He was also considered to play smuggler Han Solo in George Lucas's first Star Wars movie, although Harrison Ford ended up getting to play the cocky character.

"I was in the running for that role. They wanted me for that role and it was a racial decision where I didn’t get it," he explained to Nerdist in 2019. "The same decision was what they told me [about] why your name shouldn’t be first [in Alien] because we don’t want people to think this movie is about immigrants or anything like that. I don’t think Fox was ready to, at that time, have me playing Han Solo. George Lucas himself has told people, 'We were going in Yaphet’s direction.' But they went another direction."

Irvin Kershner offered him the role of Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back, but he decided to pass on the character, who was ultimately portrayed by Billy Dee Williams.

The actor is survived by his wife and six children.

(certain biographical info via IMDb)