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 shit 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.