Tuesday, 30 March 2021

YAPHET KOTTO: MY GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of one of my favourite actors, Yaphet Kotto, was online at the Guardian last Friday, 26 March; you can link to it here. It should appear in the paper paper soon. 

It is pretty much as I wrote it, but there was of course A lot more to say. The most curious thing was how difficult it was to be sure of the information about his biographical details; various sources had his name two different ways; the stories about his father's name and origins changed when he told them; was his mother's maiden name Marie or was that her middle name; more details about his maternal grandparents, who raised him, and how they (Roman Catholics) managed to raise him Jewish were all, in the end, left for supposition. I couldn't find much about the Mobile Theatre Project in the Bronx, which is where he first trained, or where he played Othello aged 19; I assumed it was for them and not professional, but I couldn't find details.

Besides Judy Holliday, he claimed a couple of other actresses as mentors, including Mary Astor--how he got into that position is an interview question I didn't see posed in the ones I found.

There were, of course, other black actors of note besides Sidney Poitier, though he was only real 'star': Ivan Dixon, Ossie Davis, Abby Lincoln, Ruby Dee and the like; Bill Cosby in the first starring role on TV.  But Kotto was a different story, and I believe he helped open the door for great actors like Forest Whittaker or Lawrence Fishburne --the preference for matinee idols continues to this day, particularly on TV: think of any number of very attractive black actors whose careers have stalled in TV, or of the ones who have made successes, from Denzel to Hall Berry.

And of course nowadays, black British actors might be taking those roles, which may be because many of them come up the traditional way, and get judged by their acting, rather than their faces, though no one's going to compare Idris Elba's looks with Kotto's.

Bone is a film that should be seen again. First because it really is Larry Cohen's take on Boudu Saved From Drowning (though he would have probably denied it) and second because it would probably offend most of its audience. It was Cohen's first feature and if you know his work you will understand why, but Kotto's character is not the problem in the film, it really is, like Jean Renoir's film, a satire of the bourgeoise; something its big budget Hollywood remake, Down And Out In Beverley Hills.

Similarly, I can't emphasize strongly enough how important a movie Blue Collar is, not least for the way race divides working people against their own interests, but at the same time because race is not understood as the same kind of problem on both sides of the colour line. And Schrader's casting of Kotto, Keitel and Pryor, none of them pretty boy Hollywood types, escaped the swamp of what the Firesign Theatre once called portrayals of  "tales of ordinary working people as played by rich Hollywood stars".

And it would have been nice to discuss Homicide, where Kotto in a way was the star, and also the comic centre. There is a famous episode of the show, "Subway", in which Vincent D'Onfrio plays a commuter pushed in front of a train, and trapped between the carriage and the platform. Andre Braugher plays Frank Pembleton, the detective on the scene, who is aware that D'Onfrio's sprine has been severed and he will die as soon as the train is removed. Thinking of Kotto's career brought it to my mind; two tremendous actors, neither a matinee idol, who act the hell out of the two-man show which is at the episode's core. Yes, there is space for them, but how much? How well will Jamie Hector do? As Al Giardello tells Pembleton: "Come on Frank, it's a new age. The world's becoming a perfect place." RIP Yaphet Kotto

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