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Remembering Yaphet Kotto, and the screen career Hollywood didn’t accommodate

Yaphet Kotto died this week at 81. The 1973 James Bond outing “Live and Let Die” was how I came to know him. At age 12, I remember hating that movie, and at the risk of sounding more enlightened than I was, the white-smoothie vs. Black scum storyline creeped me out, even then.

It’s the most aggressively racist Bond film, which is saying something. The Caribbean dictator and heroin kingpin played by Kotto dies a grotesque, sight-gaggy death, ingesting a compressed-gas pellet and exploding like a balloon, leading to a Roger Moore quip about his dead adversary having “an inflated opinion of himself,” thereby putting the the villain of color in his place, even in death.

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“There were so many problems with that script,” Kotto later told an interviewer. “I was too afraid of coming off like Mantan Moreland,” the comedian and actor familiar for small, humiliating parts in the 1930s and ’40s, and a performer whose skill fought against grim racial caricature until the end of his days. " I had to dig deep in my soul and brain and come up with a level of reality that would offset the sea of stereotype crap that (screenwriter) Tom Mankiewicz wrote that had nothing to do with the Black experience or culture.”

So that’s how some of us first encountered Kotto: in a Bond movie, watching a formidable actor do his level best to transcend the crap.

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Kotto’s talent was as wide as his brow. We talk about a lot of different, first-rate actors as being “solid,” but with Kotto, it was a different, grander kind of solidity. When better material and opportunities afforded him the chance — as the invaluable co-star of “Blue Collar” (1978) and “Alien” (1979), the FBI agent vexing Robert De Niro in “Midnight Run” (1988) and the aching center of “Homicide: Life on the Street” (1993-2000) — he turned into one of Those Actors. He was someone whose presence and carefully calibrated intensity improved every project.

Kotto did so much good work, yet, like every actor of color of his generation, he was denied so much more. He never received an Oscar nomination. What he had and what he gave the rest of us was a commitment to telling the truth in front of a camera, honestly and beautifully, even when playing a corrosive, troubled character on the story’s outskirts.

In his 1964 film debut “Nothing But a Man,” a quiet groundbreaker starring Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln, Kotto plays a railroad worker and the man on the main character’s shoulder, whispering dark thoughts in his ear. It’s not much of a part, but straight off, Kotto knew exactly how much to do on screen, how to let his marvelous face and 6-foot-3-inch frame work for him, how to get our attention without grabbing it. (Gloria Foster, also in that film, made an equally strong impression in another supporting role.)

Kotto made two key impressions in the early ‘70s. In “The Liberation of L.B. Jones,” he rammed a racist white Southern policeman through a threshing machine. In “Across 110th Street,” he held his own and then some against Anthony Quinn. In a parallel Hollywood universe of the ’70s and ’80s, Kotto would’ve been a marquee brand. He turned down the role of Lando Calrissian in “The Empire Strikes Back,” though that was hardly the stuff of major stardom; the George Lucas space escapades were still mainly white (and alien-green). Years later, Kotto nearly landed Patrick Stewart’s role on “Star Trek: The Next Generation”; some say he turned it down. Every actor who carves out a screen career has a considerable could’ve/would’ve/should’ve list.

We took this actor for granted. Earlier this year, before she secured a best actress Academy Award nomination for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Viola Davis told Variety that if the prospect of her getting a fourth Oscar nomination (she won for “Fences,” in the supporting actress category) “makes me the most nominated Black actress in history, that’s a testament to the sheer lack of material there has been out there for artists of color.” Kotto knew of what she spoke; he lived it, and worked around and through it.

This year’s more diverse slate of Oscar nominees of color shines some light on where we’ve been and where we are. Kotto, who played Troy Maxson in the 1990 British stage premiere in August Wilson’s “Fences,” did not “come along too early,” as one character in the play says of the former Negro League slugger. Maxson’s reply: “There ought not never have been no time called too early!”

Kotto, who once told the Chicago Tribune’s Richard Christiansen that he learned some of his most valuable acting lessons from watching Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce play Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, didn’t come along too early. He came just in time to tell the truth and, often enough to make his passing such a powerful benchmark for so many this week, embody roles more worthy of his talent.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

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