Yaphet Kotto Interview at Portland Wizard World Convention
Recently, I was able to attend Wizard World Comic convention in Portland. While I was there, I had the pleasure of sitting down with one of the greatest and most influential actors of our generation, Yaphet Kotto, for an in depth interview on a wide variety of subjects. It was quite the fascinating interview.
How has your overall experience been with Wizard World so far?
- Good. It’s my first one. I had never heard of it before. So it’s my first time at this comic-con thing.
Have you done any other conventions before?
- Two others. I don’t usually do these things.
Have you been here to Portland before?
- I actually did a movie here, with Gary Busey. No wait, I made a mistake. It’s Gary ‘Madman’ Busey. We did a movie here called Chrome Soldiers From Hell. We shot it right here in Portland, Oregon.
So far, what has been your favorite part about doing this convention?
- I get to find out what you guys are thinking. What people that go to the movies are thinking, what they want to see, what their likes are. Now I know that there is a big giant horror movie movement going on in the United States. People want to see horror and thrillers, I guess to get away from CNN and Fox News and life. It’s institutionalized now.
Now, you were one of my favorite villains in one of my favorite films, Live and Let Die. That’s a pretty elite club, being a Bond villain. How do you view your role in history as being one of them?
- I think that because of some of these movies that I did like this one, that it opened up the doors for many other African American actors. I am proud to have been making those kinds of movies when there wasn’t many of those actors making those kinds of movies. There weren’t many black actors making those big movies then. So, with the success of those movies, other kinds of movies like space adventure films for example, people would say ‘okay, it’s okay to use certain actors now that Yaphet has opened the door.’
I really like the voodoo aspect of Live and Let Die. It was different for its time and I never really saw anything like that for the time. What are your thoughts on it and the voodoo connection?
- You remember the scene when Roger (Moore) comes up to Harlem and he comes to the club? (I answer yes). The voodoo actually played a big part in the black community at that time. I don’t know about now, but at that time it did. People would have dreams and go to tarot shops to hear what the dreams meant. They would play the numbers game off what numbers they saw. Sometimes, to get an enemy or get a girlfriend or something like that, you’d go into the shop. The lady would ask you what do you want. Happy marriage, sex, whatever. You could tell the lady what you want and she’d do her thing and maybe you get what you want. So, it was so much a part of growing up, that I just accepted it.
The next one I wanted to ask you about is Alien, one of my favorites. Now, your death scene doesn’t show much. It leaves a lot to the imagination. Was there more to it?
- There was more to it, but if I tell you, I have to kill you. It’s always good when a mystery is left a mystery. That way the classic never ends.
What was it like working with the creature on Alien? Was it a puppet or somebody in a suit?
- That’s all part of the magic. You don’t want to let people in on all of the magic tricks. (started having a debate over who played the alien with Yaphet’s agent.) I can’t tell you who it was, but I will tell you he was a Zulu. Same guy every day. He worked as a cinema draftsman in London and they found him coming down the street. The guy must have been about 6’9. I remember Ridley said ‘There’s the alien!’ His name is not an English name.
The other one I really wanted to touch on is The Running Man. Did you ever read the original Stephen King story?
Did it differ much from the screenplay?
- A little bit. Only slightly. It was basically the same, though. A skim off the top, as they say, but it was pretty close. The theme was definitely there.
What was it like working with Arnold?
- He was very serious. It wasn’t all fun and games there. It was fun working with him, though.
What was it like working with the rest of the cast? There were a lot of notable names like Toru Tanaka, Jesse Ventura, etc.
- A lot of those guys there just fit into the overall theme. Jesse Ventura, Jim Brown, they all fit the mold of the macho tough guy in it. Toru was very quiet and kept to himself. Nobody really stood out, though. They were all just part of ‘the guys.’
What would say has been your favorite project to work on?
- (quickly) Bone. (he held up the poster) Did it once back in the late 60s and would do it again. It was (director) Larry Cohen’s first film. That’s my favorite.
What makes that one stand out?
- It was fun. I got to play a thief and do all of these scenes with a half naked woman. Love scenes, breasts on my chest, blue-eyed blonde chick. How could I not like that? There’s a reason it’s called Bone.
Fair enough. Now I know that many actors have things that they turn down or that pass them by. Are there any notable roles that you turned down?
- I turned down The Empire Strikes Back. I was doing Alien at the time when they asked me to do it. I didn’t want to be seen in two space adventures back to back. I had another film called Brubaker that I did instead, so that I wouldn’t be pigeonholed. One you do that, it’s the end of you as an actor. Once you get typecast, they’re not going to hire you again, unless you do years and years of the same thing.
You mentioned before working with Gary Busey. How was that?
- Gary is insane. I love him. He’s unlike anybody else. I got along with him great, I think because I knew he was insane going in. He’s completely harmless and a funny guy. He would be behind the director who was shooting, making faces and copying his mannerisms. He would get ready for scenes just by dumping water on his head and yelling he’s ready! Not one minute is he ever quiet or still. Every minute he is wound up and on.
What current projects do you have in the works?
- I’ve written five books and I’ve recently started a publishing company. Several will come out this year. Those first five are part of a series and there’s nine more. It’s children’s fantasy.
Do you have a final message you would like to say?
- (laughing) No! I’m a writer. I’m not letting you get off that easy. You have to come up with an ending for the article. Now you have to face that computer and face that blank page and come up with a great ending on your own.
Well, with that being said, I will come up with my own ending and summarize the encounter. Yaphet has to be one of my favorite actors I have had the pleasure to talk with. He was constantly on, and had not just myself but his manager as well laughing the majority of the time. This is only a snippet of the time spent talking with him. He also joked about subjects such as ex wives, politics and the fact he could never play a white role like James Bond or JFK (I argued the point). I am very grateful and honored that he took the time to do this interview, and can say personally that this is one of my all time favorites. Thank you, Mr. Kotto!