Q: Do you think you've opened doors for other black actors?
A: I don't know if I personally did it but it started in the late '60s when everyone was very politically aware. I did a film called "The Liberation of L.B. Jones" only to find out that there had never in motion picture history been a black man to physically be aggressive towards white men on the screen, to the extreme of actually killing someone in defense of his honor. After that picture proved to be a success, a whole rash of what they called blaxploitation came out. Even though it was a class picture, people saw that there was money in what I did.
Until "Live and Let Die" I don't think any black actors had been used in an adventurous kind of manner. Prior to "Alien" people were saying how come they didn't use black actors in space pictures? "Alien" made over $200 million. Then a rash of black actors (were cast) in horror and space films. For some reason I've been at the forefront of a movement. My career has been practically breaking all the traditional rules. People say Hollywood is reticent to use black dramatic actors in starring roles. In my case it isn't true at all. Walking down the street in any given American city or any city in the world, people will know who Yaphet Kotto (is) when I go around the block. I don't mind people standing around like they want to devour me, but that's what this career has brought.
Q: What film would you attribute that to?
A: It's a buildup of films over past years. I've become some kind of an institution. It's like a buildup or a groundswell. Particularly the black kids, young people, and now more white kids than ever before.
Q: How do the fans approach you? Do they immediately talk one on one with you or are they respectful?
A: It's really strange. It's frightening. It's women standing hyperventilating or immediate attack. People want to put their hands on me. At the airport coming over people grabbed, actually came over and seized me and said, "Aren't you Yaphet Kotto?" I said yeah, and then they'll hold me and call other members of their family over. It doesn't matter what I'm doing or where I'm going. It's immediate seizure. I get a little nervous about that grabbing business. But I love every minute of it. I'm not going to put it down at all.
Q: Have you encountered any racial turbulence?
A: No, not at all. If I turn on a re- run of "Tarzan" or "Daniel Boone" or "Big Valley" my kids say, "How come we always see you and we don't see anybody else?" I just don't know where all those guys were during that time. I've been in all of those series: "Hawaii Five-O," "Bonanza," "High Chaparral." I know that raised eyebrows as to why this guy is doing all this work and how -- it couldn't be because of talent, could it? It doesn't have anything to do with it. The cat, he has some kind of political knack that we don't have, some sort of a secret organization to keep him working there. It couldn't possibly have anything to do with talent.
Q: Do you get any resentment from any colleagues, black colleagues?
A: Oh yeah. That's to be expected.
Q: Have you lost friendships with other blacks if they don't think you're acting the way they should?
A: Painfully, yes, I must say. Some very heavy-named people too. But I don't really keep on an individual cross. Nobody's out there paying my rent but me and bringing up mychildren but me. I have only one thing to do, man, that's to be a father to my children and an actor. And because I do not have the right ethnic sound, boom, there's a problem. There's even a problem of people trying to push cocaine, marijuana on me in Hollywood. I won't get involved with it. I think I'm an oddball all the way around. I've been an oddball ever since I was a kid. This name, Yaphet Kotto, which is mine, not made up. That always put me on the outs in my neighborhood.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: In New York City, where everybody else was being half-Indian and half-Mohawk and all the rest.
Q: When did you first get a whim about acting?
A: I saw "The Defiant Ones." I said, "That cat looks like me," tall, black guy. He had a real impact on me in terms of a symbol of, you know, a Sidney Poitier symbol. I didn't even know black from white when I was a kid. I grew up in this West Indian, African family. It would never occur to me that white people were out there trying to do me in. I never thought about it up there in the Bronx. I never, I never, I never.
Q: So you're first generation American?
A: Yeah. My mother and her family came from Panama, and my father is African; he came from the Cameroon. He worked in construction. My grandparents brought me up. My mother was a second lieutenant in the United States Army. She had me for a couple of years and then left me with her mother and father.
Q: How did you break in to acting?
A: I was taken to upstate New York to Boston, to the Cape, where a gentleman discovered me. I started spending my summers going to the theater. I went to off-Broadway in New York and did a couple of Broadway shows. Finally, I got on a Greyhound bus, took me for three days and nights to California and the rest is history. I'm about 23. I got into a play out there, got noticed, got cast from the stage into a number of guest shots on television.
Q: Were the roles satisfactory? Weren't you always being the guy who was shot?
A: I was never the guy who was shot. I played incredible roles. They would create roles that were not typical black roles. On "Bonanza" I played a horse thief. A thief and a gunslinger. I had to believe the role was written for a white guy. I loved it because I played a real live cowboy. Not a cowboy with black problems who was a slave or anything, but a gunslinger and Hoss was trying to talk me into putting my gun away. We were both two white actors. I never played any stereotype black guys. The only other person that came close to what I'm doing is Sidney Poitier and he played a certain kind of role, a straight- laced black guy. I've been allowed to play black guys who were just equal. It has to be God. And it's continuing. The drum hasn't stopped beating.
Q: Do you describe yourself as deeply religious?
A: I'm confused when it comes to (religion). My father was Jewish. I was bar mitzvahed. Then, after my mother and my father got into their little altercation, I was baptized Catholic. For years, I had a Torah in one hand and the Bible in the other. Even now, when my Jewish and black friends come to my house, I keep them from tearing each other up.
Q: Your father was a black Jew from Cameroon?
A: Right. And his friends were all over Africa. He spoke about nine or 10 languages and so did all of his friends. When I was a kid, there were thousands of languages going on and all different colors of people. People who look like you, people who like me, people who look like brown, all these different races. That was very confusing. As I got older, an Eastern mysticism brought me back to Christianity. But my life has never been one apart from God.
Q: What did your father do in Cameroon?
A: He was a merchant marine. I'm proud of that. I have become a cultural thing in the black community in terms of my last name and African heritage. These kids who don't have that, whose parents came from slavery. I am looked at as an oddity. With all this publicity about blacks not getting jobs in Hollywood, they all say to me, "Wait a minute, look at that Yaphet Kotto. Come tell us how you are doing it!" I can't even handle my mail anymore.
Q: How many letters do you get a day, do you think?
A: In a month I get about 2,200 to 3,200 fan letters. I'm their leader. I know I'm a leader. I dreamt about this man but I never really believed it till it happened. I knew fans would come, but not fans of this serious nature. They're not saying, "Send me an autographed picture with your name on it." They are saying, "Tell me how you did it. Should I stay in school?" asking about drugs. All because of who they see I am. They don't see me on no drugs, they don't see my carrying on going crazy. I get calls from community leaders all over the country, Texas, Georgia, asking me to (visit). You cannot turn that down, because if you walk away from that next year when your film comes out they say, "Yeah, we asked this guy to come down here for three or four years and we're not going to see the movie." If they find time to see my movies, I have to find time to go talk to them.
Q: And when they see you in person is it kind of violent?
A: Oh man, crazy, especially black people, black women. I got a black woman attack me like I'm some kinda meal! I'm happy about that for a lot of reasons. First of all I've always wanted to be a man on the street. When I was a kid I could see these films of black people going by scratching their head and taking it and I swore when I was 19 I would never do that on the screen. I would always stand up tall and straight. I was not going to leave an image of people to feel ashamed of. I swore that when I was 19 and I've upheld that. I've upheld that in every single film I've done. I have never bowed my head down and I refused for a long time to do comedies, man, because I'm not going sit and make the white people laugh. I remember William Wyler coming to me and asking me to cry in "The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones." Before (I threw) this guy into the thresher he wanted me to cry. Just a year before Sidney Poitier had slapped some dude in his face and everybody went, aaeehhhhohhhhhh! And here I'm getting ready to throw a guy in a threshing machine.
Q: And would cry afterwards?
A: I would cry before. There was this image of what black men were supposed to be. A black man. Do you realize this, when you look at me on the screen it is a black man standing up there. Upon the screen, finally after all these centuries and years and the injuries a black man, standing right there along with Marlon Brando and Al Pacino and all the rest of those dudes in a quiet, dignified way. I realized that when the guys came to me and say, cry, and I say, I can't do it. I said no. I'm playing a guy that's out for revenge. People who are out for revenge don't cry before they commit their act.
Q: So you didn't do it in the end?
A: No, I didn't cry. I wouldn't. He understood. I explained it to him. William Wyler, God rest his soul, being the kind of man he is said, "Let's go with it. You're right." I had to pick my time to fight this battle. People say, "You know, he don't take no stands." Look, I took a stand. Those people were getting ready to fire me, man. And those black actors and black leaders who were saying I haven't done anything. Who took $15,000 out of his own money and found 10 black women quietly and put them into school, so that they could study and they are now employed in the motion picture industry as script supervisors? There wasn't any before, but now there are.
Q: When was that?
A: This was in 1973. One of them worked on "A Soldiers Story." I opened up the Watts Actors Workshop with Budd Schulberg and through that workshop, hundreds of black actors are beginning training. See, that's the way I want to go about my life. I don't want to go about my life yelling and screaming. I believe in working for what I get. I don't believe in crying for anything. That's what I said to Hollywood. And I got what I want out of that town without asking no one. No congressional bill, no movement. Just me fancy footworking. I sent one guy so many books on the Old West (with) blacks in it, he finally says, "Why are you sending me all these books?" I said, "I want to be on your television show." He says, "I'm going to see you because I'm tired of you sending my all these books." He produced "Gunsmoke." Next thing you know I'm on "Gunsmoke."
Q: In your private life, over in Washington. What do you do in your private time?
A: I have six children. There is no private time.
Q: What is your wife's name?
A: Antoinette. She's from Oakland. She's half-Ethiopian, half-Irish. Who looks at me a long time before she gets mad. She just raises her hand on her hip and looks at me a long time. We have a good marriage.
Q: Been married how long?
A: All my life. I got married when I was 21. Children knock me out, fascinate me. Maybe it's because I'm a father.
Q: Any of those kids going into acting?
A: No way. They won't even bring it up in the house. Nobody's interested in my profession. Listen, when I get to the point where I think I'm so great, there are several voices in my house that start singing, "Yaphet Kotto, superstar, who in the hell do you think you are?" I hear that song and suddenly, I'm brought back down to earth. I heard that song Father's Day. I always hear that song when I'm talking to my agent.