Yaphet Kotto stole the show on TV Westerns throughout the 1960s

The gifted 'Alien' and 'Homicide: Life on the Street' actor passed away this week.

The Everett Collection

After beginning his career on stage in the late 1950s, Yaphet Kotto got his first screen role as a supporting character in the poignant 1964 film Nothing But a Man. Three years later, he played the title character in "A Man Called Abraham," an episode of the Western anthology series Death Valley Days. The episode told the dramatic tale of a former slave whose devout faith is tested when he gets kidnapped by a ruthless killer. Kotto gives a nuanced, moving performance — one of many pivotal roles he would play on TV Westerns in the 1960s.

Kotto's first TV Western gig came in a 1966 episode of The Big Valley, followed a year later by a guest-star spot. He had a small part in season two's "The Iron Box" but played the titular character in "The Buffalo Man" in season three. The latter episode followed Kotto as a convict and former cavalryman who goes to work on the Barkley ranch. After the brutal prison guard is shot, Kotto's character, Damien, must decide if he should run or face a parole hearing arranged by Jarrod Barkley. The episode highlights Kotto's ability to imbue a character with both toughness and sincerity.

In the Bonanza episode "Child," Kotto plays Joshua "Child" Barnett, a lone rider with a mysterious past. When Hoss is falsely accused of murder, Child breaks him out of jail and saves him from the wrath of an angry mob. A posse form to hunt down Child and Hoss, though the posse is more interested in the dead man’s money than seeing proper justice served. Kotto gives Child an amiable smile that hides a dark past and a willingness to do whatever it takes to survive.

The episode is more about Child than anyone else, with Hoss serving as a secondary lead and the rest of the Cartwright family barely featured at all. Less accomplished actors might not be able to guest star on a show and carry the entire episode but Yaphet Kotto does it with ease.

Another Western whose regulars take a back seat to give Kotto's guest character and storyline the importance it deserves is The High Chaparral. In "The Buffalo Soldiers," Kotto plays Sergeant Major Creason (in the image at the top of this page) of the famous 10th Cavalry, a fictionalized version of the real African-American military unit formed during the Civil War and the same unit Kotto's character in The Big Valley belonged to.

Creason and his men have been ordered to Tucson to stop the criminal enterprise taking over the town. The soldiers must contend with not only the prejudice of many citizens but also a group of gunmen hired to do them in. The Cannon family are some of the only people that welcome the soldiers from the start and help entrap the outlaws after the skillful maneuvering of the cavalry.

Kotto expertly plays the man in charge, something proved in his later, more famous role — Lieutenant Al Giardello on Homicide: Life on the Street.

Yaphet Kotto appeared in two more Sixties Westerns, Daniel Boone and Gunsmoke, although his Gunsmoke episode technically first aired in 1970. That installment, "The Scavengers," sees Kotto play Piney Biggs, a man who accuses a Native American tribe of massacring innocent travelers near Dodge City even though he knows they didn't do it.

A treacherous posse lead by Slim Pickens captures members of the tribe and brings them in to hang. Piney, who knows all too well what it’s like to suffer at the hands of men like Pickens’ character, sees the damage he has caused.

The episode gives Piney Biggs an interesting arc, something Kotto takes full advantage of in his performance. He guest stars alongside Cicely Tyson, another acting legend who passed away this year. She plays his pregnant wife, Rachel.

After appearing in these Westerns and other shows throughout the 1960s, Kotto began winning movie roles, jumpstarted by his own 1972 film, The Limit, which he directed and starred in. He went on to play the memorable villain Mr. Big in the first Roger Moore James Bond movie, Live and Let Die.

Many will remember him as Parker, a doomed member of the Alien spaceship crew, not to mention his turn as the title role in the 1980 film adaptation of Othello.

Television Western guest spots were some of the first opportunities for Yaphet Kotto to bring his endearing presence and talent to the screen, before winning well-deserved, higher profile roles later in his career. He died this week at the age of 81.

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DethBiz 22 months ago
Loved him as Mister Big in Live and Let Die. Classic death scene!
Snickers 39 months ago
I liked Mr. Kotto as Parker in Alien but he also played a charactor in "The Running Man".
Therok1958 40 months ago
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Snickers Therok1958 39 months ago
Kind of classless running this ad on an obit story.
QueenAnitaSoul 40 months ago
I remember
When he played with Isaac Hayes
A movie called Truck Turner
That was one
My favorite Roles
Mr Yaphet Kotto
JustGeri 40 months ago
How could his role on Homicide: Life on the Street be glossed over? He was brilliant.
shellymarie 40 months ago
Please don't cancel Colombo. You play some shows over and over. Move it there.
pidge 40 months ago
He was great as Mr. Big in “Live and Let Die.”
ChariseSerraHess 40 months ago
Was he in Running Man too?
Snickers ChariseSerraHess 39 months ago
Yes he played a runner in the movie.
MarkSpeck 40 months ago
Kotto was also in one of the early Hawaii Five-O episodes, "King of the Hill", as a totally sympathetic character...a soldier on leave from Vietnam who's in Hawaii, just watching a baseball game when he's conked in the head by a stray baseball. Taken to the hospital, he hallucinates that he's back in Vietnam and takes Danno and an entire hospital wing hostage.
MarkSpeck 40 months ago
I wanted to share the High Chaparral episode on my FB page as a tribute to both him and Henry Darrow. Sadly, it's one of the episodes that's not available on YouTube.
quip 40 months ago
I enjoyed his work through the years but Kotto's role in Alien like the movie itself was tops with me.
Robertp 40 months ago
I enjoyed his work. My best to those closest to him.
ELEANOR 40 months ago
Actually, in real life there was a black man who went around Oklahoma and nearby areas making things right for many people. To be able to assist Native Americans he had a Native American sidekick. He was known as a Ranger. And yes, he was the original Lone Ranger.
Andybandit 40 months ago
How sad that he passed away, I remember him on Bonanza.
Sway 40 months ago
RIP Yaphet Kotto. Versatile, memorable actor.
MissClassicTV 40 months ago
Yaphet Kotto’s most memorable role for me was Agent Alonzo Mosely in Midnight Run, one of the best pictures in the history of Hollywood. But he was great in everything I saw him in, with his large physical presence. On TV I remember him first as Idi Amin on Raid on Entebbe and then as the taxi driver in Night Chase.
TheDavBow3 40 months ago
Yes, really liked him in "The Big Valley" episode. Great actor! Mannix, Live And Let Die, Homicide, .... Rest In Peace.
Jeremy 40 months ago
I mostly remember him from "The Running Man" with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
BrittReid 40 months ago
A very talented actor to say the least. Terrific in Alien. Great comeback to James Bond with "Names is for tombstones baby!" All his film work was top shelf. R.I.P.
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