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.
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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.