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Film

Yaphet Kotto interview: “James Bond cannot be black”

James Bond villain Yaphet Kotto talks 007 race issues, being the first black man in space – and turning down Star Trek

This interview was originally published in 2015.

Roger Moore recently said it would be “unrealistic” for James Bond to be black. In Live and Let Die, you were the first main Bond villain who was black – so far the only one. What’s your take?
James Bond cannot be black. Political correctness be damned, we have to stay with what is literally correct. He was established by Ian Fleming as a white character, played by white actors. It’s silly. Play 003 or 006 but you cannot be 007. A lot of people say we should be allowed to play everything. Don’t be ridiculous. If I say I want to play JFK I should be laughed out the room. Why should James Bond be black? It’s silly.

But James Bond is fictional.
I don’t think it’s right for black actors or writers to do roles that whites have made historically white heroic roles. These roles are not written for black men. Black men should stop trying to play white heroes. We have pens. Put a black man in a role that no one else has established.

Is it true you were not allowed to do press for Live and Let Die or attend the premiere?
They were afraid the public would react negatively to a black villain so they didn’t play my character up. That hurt me a lot, man. I went through a lot of goddamn emotional hell because they were afraid people would be angry that a black guy was not being Sidney Poitier. I was the opposite of everything he created.

Being a villain is as positive as being a hero, in some ways.
Yes it is.

I went through a lot of goddamn emotional hell because they were afraid people would be angry that a black guy was not being Sidney Poitier

Thinking about it now, your character in Live and Let Die could have been a terrible stereotype.
Oh man, you are hitting it right on the head brother. That was the danger of that role. When I read that script, I said man, if this is played the wrong way… I had to play Kananga in a way that was so believable you became mesmerised. You see a guy who is completely together – almost as together as James Bond himself.

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You broke the mould in cinema, not choosing roles because they were good but if they changed the black stereotype onscreen.
That was my plan, to play parts that would open up the doors for others, and it worked. One of these movies was The Liberation of L. B. Jones – no one had seen a black man kill a white man onscreen prior to that. That movie created what would later be known as blaxpolitation cinema. After that they started putting black guys as cops, black guys as killers, then Live and Let Die was the first time you saw a black guy out to do James Bond. We’d never seen a black man chase a white man across the screen. He was a hero!

In Alien you then became one of the first black men in space.
You’d never seen a black man in a space adventure before. That was going to happen anyway, George Lucas was touting me around for Han Solo then in the dining room at Pinewood Irvin Kershner asked me to play Lando [in Empire Strikes Back] but I had just agreed to do Brubecker with Redford. I was really sorry I had to let it go.

You also turned down the role of Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation?
I think I made some wrong decisions in my life, man. I should have done that but I walked away. When you’re making movies, you’d tend to say no to TV. It’s like when you’re in college and someone asks you to the high school dance. You say no.

George Lucas was touting me around for Han Solo then Irvin Kershner asked me to play Lando

In Alien’s most famous scene you’re holding down John Hurt as a creature bursts out of his chest. Did you know what was about to happen?
When I walked onto the set I said, hold it just a second. The entire crew were wearing jumpsuits and helmets and masks and gloves, like a hospital. There was a big grin of Ridley’s face, which made me suspicious. We all looked at each other, what the hell is going to happen here? When that moment came BOOM! an explosion of blood and guts went up to the ceiling and came down as bloody rain. And when Ridley said cut he started laughing.

You do look convincingly terrified in that scene.
I would like to take credit for that acting but I was in shock.

Another memorable role was FBI Agent Alonzo Mosely in Midnight Run with Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin. Was that a fun experience?
Midnight Run was practically the most difficult movies I ever made.

Why?
[Director] Marty Brest doesn’t do one take. He shoots a lot of footage, one take after another, all kinds of different ways, experimenting to see if something extraordinary happens. Then even if it does he’ll try something else.

So were you surprised when the film ended up pretty good?
I didn’t know whether it was a comedy or a drama. It could go either way. What I was surprised about is what I thought was going to be funny was funny, and what I thought was going to be dramatic was even funnier.

All these takes were worth it…
Especially if you trust the director.

You opened the doors for black people in Hollywood but even this year the Oscars were criticised for overlooking Selma, allegedly for race reasons. Is there still a long way to go?
They’re wrong. The motion picture has cast all kinds of African Americans behind and in front of the camera. I’m in the Academy and I resent people who are not in the Academy making comments about what the Academy should do. People who project racial issues into movies have no business in our business. To get in the Academy is not easy. You have to do a certain amount of A-class movies and be brought in by two members of the Academy – Sammy Davis Jr and Richard Dreyfuss vouched for me. Every movie that comes in is looked upon. I didn’t vote for Selma. Movies are to be judged on the integrity of their creative art and not political reasons.

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