Tough act For Yaphet Kotto, seeking softer roles is his life's story

February 10, 1993|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Staff Writer

Actor Yaphet Kotto has the look down pat. You know the one. It's a glare that comes across as tough, in control and downright intimidating.

In the television series, "Homicide: Life on the Street," Mr. Kotto plays the fictional character Lieutenant Giardello. There's a convincing scene where Lieutenant Giardello tells a slow moving detective he had better see "lightning" come out of his butt. Then he gives the detective a look that could shrivel the bloom off a newly blossomed rose.

Mr. Kotto knows he's convincing at playing tough guys and enjoys his role in the TV series, which airs at 9 p.m. Wednesdays. But enough already with playing the heavies. "There's a distorted image of me," he says, while sipping tea over lunch. What he really wants is to play a romantic lead for a change.

"I want to have a wife or a girlfriend and fall in love," Mr. Kotto says.

He is trying to persuade the writers and producers of "Homicide" to let his character show a soft side.

Mr. Kotto was in Baltimore this past weekend to promote his autobiography, "The Royalty" (Cauldwell/Bissell Books, 1990). Before signing a few hundred copies of his book at a private reception, Mr. Kotto talked about the joys and frustrations of an acting career that is going strong after 28 years.

He's worked continually since being bitten by the acting bug and making his first movie, "Nothing But a Man," at 23. He's done theater and has appeared on numerous TV shows from "Bonanza" to "Mannix." In the unpredictable acting business, he's been successful because of being "unique and talented."

However, he's not really comfortable talking about his accomplishments and refuses to watch any of his performances.

"It takes a strange ego to sit there and watch yourself, applauding your own performance," he says. "I just can't do that. I would find too many flaws."

Most of his movie roles have been as a heavy. In "Blue Collar," Mr. Kotto played an ex-convict; in "Live and Let Die," a Caribbean diplomat and master criminal. He was a police detective in "Star Chamber," and a prison guard in "Brubaker."

"I'm tired of playing detectives," he says wearily.

So what is he playing in his next movie, "Extreme Justice," which is scheduled to be released in the spring? A detective, he says with a self-conscious smile and shrug.

"I'm always called powerful, bulky or imposing," he says. "Or they say I fill up a room. I'm a 200-pound, 6-foot, 3-inch black guy. And I think I have this image of a monster. It's very difficult."

Mr. Kotto, 48, is a big man. But one who makes others feel comfortable with his quick smile, hearty laugh and willingness to share a private side. "I want to try to play a much more sensitive man. A family man," he says. "There is an aspect of black people's lives that is not running or jumping."

So far nine episodes of "Homicide" have been shot and there are three more scripts. NBC is waiting to see if the show catches on before shooting any more episodes.

Meantime, Mr. Kotto has hit the road to promote his autobiography.

Yaphet Frederick Kotto was born in Harlem and raised in the Bronx. His father was a black Jew from Cameroon in West Africa and his mother was a West Indian from Panama. His parents separated when he was young and Mr. Kotto was raised by his maternal grandparents, who were Catholic, while his mother was in the U.S. Army.

The book talks about his life as a multidenominational child growing up in New York. The title refers to his father's royal Cameroonian family and to Mr. Kotto's linkage of a great aunt to a member of Britain's royal family.

Mr. Kotto has heard from people representing Britain's royal family since the book came out. "They were a bit upset," he says. "But I am only trying to talk about my aunt and my family."

Mr. Kotto had grown up hearing fascinating stories about his family. While filming the movie "Alien," he finally decided to write the book. "Setting up lights on that set would take six or seven hours," he says. "There was nothing to do, so I started thinking about writing it."

Mr. Kotto avoids the Hollywood scene and has a home in the mountains outside of Denver. The proud father of six children, ages 13 to 27, is going through a "friendly divorce."

He says when people recognize him on the street, they usually can't remember where they have seen him. He feels that is a compliment.

"They can't think of what picture they have seen me in, but they know me. That's good. That means I am becoming an institution," he says.

To some of the people who gathered at an Owings Mills home to buy "The Royalty" and have it autographed, Mr. Kotto's image is not what he thinks it is.

"A strong, proud, beautiful, black man. That's what I think of him," says Lucy Berry, a Baltimore college professor.

"I always thought he was a great actor. I was really excited when I learned he would be here. I couldn't wait," says Doris Hatcher, who drove from New Jersey for the reception.

For Mike Tucker, who made the trip from Washington, "Just seeing him is inspiring."

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