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Actor Yaphet Kotto Has Died At Age 81

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Actor Yaphet Kotto has died. Kotto's perhaps best known for playing police lieutenant Al Giardello in NBC's "Homicide: Life On The Street." But in a career of more than four decades, he also played a James Bond villain, a space-traveling engineer, an alien and an FBI agent opposite Robert De Niro. Kotto died on Monday. He was 81 years old. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this appreciation.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Yaphet Kotto could intimidate in one scene and charm in the next. In the 1976 TV movie "Raid On Entebbe," he did both as the brutal but charismatic dictator Idi Amin.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RAID ON ENTEBBE")

YAPHET KOTTO: (As Idi Amin) Look at Uganda as your home (laughter).

BLAIR: In "Homicide: Life On The Street," Kotto's police lieutenant is both compassionate and formidable.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET")

KOTTO: (As Al Giardello) We could have turned the shooter and found out what this case was really about. Instead, your ham-fisted friends at the bureau snatched her up and then got her killed.

BLAIR: Kotto earned four NAACP Image Award nominations for the NBC series. Kotto was born in New York City. He knew he wanted to be an actor at age 16 when he saw Marlon Brando in "On The Waterfront." Three years later, he was playing Othello onstage. In a 1980 interview with NPR, Kotto said he tried to avoid stereotypes when choosing roles.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KOTTO: I've tried to get my career and my personality away from what I feel is a stigma of Blackness and ethnicness (ph) and all the rest of it.

BLAIR: Playing Parker in the movie "Alien," Kotto often seems one step ahead of everyone else.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ALIEN")

KOTTO: (As Parker) It's got a wonderful defense mechanism. You don't dare kill it.

BLAIR: At an event celebrating the movie at the Toronto International Film Festival, Kotto recalled attending Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 "I Have A Dream" speech in Washington and wondering if his own dreams would ever come true. Years later, he took one of his children to the spot where he had watched Dr. King. Suddenly, a group of Japanese tourists ran up to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KOTTO: They all were saying one word - alien.

(LAUGHTER)

KOTTO: And at that moment, it was so spooky 'cause I'd realized that the dream had come true.

BLAIR: Announcing Yaphet Kotto's death, his wife writes, you played a villain in some of your movies, but for me, you're a real hero.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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