Jewish-American prince; Actor Yaphet Kotto – the bar mitzvahed heir to Cameroon aims for the ‘fences’

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As Parker, the space technician in the movie “Alien,” facing a carnivorous extraterrestrial didn’t faze him. In “Brubaker” he had to stare down a penitentiary full of embittered, hardened criminals, and that didn’t bother him. But after 18 years of making films, Yaphet Kotto has returned to acting in the theater and he admits the idea terrifies him.

“You start thinking, ‘What am I doing here? Why did I decide to leave the movies and put myself through this?’ ” says the burly, barrel-chested black actor, 52 years old according to one reliable almanac and currently featured in Arena Stage’s production of “Fences.”

At 6 foot 3 and 200-plus pounds, it is difficult to imagine anything frightening this man. He has led a life that forced him to face down demons very early.

After all, a black Jew with a Panamanian Catholic mother who was raised by his grandparents in Harlem would have to.

You read that right. His father was a second-generation member of the Hebrew faith from the West African nation of Cameroon . Yaphet’s first name is Hebrew for “beautiful,” while Kotto means “trees” in Cameroon. His parents divorced when Mr. Kotto was a youngster, and he was raised by his maternal grandparents with a combination of the two religions.

“I was bar mitzvahed,” he reports, “and would also observe the Catholic holidays. In the Bronx, having a name like Yaphet, and with a yarmulke on top of it, you better be ready to fight.”

Mr. Kotto has written a soon-to-be-released autobiography called “Royalty” that details the difficulties of his multidenominational childhood. The book’s title refers to his father’s lineage in a royal Cameroonian family and to his own claim to the position of crown prince.

“My father was slated to become king of his nation,” he says with a tone of gravity, “but he had to get out, because the Germans were taking over.” He is in contact with his ancestral African clan about assuming the title of crown prince.

“There are certain responsibilities that I would have to take,” he says mysteriously. “There are certain things that I am not going to do, because I’m an American citizen. There’s no way I’m going to give that up.”

He can sweat royal blood with the best of them when it comes to going out on the boards: “When that light backstage goes off, telling you it’s your entrance, that it’s your butt coming out on that stage, it’s scary.”

Mr. Kotto is content to live the life of American royalty we call movie stardom. While there are a few worthy efforts in his 40-plus film portfolio – impressive performances in movies such as “Blue Collar,” “Report to the Commissioner” and “Midnight Run” – one can understand his willingness to confront his fears and begin working in the theater again.

He turned down more lucrative movie offers and overrode the objections of his agents and managers to flex his stage muscles again. He had not performed live in front of an audience since appearing as boxer Joe Jefferson in “The Great White Hope” on Broadway in the early ’70s.

In part, the reason for his absence is economic. With a wife and six children – ages 11 to 26 – to support, it was hard to turn down the continual film offers, even if that meant a succession of undistinguished buddy-action pictures.

“Have you ever seen me in anything in the movies that’s so wonderful it took any amount of acting?” he asks rhetorically. If one of his films happens to show up on television, he’ll be the first to stand up, walk over and turn off the set.

“In fact, no one ever watches any of my movies when I’m home,” he insists. “My kids have to wait until I leave town. I don’t want to watch a single one. I don’t want to hear my voice. It’s not that I’m ashamed, but it’s weird to sit at home and hear that stuff.”

And certainly don’t invite him over when you screen that 1975 stinkeroo “Sharks’ Treasure.” It is Mr. Kotto’s choice for his worst effort, his candidate for oblivion. “I did that with Cornel Wilde a few years ago,” he says, perhaps consciously vague on the details. “We played skin divers down in Nicaragua. It’s one of the most embarrassing things I ever did.”

He hasn’t only been dissatisfied with the movies in which he’s appeared. His two-decade hiatus from the theater reflects a dissatisfaction with play scripts he has been offered.

“I’ve been looking for years,” this genial giant says softly, “and if a play was to come along, I certainly would have jumped at it. Then along comes a guy named August Wilson [the two-time Pulitzer-winning author of “Fences”] and starts really writing. If I was going to come back and put myself through all that grief, it might as well be for a part like this, which is worth it.”

As with “The Great White Hope,” the leading role in “Fences” – former Negro League baseball player Troy Maxson, trying to raise a family and hold it together in his brawny hands – was originated by James Earl Jones. Although following again in those shoes also gave Mr. Kotto pause, he has emerged triumphant, forging his own vivid, explosive portrayal that has met with popular and critical acclaim.

Director Tazewell Thompson recalls how gingerly he had to coax the performance from this hulking yet fragile actor. “Here was a man who has this image on the screen of being someone who could just rip off people’s heads and fight with an alien,” he notes. “And then to see him just literally sit in a corner of the set, unable to move. It was so difficult for him.”

Of Mr. Kotto’s stage fright, actress Kim Hamilton, who plays his onstage wife, Rose, adds, “He talked about that, but I don’t get that feeling of fear when I’m working with him. His professionalism takes over. The nervousness that he has, you use it in the role.”

Mr. Kotto can afford to laugh now and recall his fears the night the press came to evaluate his performance. “I gotta tell you, when you know you’ve got to face critics, you know that they’ve seen it all, they’re jaded, they don’t want to hear it,” he whispers. “And so you think, ‘What if I goof up? That’s going to be reported. What if I flub the words? That will be reported.’ I didn’t want to read in nobody’s paper that I messed up.”

A brush with death

Far more serious is what happened the next evening. Perhaps to clear his head and concentrate on his performance, Mr. Kotto decided to stop taking his prescribed high-blood-pressure medicine, according to reports from those close to the production. When he arrived for the patron-laden opening-night performance after a particularly humid, pollen-heavy day, he was perspiring and puffy as he waited to go onstage.

“I couldn’t breathe,” he says. “My face had gotten a little bit swollen. My nose was burning. It was very hot. I’m not used to this at home in Colorado. I thought I was in hell.”

Doctors in an adjoining theater examined Mr. Kotto and sent him off to a hospital emergency room, where his medication was re-administered and his respiratory problems were stabilized. As stubborn as he is a trouper, he was back performing the next night as well as the four shows in rapid succession over the opening weekend.

“This guy is onstage, yelling and screaming, for 2 1/2 hours,” he says of his character. “It’s the most taxing part I’ve ever played in my life. I’ve tried walking through it. But with the excitement of the thing, you get caught up in it yourself, and you start sprinting. There’s no way to relax.”

Family man

Like all of August Wilson’s plays, “Fences” is a slice of black American history, a view of the urban industrial North in the 1950s, just before the civil rights movement started gaining speed. But it is also a deeply personal story of family struggle, of a father whose attempts at parenting drive away his sons.

Although Mr. Kotto is thunderously effective in his rages, he insists it in no way reflects his relationship with his own children. He is the picture of pride talking about their accomplishments. “My daughter’s a Georgetown law student. My son is in California, a legal assistant. And my second son has just come here. He’s going to college at Howard University in political science,” the actor says, going down the list with a smile.

In “Fences” Troy is enraged when his son Cory wants to follow in his footsteps and become an athlete. That none of Mr. Kotto’s children has opted for show business pleases him, though he says he would never discourage them from a chosen profession. “I always try to find out what they want and support them,” he says. Yet you can sense the relief in his voice as he comments on his non-actor offspring: “They’re in the real world.”

Mr. Kotto’s world revolves around his wife and children. “He’s a family man,” notes Miss Hamilton. “His six children are lovely, which says something about his home life and the way he brought them up. He’s a big, huggable, lovable bear.”

Milestones achieved

Mr. Kotto is proud that he has avoided most of Hollywood’s racial stereotyping. In fact, he can tick off some of the milestones he has achieved, playing roles that broke new ground and tore down fences for black performers.

” ‘The Liberation of L.B. Jones’ [1970] was the first time that a black man killed a white man on screen, in the history of the movies,” he claims. “Then ‘Live and Let Die’ [the 1973 James Bond picture in which he played a Caribbean diplomat and master criminal], you never saw a black man in that kind of role before, and that opened up more possibilities. Then finally ‘Alien’ [1979] opened up the door for us to science fiction and horror films.”

Kotto the writer

Nevertheless, there is more to Yaphet Kotto than we have seen to date, including a playwright. He has written a play about a has-been, illiterate football star looking back over his life, and has given it to Mr. Thompson for a possible production in Arena Stage’s future. Not coincidentally, the leading role is tailor-made for the author.

Although Mr. Kotto insists that he is not interested in sports, his major stage projects have been sports-oriented – boxing in “The Great White Hope,” baseball in “Fences” and football for his own script.

“I don’t even watch sports,” he says, noting the irony of his stage career’s fixations. “I don’t want to tell you what I think of baseball, because there are so many baseball enthusiasts out there.” Mr. Kotto is, however, easily coaxed. “To me it’s not an exciting enough thing to watch. I’ve tried to go to baseball games, and I fall asleep waiting for the guy to pitch the ball. And then I try and watch football, and it’s too violent.”

If sports makes a lousy pastime for him, Mr. Kotto recognizes how tied it is to our national mythology and what terrific acting roles it can spawn. “As August Wilson wanted to write about the various times, I’ve wanted to play the various athletes.”

For the moment he is at ease on stage enveloping one of the great roles of recent years, swinging for the bleachers in “Fences,” which is expected to be extended through July at the Kreeger Theater.

His director, Mr. Thompson, has already seen huge strides in his star’s performance since opening night. “He has just grown in nuances, in humor, in terror, in storytelling,” he observes. “It’s just amazing. He’s grown and grown, and the audiences just eat him up.”

And the reward

As for Mr. Kotto, the role of Troy Maxson is still overwhelming. He knows that his return to the theater has been worthwhile, now that he can look at his opening in retrospect.

“It’s worth it – afterwards,” he laughs. “After you read the reviews, after you get the applause. Afterwards, if it doesn’t turn out to be a big mistake, then it’s worth it.

“Any actor who tells you it’s worth it during is lying.”

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