RIP Yaphet Kotto

As I’ve said many times, I’m a great fan of working character actors: the kind of professional performers who will never headline a marquee, but who show up again and again to deliver rock-solid performances in whatever role they’re given. Recently I learned that one of the best of that breed has as last gone to his reward.

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Yaphet Kotto was one of those actors who seemed to simply melt away into his parts, with a commanding screen presence that made him often riveting to watch (he was in fact directly descended from Cameroon royalty). A prolific figure in movies, television, and the theater (he has close to a hundred credits on IMDb), he could take a stereotypical ‘Black’ role and through sheer charisma and acting power wrestle it into something honest and three-dimensional.

I mostly know him from three roles. The first and most prominent in my mind is as the villainous Kananga in the James Bond film Live and Let Die. The movie itself is a rather mediocre effort in the series, with a lot of things I really like and a lot of things I really don’t, but I always thought Kananga was one of the best bad guys of the whole franchise. His plan (to flood the drug market with free opium, simultaneously creating millions of new addicts and underbidding his competition out of business to create a monopoly) was genuinely clever and one of the few that felt like it might actually work. Kananga himself was a commanding and dangerous figure, effortlessly humiliating Bond for most of the first half of the film with his enormous and varied arsenal of resources (including, for the first and only time in the series, potentially supernatural powers). I want to say that Bond hadn’t been put through the ringer this badly since at least Goldfinger: almost every gambit he tries gets immediately shot down or overturned by Kananga (even simply bribing a waiter for information: one of the funniest scenes in the film, by the way), and he’s pretty much just struggling to stay alive up until at least the two-thirds mark.

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Kananga with Julius Harris as henchman Tee-Hee

Even when Bond eventually manages to begin to strip away his defenses, Kananga remains mostly cool and in charge up until the very end. The times when he does lose his temper, it’s in a controlled, emotionally-honest seeming way that makes him feel all the more dangerous. He’s very much in the ‘equal opposite’ camp to Bond, with a similar blend of cunning, sophistication, and savagery (as opposed to a ‘warped and frustrated’ figure such as Goldfinger), and Mr. Kotto’s performance absolutely sells the character.

Unfortunately, he is also granted one of the stupidest deaths of any Bond villain, which ends a great performance on a sour note.

The second role is as Parker in Alien, one of the two mechanics of the ship (alongside the late Harry Dean Stanton). In that extremely-well-written film, Parker was arguably the most practical minded of the crew. At first he was chiefly concerned with his paycheck and the possibility of a bonus for finding the derelict spacecraft. He was then the one suggesting the simple, straightforward solutions: “Why don’t you freeze him?” “Just kill the thing,” and so on. He’s a blue-collar, rather simple man trying to wrestle some sense into an increasingly out-of-control situation and providing much of the necessary muscle in the hunt for the alien.

There’s a lot that could be said about how well-done this film is, especially in how convincingly it portrays its characters as that rarest of cinematic species, normal people. Mr. Kotto’s effortlessly casual and genuine performance amongst his equally talented co-stars is a key point in selling this.

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Looking back on it, I especially recall his jovial, unaffected friendliness toward John Hurt’s Kane during the fateful dinner scene right before everything goes to hell. It’s such a simple, but familiar tone: a man cheerfully supporting and building up his friend / co-worker who has just been through a traumatic, potentially fatal incident, happy that it seems like everything has worked out and showing his affection without outright stating it. Again, something just about everyone’s experienced, but not the kind of thing you usually think about, and Mr. Kotto nails it effortlessly, making the subsequent events all the more shocking and horrifying.

The third role is as Agent Mosely in the action-comedy Midnight Run, starring Robert De Niro as a put-upon bounty hunter trying to bring former mob accountant Charles Grodin across the country for a sentencing hearing. Mosely is the FBI Agent who is also hunting Grodin, hoping to grab him as a witness in his own case. It’s a great little film and very funny, with Mr. Kotto getting many, many laughs as the no-nonsense Fed who continually gets humiliated and out-witted by De Niro (among other things, De Niro swipes his badge to allow him to pretend to be an FBI Agent when needs be, leading to Mosely being repeatedly told – to his increasing fury – that the guy he’s looking for is with “Agent Mosely”). As always, Mr. Kotto lends extra gravitas to the role, both making Mosley remain a credible threat to the protagonist throughout and making the jokes at his expense all the funnier.

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“I’M MOSELY!”

Most people today probably know Mr. Kotto from his long-running role as Lieutenant Giardello on Homicide: Life on the Street (which I have yet to see), and he also had guest appearances on both Gunsmoke and Law & Order, putting him in the cast rolls of both of American television’s longest running prime-time dramas, as well as roles on Murder She Wrote and Perry Mason. Other notable roles include supporting turns in the Arnold Schwarzenegger flick The Running Man, and the would-be-finale Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare.

Equally notable are the roles he turned down: he was on a short list of actors to play Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: the Next Generation and was offered the role of Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back. Both roles he turned down, which he (unsurprisingly) later came to seriously regret.

(Apparently, George Lucas also considered him for Han Solo back when the first film was being cast. Which means that there is an alternate universe where Star Wars featured Robert Englund as Luke Skywalker and Yaphet Kotto as Han Solo).

As I say, Mr. Kotto was one of those actors who could always be relied on to absolutely nail his role with a powerful presence and oceans of raw talent. He was honestly one of my favorite contemporary character actors, someone I was always delighted to see show up. His presence will be missed.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

RIP Sir Sean Connery

This is a big one, and a long time coming. Sir Sean Connery, the definitive James Bond and elder statesman actor for a generation has gone to his reward at the age of 90.

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“Goodbye, Mr. Bond”

Sir Sean was an interesting figure on screen: one of the old school of actors who came from a working class background, serving as a truck driver and labourer among other things (his father was a factory hand and his brother was plasterer), though he also dabbled in bodybuilding and modeling. When he turned to acting (choosing it over a football career), he had a fair number of roles in low-budget or made-for-TV movies (which were just getting started at the time), as well as a lead role in Walt Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People. It was this film, of all things, that brought him to the attention of Cubby Broccoli when he was casting an adaptation of Dr. No.

Ian Flemming wasn’t crazy about the rough Scotsman at first. Bond is an aristocrat, and Sir Sean had no knowledge whatsoever of the high-class, sophisticated world that Bond was supposed to inhabit. He had to have a crash course in fine wines, tailored clothes, and all the rest of it. It paid off, and Sir Sean conveyed the absolute perfect combination of sophistication and brutality that has come to define Bond: a man you can absolutely believe would be equally at home trading witty barbs in a high class casino and trouncing thugs in the alley behind it. Flemming warmed up to Sir Sean’s portrayal so much that he re-wrote Bond’s backstory to make him Scottish.

Sir Sean attempted to leave the role more than once, being tired of it and especially the enormous publicity that went with it, as well as not wanting to be typecast. After finally escaping the franchise, he began to reinvent himself as a powerhouse actor, serving under Alfred Hitchcock in Marnie and John Houston in The Man Who Would Be King (acting opposite the equally great Michael Caine in an adaptation of a Rudyard Kipling story, and frankly those four names alone tell you it’s going to be great), being one of a dozen stars participating in Murder on the Orient Express, and playing the Arab chief Raisull in The Wind and the Lion.

I remember him mostly, from my own childhood, as one of the great elder statesmen actors: as Indiana Jones’ father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, as Draco the dragon in Dragonheart, defecting Soviet sub captain Ramius in The Hunt for Red October, and as the aging British secret agent John Mason (who is basically Bond in all but name) in The Rock. He won the Academy Award for The Untouchables, back when that still actually meant something. In any case, it was only a confirmation of what everyone already knew: Sir Sean was one of the top actors of his generation, with an unforgettable voice and manner (he’s one of the most imitated actors in history). He could be incredibly tender or incredible brutal, often in the same film. Or he could become a grumpy old professor, or a reclusive writer. Whatever role demanded character, strength, and integrity.

That, I think, is what came across most on screen: Sir Sean was a man. When he was tender and romantic, or even when he was doddering and comic, he always had that edge of iron masculinity that made him riveting to watch.

By all accounts he was a consummate gentleman on set and well-liked by his peers. Some of my own favorite stories about him tell of how he would go out of his way to look after the other actors, such as when he took it upon himself to check on Japanese actress Mie Hama (who, like him, came from a working class background and was blindsided by the experience of making a Bond film) every day they were shooting together on You Only Live Twice to make sure she was bearing it up.

His final role was in the unfortunately abysmal League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a film that, like the Mario Brothers movie, I have a soft spot for despite its horrible quality. It’s a film marked by a collection of very talented actors doing their best with awful script. That said, Sir Sean’s performance as an aging Allan Quatermain showcases all his usual power and skill, and his final words are strikingly appropriate epitaph upon his illustrious career:

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“May this new century be yours, son. As the old one was mine.”

Eternal rest grant unto him, o Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, Rest in Peace

Thoughts on ‘Dr. No’

Since my household recently purchased a complete box set of the James Bond films, we’ve begun a total re-watch of the entire series. So, I’ll be giving my thoughts on each film in turn.

First some background: I’m a long-time fan of the Bond films. I’ve seen all of them (except Quantum of Solace) at least once and have a fairly good working knowledge of the history and background of the films, though I haven’t gotten around to reading any of the books yet.

So, we open with the very first of the mainline Bond films: 1962’s Dr. No, in which James Bond travels to Jamaica (the Caribbean was a favorite haunt of Ian Fleming’s and a common setting of the series) to investigate the death of a British agent investigating mysterious radio interference with American missile tests.

What struck me most on this re-viewing was simultaneously how down-to-Earth it is compared to many of its sequels and yet how complete it is. The classic trappings of the Bond formula are almost all there in full force; M, Moneypenny, Felix Leiter, the casino, the exotic locations and high living, the women, and the oppressively powerful villain with his private army of henchmen. Only Q, and with him the emphasis on gadgets is yet missing. Also, the opening credits are instrumental rather than accompanied by a song, and the gun barrel sequence is slightly off in that it opens in silence.

More than that, the character of Bond bursts onto screen essentially complete; there was never a part where I thought “Well, Bond would never do that in later films.” On the contrary, watching this time and paying closer attention to the details of his characterization, I realized just how strongly marked a character he really is, perhaps not in depth, but in style and personality. We’ll come back to that.

Yet, as I say, this film is comparatively restrained when contrasted with its sequels. It in fact takes more the form of a detective story, with Bond spending most of the film pursuing leads and trying to trace the footsteps of his predecessor, Strangeways. He’s even referred to as a detective more than once (Dr. No eventually dismisses him as, “just a stupid policeman”). The emphasis is more on Bond’s cunning and cleverness than on his fighting prowess: the action scenes are generally pretty short and restrained, while scenes like Bond’s verbal fencing match upon meeting Quarrel (the first of many local Bond allies) or his interviews with the slimy Professor Dent take up much of the first and second act, interspersed with more quietly suspenseful scenes like Bond waking to find a venomous tarantula in his bed. The third act ramps up things a bit, but still remains pretty low-key and realistic (including a tense pursuit through a swamp that ends with Bond knifing one of the guards commando-style).

Partly for this reason, I was struck by just how good the movie was, and how effectively it tells its rather complicated plot and ushers us into the world of Bond for the first time. In the very first minutes of Dr. No we discover that a man at a British gentleman’s club is a spy, and then see him gunned down by what seemed to be three blind beggars. The stage is set; we are in a world where appearances cannot be trusted and death is a moment-to-moment possibility: a hidden world of spies and counter-spies operating just out of sight of normal people.

This is immediately followed by a scene of men and women working at a radio switchboard, identifying that something is wrong, and passing the information along. They’re dressed in normal work clothes and deal with the disappearance of two people in a calm, professional matter by referring it to the correct channels. It is a short scene that most people probably forget, but it is also important; the apparatus of spy work is, fundamentally, not a cabal of supermen, but a job like any other, carried out, for the most part, with cool routine and procedure. This is an idea that the films will return to again and again, and it is here established almost immediately.

From there we go to a high-end casino, where we receive our unforgettable introduction to, “Bond…James Bond” (apparently, this immortal line and its delivery was worked out by Sean Connery himself when he found the original version of the scene too dull).

As I’ve said, what is remarkable is how complete Bond’s character is from the start. To take an illustrative example: when Bond first arrives in Jamaica, he finds a man with a car waiting for him, ostensibly from the government. He coolly excuses himself without arousing the man’s suspicions and calls his contact to check whether a car has in fact been sent for him. Finding that none has, he goes back to the car and gets in anyway. He then grabs the chance to turn the tables, easily outfights the man, and proceeds to interrogate him (a cyanide-laced cigarette prevents him from getting any information, establishing the fear Dr. No inspires in his underlings).

This is a pattern that will recur throughout the film and indeed the series: Bond never takes the safe option. Instead, he prefers to walk into danger with his eyes open, trusting to his skill and his luck to get the better of his opponent and thus to learn from them. Bond is not looking for safety, but information, and in the hidden world of spies he needs to skate shoulder-to-shoulder with the people trying to kill him in order to get it. If he discovers a trap, his instinct is not to avoid it, but take the bait and try turn it to his own advantage, which he more often than not is able to do. It is a high-risk, high-reward strategy: the personality of a born gambler.

Casting Sean Connery was brilliant, not only for his acting chops and rugged physicality, but also for the rough air that came from his poor background. As implied in the early scene at the switchboard, Bond is fundamentally a workingman: a civil servant with a paycheck and a pension (despite the fact that he actually comes of a high-class family, as will be revealed later in the series). Connery, himself a working-class man in a job that causes him to adopt an air of sophistication, brings the perfect balance to the role, so that both elements are there, but so blended that it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.

This is the strange, potent blend that makes Bond so interesting; he is simultaneously rich and sophisticated, a gentleman of wealth and taste, and also a workingman, living by his wits and his luck, with earthy, human appetites in alcohol, women, and food (granted with high standards in all three). He combines in one person Jack the Giant Slayer – the cunning peasant who overcomes enemies ostensibly far above him through use of his wits and taunts them when he’s finished for good measure – and Sir Lancelot – the high-born knight of unquestionable loyalty and unmatched martial prowess who follows court etiquette to the letter. I don’t think any culture but England could have produced such a hero, which might be one of the reasons he has taken such a place in the popular consciousness.

Of course, he’s not a classical hero, like a knight of old: morally, he’s closer to a brutally pragmatic pagan hero, like Achilles or Odysseus. He kills his enemies in cold-blood (and even shoots the corpse of a dead enemy at one point as a final insult). He lies continually and without turning a hair, whether he needs to or not. And, of course, he shamelessly flirts with and sleeps with women as the mood strikes him, or as a strategy, and he’s perfectly willing to rough them up to get information.

But, at the same time, he has real virtues. He cares for his friends, is unshakably loyal to his country, and sincerely believes in the justice and freedom he is fighting for (when he meets Dr. No, he sneers at people who think they’re “Napoleon. Or God,” and comments that No’s disregard for human life suggests he’s working for ‘the East’). He’s also shown to be fairly generous and respectful towards servants and the poor (as seen when he drops generous tips to the staff at the casino). And though he sleeps around with many different women, he also makes a point to protect innocent girls like Honey Rider, the shell-collector he meets at Dr. No’s island. Once she shows up, he tries time and again to get her to safety or to protect her against the bad guys, and he treats her, as far as the film goes, very kindly.

Honey is the first main ‘Bond Girl,’ and her introduction, rising from the sea like Venus, is one of the most famous images of the series. She really doesn’t have anything to do with the story, except giving Bond someone to protect, but she is a comparatively rare Bond girl with an actual backstory (daughter of a marine biologist murdered by Dr. No), and she’s certainly a pleasant enough character, and giving Bond charge of an innocent party is a good way to keep the film’s rather shaky moral premise intact and emphasizes that there is a world of difference between Bond and his adversaries. Whatever nasty things Bond does, he ultimately does it to protect the innocent people that the likes of SPECTRE would abuse, exploit, or kill.

As for Dr. No himself, again we see the trappings of the Bond franchise are remarkably complete here in the first of many vivid Bond villains. He has comparatively little screen time, but his presence as an ominous, unseen force that drives people to suicide for fear of displeasing him, hangs over the whole film. He is introduced as a disembodied voice rebuking Professor Dent in terms that assure him (and us) that he knows far more of Bond’s investigation than he ought and considers himself completely in control of the situation. And, despite all of Bond’s strength and skill, he makes good on that assertion for almost the entire film.

Played with cold detachment by Joseph Wiseman, Dr. No, like so many subsequent villains, takes an opposite approach to Bond. He is a chess master and scientist, relying on his brains and organizational skills to control his environment to his own advantage. He speaks in a soft, calm voice, almost a monotone, wears a featureless suit, and has powerful robotic hands. All this marks him as having largely sacrificed his humanity for his own goals, in contrast to Bond, who retains his natural appetites and enjoyments, his sense of humor, and some fundamental ideas of right and wrong.

Dr. No, though not on screen long, makes a powerful impression and even after some twenty-four films, he stands as one of the great villains of the franchise. Not only that, but he serves as our introduction to the legendary SPECTRE organization, which will be pursuing Bond through most of the early films. We’ll talk more about them as things go on.

Though I mentioned the film’s remarkable sense of completeness, there are a few signs of it’s being the first of a series. The film opens with Bond trading in an old Berretta for his trademark Walther PPK, for instance, and he later is shown meeting his perennial American ally Felix Leiter for the first time (Bond specifically comments that he’s “heard of Leiter, but never met him” at this point). Leiter himself is slightly more antagonistic towards Bond than he would be later on, with some mild jockeying over whose jurisdiction No falls under.

The scene where Bond receives his Walther is another example of the film’s efficiency. It rapidly and naturally establishes the capabilities of the firearm, the fact that Bond is an experienced field agent, but not invulnerable (it’s mentioned he was in hospital after a previous mission went south), and that the double-o designation means he’s licensed to kill.

It’s not perfect, of course (I don’t know that any of the Bond films will make a ‘best of all time’ list, though some, this one included, would easily land on a ‘best action-adventure films’ list). There are things like how, as mentioned, Honey Rider has no story purpose in the film at all, or that Bond seems to escape No’s cell and foil his plan rather easily after all that build up, or the moments where the film’s comparatively low-budget shows through, such as the unconvincing green screens during the car chases. It probably could stand to be a little shorter, and depending on your taste in music the song ‘Underneath the Mango Tree’ will probably start to grate on you long before the film is over (the ‘Three Blind Mice’ song that opens the film is much better, to my tastes).

But despite these problems, even after all these years I’d still consider ‘Dr. No’ as one of the best of the Bond series. It’s a strong opening act setting the tone for a long journey.

Trivia Break: Queen of the Monsters

I’d like to introduce you to actress Mie Hama. She’s a rather interesting person: born during World War II to blue collar parents, her home was destroyed in a bombing raid and she grew up poor. By the age of sixteen, she was working as a fare collector on the bus, and it was there that Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka found her and decided she might make a fine actress.

Mie Hama

Something must’ve caught his attention. Can’t quite put my finger on it…

Anyway, Miss Hama went on to become one of the most popular actresses of the Golden Age of Japanese cinema, and even to have some success outside it (more on that later). But at the height of her career she quit acting to get married and start a family, wanting only a “normal life.” She had four children and later became a popular TV and radio host, authoress, and advocate for traditional Japanese farming.

Now, Miss Hama has a peculiar distinction in the film world. As far as I know (and all things considered, I think I would know), she is the only actress to date who has been menaced by both King Kong and Godzilla, AND romanced by James Bond.

How’s that for a resume?

(To be fair, Akiko Wakabayashi also co-starred in You Only Live Twice – and plays a rather larger role – as well as having a role in King Kong vs. Godzilla, but she never interacts with either of the monsters).

Akiko Wakabayashi. Seems only fair to put her photo up as well.

Miss Hama was one of the stars of 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, during the course of which the train she is riding is wrecked Godzilla, who then briefly (and presumably inadvertently) pursues her into a ravine, where she’s rescued by her boyfriend.

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Hama vs. Godzilla

Later, as she tries to evacuate Tokyo before the approaching King Kong, she boards another train, which unfortunately runs directly across the path of the giant ape, who does what he does. Somewhat fortunately for her, Kong notices her and takes a liking, meaning that she gets to serve as this film’s version of Fay Wray (Kong climbs the Diet Building in this one). Kong is then knocked out by gas bombs and she is rescued before the great ape is airlifted to his showdown with Godzilla.

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Hama vs. King Kong

Some five years after tangling with the two greatest monsters of cinema, Miss Hama was picked to co-star alongside Sean Connery (and fellow King Kong vs. Godzilla alum Akiko Wakabayashi) in You Only Live Twice, the fifth James Bond film. She plays the role of Kissy Suzuki, a Japanese agent assigned to pose as Bond’s wife while he’s undercover as a 6’2″ Japanese fisherman (granted, not the most convincing development in the history of the franchise). Kissy doesn’t really have a lot of screen time (she isn’t even introduced until an hour and a quarter into the two-hour film), but she manages to put what time she has to good use by steadfastly, and amusingly, resisting Bond’s attentions until the very end (“We’re supposed to be married!” “Think again, please; you gave false name to priest.”) and providing some solid back-up for Bond during their reconnaissance of Blofeld’s base. That, and spending about 90% of her time in a bikini.

Hama vs. Bond

Miss Hama later told stories of how difficult the experience of being a ‘Bond Girl’ was. Though she was a popular actress in Japan, she was still a fairly normal, down-to-earth person and so found herself overwhelmed by the publicity and pressure of the big Hollywood production. But, she said, Sean Connery – who also had a working class background – was very kind and chivalrous to her, constantly checking to make sure she was okay and looking out for her during the long shoot. Later she commented that her chief regret about the film was that she was too shy to try to get to know him better.

That same year, she tangled with Kong again as the villainous femme fatale Madam Piranha in the delightfully silly US-Japanese co-production King Kong Escapes (which is basically what happens when a King Kong film and a James Bond movie are put through the brundlefly machine together). This time around she’s a bad girl: a spy from an unknown foreign power in league with the villainous ‘Doctor Who,’ who intends to conquer the world with a mechanical copy of Kong (so, yes; it’s a pseudo-Bond film where King Kong battles Doctor Who, a Bond Girl, and MechaKong. Japan, ladies and gentlemen!).

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Be honest; would you accept a drink from this woman?

So, there you have it; the girl who tangled with King Kong, Godzilla, AND James Bond and lived to tell about it. Now that’s a strong woman!

No, this post was not just an excuse to share pictures of a beautiful woman. Not *just*…