I have never looked the same way twice,” actor Yaphet Kotto declares triumphantly. Indeed, he played an Othello compared to Paul Robeson’s and conquered Broadway succeeding James Earl Jones as boxing champ Jack Johnson in The Great White Hope. Then he portrayed Idi Amin in NBC’s Raid on Entebbe, and scored in movies as the doomed auto worker of 1978’s Blue Collar, as an Alien astronaut last summer and now as Robert Redford’s inmate confidant in the muckraking prison film Brubaker. “So,” observes Kotto, “the only way critics can judge me is as an actor, and not just as a black actor.” But seriously, when will that happen? “Maybe,” he chuckles, “about the year 2000.”
It may be sooner; Kotto’s outlandishly eclectic life has a way of shattering stereotypes. The son of a Jewish construction worker raised in the Cameroons in Africa and a Panamanian nurse, he grew up in an Irish neighborhood of the Bronx, attended Catholic school and was eventually bar-mitzvahed. Today, at 42, he is a convert to the Self-Realization Fellowship’s religious philosophy, meditates three times daily and lives with his second wife and five children (three from his first marriage) on a 13-acre spread in Puyallup, Wash. It is worlds away from the Hollywood high life which, he says, drove him to despair six years ago.
“I had all the stuff,” Kotto recalls, “a house in Pacific Palisades with a pool overlooking the ocean, but I cried many bitter tears in that pool.” His sorrow, he explains, was over a failing 14-year first marriage to a Danish woman and, ironically, success. Fame brought “antagonism from fellow black actors. I didn’t go around calling myself a star,” says Kotto, “but suddenly all my buddies were gone. To have any friends I had to throw a party. I would call up girls I didn’t like, pick up the bill in restaurants—I had to pay to have people around me.”
Searching for an alternative, Kotto found it in Indian Paramahansa Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship, whose best-known devotee and preacher is actor Dennis (McCloud) Weaver. “Dennis helped me tremendously,” Kotto says. “Here was an actor with the same kind of experience I’d had, who lives a life of almost total purity.” SRF, which draws its ascetic precepts (no meat, alcohol or tobacco) from both the New Testament and the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita, turned him from Los Angeles for good. “I stay away because I remember,” he says wearily. “No more, man, no more.”
Raised by his maternal grandparents after his father and mother divorced when he was 6, Kotto (rhymes with photo) was taunted by whites for being Jewish and by blacks for wearing a then unfashionable Afro hairdo. He once briefly changed his name to “Fred” in an attempt to fit in. Then at 16 he dropped out of high school to work at odd jobs like dishwashing while studying acting. He later took dance lessons from Syvilla Fort, who also had worked with Jane Fonda and Marlon Brando. At 25 he appeared in the off-Broadway show In White America, and “from that time on I never stopped working,” says Kotto. He since has made 15 movies for fees that now exceed $150,000 per.
That’s more than enough to pay for the simple life he now chooses. His only car is a two-year-old knockaround Ford wagon, and his main indulgences are an at-home sauna and a videocassette player for his tapes of old Sherlock Holmes movies. He and his half-Ethiopian, half-Irish second wife, Toni, met at a 1974 SRF gathering and now hold weekly meetings in their home. “I’ve made God a living reality for myself,” says Kotto, “so I don’t need any other person. That feeling of loneliness I once had,” he adds, “was an illusion.”