ON HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET, NBC’s critically acclaimed Thursday-night police drama, Yaphet Kotto, a black man, plays a detective with an Italian surname—Giardello. Kotto shrugs at the apparent incongruity. In fact, at 54, the man has a Ph.D. in incongruity. He was raised in Harlem—as a Jew. His pedigree, he says, is royal. Today he draws on the Hindu Bhagavad Gita for spiritual sustenance. And domestically his current wife has fixed him up—happily—with…the next Mrs. Kotto. With typical affability, Kotto concedes, “It sounds pretty wild.”
While his offscreen life has been roiling, the imposing 6’4″, 248-lb. Kotto has been achieving a solid career in films such as Alien and Midnight Run. Says Homicide executive producer Barry Levinson: “Yaphet has great credibility, a simple strength, a quiet passion.”
But with Kotto and the rest of the cast awaiting NBC’s decision on whether to renew the series, the actor is now at his six-bedroom split-level home in a Toronto suburb, pouring that passion into his autobiography-in-progress. (He spends half his time in L.A., where he shares an apartment with former football star Anthony Davis.) The book’s working title is The Royalty of Yaphet Kotto. As Kotto tells it, his father, Njoki Manga Bell, was the great-grandson of King Alexander Bell, who ruled the Douala region of Cameroon in the late 19th century, before the California-size West African nation fell into the hands of Germany and, later, France and Britain. Fleeing the Germans, Manga Bell (who had converted to Judaism in Cameroon) emigrated to Harlem in the 1920s and changed his name to Abraham Kotto (the surname is from a relative). Abraham, who became a construction worker and also danced with Katherine Dunham, made sure his son knew of his regal roots. Several years ago, Yaphet made contact with relatives, who now want him to journey lo Cameroon to engage in a ritual installation into the family. “You’re entitled to a chieftaincy,” he was told. But if Kotto does go, he stresses, “it will be for heritage purposes.”
Growing up, though, Yaphet tried to hide that heritage. “I wanted to fit in, not stand out,” he says. The yarmulke he wore frustrated that aspiration: His father raised him as a Jew. (Yaphet means beautiful in Hebrew.) “To this day I open books from the back, having read the Torah so much,” says Kotto. But he also attended a Catholic school, partly at the behest of his mother, Gladys, a nurse and army officer who had divorced Abraham when Yaphet was 3. His father approved, but told Yaphet, “Just remember who you are.”
Socially, he says, his religion was less of a burden than was his ebony hue. “Black girls told me I was ugly because of my dark skin, thick lips and broad nose,” he says. “That’s why, lo this day, I have a problem with black women.” Still, in an oblique way their rebuffs got him interested in acting, especially after he saw On the Waterfront. Kotto identified with Marlon Brando’s character: “He seemed so defiant. Plus, he really couldn’t express his feelings to the girl [Eva Marie Saint]. It reminded me of my relationships with black girls—the rejection I felt.”
At 20, Kotto wed Rita Dittman, a German immigrant. The marriage lasted 14 years, through a move to California, and resulted in three children: Natasha, 28, a lawyer; Frederick, 26, a stockbroker; and Robert, 22, a medical student. Within a week of his divorce from Rita, Kotto married Toni Pettyjohn, a flight attendant whom he had met at a Self-Realization Fellowship temple in Pacific Palisades, Calif. SRF, which draws its precepts from the New Testament and the Bhagavad Gita taught Kotto, he says, “that I was a soul of God and that I was beautiful inside.”
With Toni, 46, Yaphet has three daughters: Sarada, 17, Mirabai, 15, and Salina, 13. Five years ago, the couple legally separated—but they still live together. “We decided that I should marry someone else because I want more children and she doesn’t,” explains Yaphet (although recently, he says, “I’ve gotten a little nervous about having more kids”).
Admits Toni: “We both have fiery, strong personalities, so it was emotionally trying until we made the mutual decision to split.” The break is so clean now that Toni even introduced her husband to his wife-to-be, Rosemary Gayon, a virginal 26-year-old who lives with her parents in the Philippines. “Rose is a lovely girl,” says Toni. “She lives next door to Filipino friends I’ve known for years. I gave Yaphet her phone number because I thought she’d be nice for him.” After Yaphet visited Rose for 10 days, he agreed. Once married—maybe this summer—Yaphet and Rose will live near Toni and the girls.
What next? Nothing ordinary, probably. “My life has been the agony and the ecstasy,” says Kotto. “There’s never been a dull moment.”
MONTE WILLIAMS in Toronto