Yaphet Kotto, an appreciation

Yaphet Kotto in Live And Let Die

Early in his career, Yaphet Kotto (1939-2021) was working as an actor when “Old Hollywood” was holding on for dear life.

For example, he appeared in 5 Card Stud, a 1968 western starring Dean Martin and Robert Mitchum. It was produced by Hal Wallis, born in 1900 and as “Old Hollywood” as you could get. His credits included Casablanca as well as Martin and Lewis comedies. And this movie came out before the Wallis-produced True Grit.

Nevertheless, Kotto, not yet 30, more than held his own with his established fellow actors. Kotto’s character is killed but in his dying moments provides the clue needed to track down his killer.

Hollywood was about to change. And Yaphet Kotto would be part of the change.

Kotto made an impact, whether in films or on television shows. As news of his passing circulated, the actor was subject of numerous tributes on social media.

He was one of the most memorable villains in the James Bond film series. Kotto was Bond’s first Black primary adversary in Live And Let Die (1973). His Dr. Kananga led a double life, as the leader of a Caribbean nation who moonlights as an American criminal.

In his two identities, Kotto projected different personalities. Kananga was the seemingly dignified head of government for San Monique. Mr. Big was the street criminal.

It’s not until the second half of the movie, the audience gets to see Kananga’s true self. Kotto gets one of the best “villain speeches” in the series. He explains his plan is to provide free samples of heroin until the number of addicts in the U.S. has doubled.

Roger Moore, making his Bond debut, asks if that won’t upset certain “families” (i.e. the Mafia).

Kotto seizes the set-up line and runs with it.

He says those families will be driven out of their minds and “subsequently out of the business, leaving me and the telephone company as the only growing monopolies in this country for years to come.” Kotto’s delivery makes an impact.

Kotto had a long career. His IMDB.COM entry lists more than 90 credits. He appeared in a variety of genres, everything from science fiction to gritty crime dramas.

Among those paying tribute to Kotto were two film directors:

Yaphet Kotto dies

Yaphet Kotto with Roger Moore in Live And Let Die

Yaphet Kotto, who played the villain in the first Roger Moore James Bond movie, Live And Let Die, has died at 81, according to website Comicbook.com, which cited a post by Kotto’s official Facebook site.

Kotto played Dr. Kananga, prime minister of the fictional Caribbean island of San Monique. Kananga also impersonates American gangster Mr. Big, who operates out of Harlem in New York City. Kotto’s character, with both identities, opposes Moore’s Bond in his first 007 film outing.

All of that was a major change dreamed up by Tom Mankiewicz, the sole screenwriter for Live And Let Die.

In the documentary Inside Live And Let Die, Mankiewicz said he was approached by Eon Productions about what Ian Fleming novel he’d like to adapt. Mankiewicz was the second scribe on Eon’s Diamonds Are Forever, which featured the return of Sean Connery as James Bond. It was a hit and Eon wanted Mankiewicz back.

The screenwriter, in the documentary, quoted himself as saying he wanted to do Live And Let Die because it was edgier. The book was Fleming’s second Bond novel and featured Bond against Black villains in New York, Florida and the Caribbean.

Kotto had a long career. His credits included 1979’s Alien, Across 110th Street and a first-season Hawaii Five-O episode as a U.S. soldier suffering a head injury who thinks he’s back in Vietnam.

UPDATE (2 a.m., New York Time): Variety has a story about Kotto’s death that includes a confirmation from his agent.

A trivia note: Both Kotto and his Live And Let Die co-star, Julius W. Harris (Tee Hee), played Uganda President Idi Amin in competing productions about the 1976 Israeli raid at Entebbe. Harris appeared first (in a show produced on video tape) on ABC, while Kotto was on a filmed NBC production. The latter was directed by Irvin Kershner, who’d later helm The Empire Strikes Back and Never Say Never Again.

About that ‘James Bond knockoff’ thing

A James Bond Jr. character with a pencil communicator that looks a lot like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. pen communicator

A James Bond friend of mine misses much spy entertainment as examples of “James Bond knockoffs.”

OK. But the James Bond film franchise has, more than once, borrowed from others. A few examples:

From Russia With Love: Ian Fleming’s fifth novel didn’t include a sequence where Bond dodges a helicopter. This was something the filmmakers added to the movie to add visual excitement. Clearly, it’s an “homage” to North by Northwest where a crop-duster plane goes after Cary Grant.

More broadly, the Bond series owes a lot to North by Northwest. NxNW has a delicate balance of drama and humor. Director Alfred Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman practically provide a blueprint for the Bond series that Eon Productions would go on to make.

Live And Let Die: The eighth Eon Bond film is based on Fleming’s second novel. But its popularity also owes much to the early 1970s “blaxplotation” craze. Essentially director Guy Hamilton and screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz drop Bond into the middle of a blaxplotation movie. Mankiewicz wanted to cast Diana Ross as Solitaire but Eon wouldn’t go that far.

The Man With The Golden Gun: The ninth Eon Bond film sought to take advantage of the popularity of 1970s kung fu movies. You’d see stories (ahead of the film’s release) about how Roger Moore was training furiously to credibly do martial arts.

Moonraker: In 1966, there was an Italian-based spy movie called Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die. It shares Brazilian locations with 1979’s Moonraker. Heck, you could easily argue the 1966 movie makes better use of Brazil, including Rio’s massive Jesus statue. Also, there are sequences of the 1966 movie that would practically be repeated in Moonraker.

In addition to all that, in Moonraker, we hear a key tune from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Licence to Kill: Bond has a gun with attachments (site, extended barrel, extended magazine, rifle stock) that looks an awfully lot like the U.N.C.L.E. special. In Licence to Kill, the base gun looks like a camera but all the attachments look like the attachments of the U.N.C.L.E. Special.

James Bond Jr.: Many fans disavow this early 1990s cartoon series. But it was officially sanctioned by Eon and Michael G. Wilson shares a “developed by” credit. In episode 9, “The Eiffel Missile,” a character has a pencil communicator that appears copied from U.N.C.L.E.’s pen communicator that debuted in the second season of that series.

1973: Live And Let Die’s unusual soundtrack packaging

Part of the Live And Let Die soundtrack packaging (Spy Command photo)

In the 21st century, vinyl music (you know, records) has been revived. Truth be told, it was the best format for movie soundtracks. There was more room for poster images and other art related to the movie.

One of the best examples of this occurred in 1973 with the release of Live And Let Die, the eighth James Bond film.

Most soundtracks of the era were single discs that fit into a sleeve. Live And Let Die’s soundtrack, likewise, was just one disc. But when you looked at the cover, you could open it and see two sets of images (see above).

The biggest image, naturally, was Roger Moore as the new James Bond. Still, all told, there were 11 either film stills or publicity images from the movie. It’s not the kind of presentation you get on a CD or a music download.

The cover was an image of the movie’s main poster art. The back cover was a listing of the tracks on the record.

The list included “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” (from the fake funeral scene) arranged by Milton Batiste. Batiste also composed “New Second Lind,” performed by Harold A. “Duke” Dejan and The Olympia Brass Band.

The other tracks were composed by George Martin except for the final track on side two, the film’s version of The James Bond Theme.

A final note: On this U.S. version of the album, Albert R. Broccoli gets top billing over fellow producer Harry Saltzman. Saltzman was actually the primary producer of the film. A lot of home video versions work from a version where Saltzman got top billing.

UPDATE: A former Bond collector (he sold his collection off some time back) advises me the 1969 U.K. vinyl release of the On Her Majesty’s Secret Service soundtrack also had a gate-fold cover as described above for the Live And Let Die soundtrack. I have a copy of the U.S. OHMSS vinyl soundtrack, but it only has a standard cover.

Also, a reader complained that I didn’t mention Paul McCartney and Wings. They performed the title song. It was written by Paul and Linda McCartney. Most fans know that but I decided to make up for that here.

UPDATE II: Another reader advises the U.K. version of the vinyl release of The Spy Who Loved Me also had a gate-fold cover. I have the U.S. vinyl release and no gate-fold cover.

To quote Commodore Schmidlapp from the 1966 Batman feature film: “Pip, pip, Yankee dollars.” Except, when it comes to Yankee Bond fans: “Go stuff it, you uncouth barbarians.”

UPDATE III: David Reinhardt of the Ian Fleming Foundation, up seeing this post provided gate-fold images from the On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and The Spy Who Loved Me soundtracks that appeared outside the U.S.

OHMSS soundtrack gate-fold images
The Spy Who Loved Me gate-fold images

As stated before: “Pip, pip.”

21 Club, a literary Bond location, to close

The 21 Club, a well-known New York City restaurant, is closing, the New York Post reported, citing a spokesman.

The restaurant was a location for the literary James Bond. In the novel Diamonds Are Forever, James Bond and Tiffany Case dine there after Bond has smuggled diamonds into the U.S. They meet “one of the famous Kriendler brothers, who have owned ’21’ ever since it was the best speak-easy in New York.”

The Kriendler and Berns families owned 21 from 1922 to 1985, according to the restaurant’s entry in Wikipedia.

The 21 Club also is referenced, but not shown, in the film Live And Let Die. Bond (Roger Moore) and Felix Leiter (David Hedison) are to meet there for dinner, the audience is told as Bond and Solitaire (Jane Seymour) get ready to board a train to travel to New York.

The restaurant is known for his exterior (statues of jockeys) and its clientele (the likes of Frank Sinatra and Ernest Hemingway) over the decades.

The restaurant has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. New York state has banned indoor dining for a second time to slow the spread of the virus. 21 has been shut since March of this year. According to the Post, 21’s employees have been told they’ll lose their jobs by March 2021.

The Post said 21’s owners are exploring options for the restaurant to reopen in some form in the future.

Broccoli & Wilson talk up diversity in Bond films

Barbara Broccoli, boss of Eon Productions

Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson of Eon Productions have talked up how the James Bond film series has embraced diversity over its almost 58-year history in an interview with the Blackfilm website.

We’ve always tried to have diversity in the films,” Wilson said in the interview.

“We’ve always had international casts, and they’ve all been different ethnicities,” Wilso added. “So it’s nothing new. However, people are more sensitive to what they want to see, and when they see it — they point it out. I think we have a great diverse cast from all over the world. It’s in keeping with the times, but I think we’ve always been a little ahead of the times.”

Barbara Broccoli added the following: “Look at Live and Let Die, which was 1973. It was one of the first interracial relationships, Bond with Gloria Hendry. I mean, it’s crazy.”

Fact check: In Dr. No, Sean Connery’s Bond told Quarrel to “fetch my shoes.” This occurred seven years after the Montgomery bus boycott (a major event in the U.S. civil rights movement) and hasn’t aged well since.

What’s more, Live And Let Die screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz got shot down when he proposed that Solitaire (Jane Seymour in the movie) be played by an African American actress. So Bond films weren’t that ahead of the times. (Soliaire was written as a white woman in Ian Fleming’s novel.)

Broccoli also talked about Lashana Lynch and Ana de Armas:

“These women have trained like you can’t imagine. They are absolutely in tip-top, peak condition, and they could take anyone on. It is not just strength; it’s flexibility. Your muscles have to be in good condition, you have to be able to stop and start. So it’s a constant training thing. And then they have weapons training. They have to look like they know how to shoot a weapon, and you want them to be safe, and you want them to look good. It’s been a long, intensive training program for both of them.”

Broccoli also talked up how No Time to Die ties up the Daniel Craig era for Bond films.

“I think the story is really an accumulation of the past four films and this one. So the five-film cycle, and I think the arc of his character — particularly the emotional arc of his character, is completed. We feel it’s a very satisfying conclusion to his movies; hopefully, the audiences will too.”

About the buzz over a Bond title song performer

John Barry (1933-2011)

Whenever a new James Bond is being made, there’s a lot of interest in who will be doing the title song. On Sunday, the MI6 James Bond website reported that American singer-songwriter Billie Eilish, 18, will have the honors.

While unconfirmed, naturally fans are commenting about it. Calvin Dyson, who runs an entertaining YouTube channel centered on Bond asked the following in a tweet.

Reacting to news that Billie Eilish is likely doing the #NoTimeToDie theme do you:

A: Feel good about it
B: Acknowledge she isn’t really for you but reserve judgement until release
C: Grumble “Never heard of her” for 3 months
D: Froth at the mouth that it’s not Shirley Bassey

For me, the answer is none of the above. Just a personal reaction, but for a while now Bond title songs have been more part of the marketing but tacked on to the films themselves.

It wasn’t always that way. John Barry’s first Bond score was From Russia With Love. He didn’t write the title song (Lionel Bart did). But Barry incorporated it into his score with different arrangements, tempos and orchestrations.

Of course, once Barry started writing Bond title songs with Goldfinger, he layered them into the scores — sometimes quietly, sometimes with a loud, brassy sound. In the case of Thunderball, Barry incorporated two songs: Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (written first but rejected) and Thunderball.

Barry wasn’t around for Live And Let Die. Paul and Linda McCartney wrote the title song. George Martin, who had helped McCartney produce the song and who negotiated with producer Harry Saltzman, did the score. Martin incorporated instrumental versions of the song into his score. Other Bond composers, such as Marvin Hamlisch and Bill Conti, also worked the title songs they helped write into their scores.

In other words, the song was more than just something performed for the titles. A title song became part of the movie itself, playing a role in establishing mood and emotion.

Things change. One reason Barry finally walked away from the series for good was he would not be allowed to write the title song for Tomorrow Never Dies. He’d already been away from Bond for a decade. That was simply the last straw.

The last time a title song got the Barry treatment was “You Know My Name” for 2006’s Casino Royale. David Arnold, composer for the score, collaborated with performer Chris Cornell on writing the song.

In the 2010s, both Skyfall and “Writing’s on the Wall” from SPECTRE won Oscars for best song. Instrumental versions appear in the two movie scores but, to my ear, seem placed because that’s what’s expected.

Nothing stays the same. John Barry died in 2011. David Arnold, who updated the Barry/Bond music template, hasn’t worked on the series since 2008.

The new title song, whoever writes and performs it, may be great. It may be OK. It may be mediocre. There’s no way to know until it’s released.

But, speaking only for myself, I find hard to get excited about it. Your mileage may vary.

No time to drive: Price appreciation of 007 cars

Iconic publicity still for Goldfinger with Sean Connery leaning against the Aston Martin DB5.

A study by 1st Move International looked at how prices have appreciated for various cars that appeared in James Bond movies.

At the top, not surprisingly, was the Aston Martin DB5, which was originally priced at 4,175 British pounds ($11,690 at the 1960s exchange rate of $2.80 to the pound), which now fetches 687,696 pounds (more than $883,786 at current exchange rates.

What follows is  sampling of other cars of note in British pounds. The data is as of Sept. 20.

Toyota 2000 GT (You Only Live Twice): 6,379 pounds originally, now 530,111 pounds.

Aston Martin DBS (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service): 4,473 pounds originally, now 214,950 pounds.

Lincoln Continental Convertible (Thunderball): 475 pounds originally, now 20,336 pounds

Chevrolet Impala Convertible (Live And Let Die): Almost 2,084 pounds originally, now 23,906 pounds.

Bentley Mark IV (From Russia With Love): 2.997 pounds originally, 29,500 pounds now.

Ford Mustang Mach 1 (Diamonds Are Forever): 2,883 pounds originally, 20,000 pounds now.

Sunbeam Alpine Series II (Dr. No): 985 pounds originally, 6,771 pounds now. 

Lincoln Mark VII (Licence to Kill) 8,041 pounds originally, 43,499 pounds now.

Lotus Esprit S1 (The Spy Who Loved Me): 10,791 pounds originally, 39,999 pounds now. 

Aston Martin V8 Vantage Voltaire (The Living Daylights): 54,685 pounds originally, 150,000 pounds now. 

The study also analyzed car appreciation place by actor. Sean Connery cars, for example, averaged an appreciation of 7,134 percent. Timothy Dalton was at the low end at 208 percent. Daniel Craig films weigh in at 1,193 percent, which includes use of the DB5.

For more about the 1st Move International study, CLICK HERE.

David Hedison dies at 92

David Hedison (1927-2019)

David Hedison, star of the original film version of The Fly, the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea TV series and a two-time Felix Leiter, has died at 92, according to various reports, including The Hollywood Reporter.

Hedison died last week and the news was released by a family spokeswoman, THR said.

Hedison’s IMDB.COM ENTRY lists more than 90 acting credits beginning in 1954 and extending into the 21st century.

The actor also was a friend of Roger Moore. “David phoned Roger regularly throughout his final illness in 2017 and was a great support.” according to a tweet from Moore’s official account on Twitter.

The two worked together in an episode of The Saint. They acted together again, with Hedison as Felix Leiter in Live And Let Die, Moore’s debut as James Bond. Hedison reprised the role opposite Timothy Dalton’s James Bond in Licence to Kill.

Hedison also had a relationship with producer Irwin Allen. The actor was in the cast of Allen’s 1960 version of The Lost World.

Allen wanted Hedison for the 1961 film version of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea but the actor turned it down. Robert Sterling got the part instead. But Hedison signed on when Allen launched the 1964-68 television version.

The first season, shown in black and white, had a lot of espionage and international intrigue stories. As the series progressed, there were a lot of monster story lines.

After Voyage’s run concluded, Hedison didn’t lack for work, often getting guest star parts from producers Quinn Martin (The FBI, Cannon, The Manhunter and Barnaby Jones) and Aaron Spelling (The Love Boat, Dynasty, Fantasy Island).

Here’s the tweet from the Roger Moore account.

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Golden Gun’s 45th anniversary: The unloved Bond?

goldengunposter

The Man With the Golden Gun poster

Updated and expanded from a 2014 post.

This year marks the 45th anniversary of The Man With The Golden Gun.

The 1974 film has received a lot of flak over the decades. It’s exhibit A when the subject comes up about 007 film misfires. Too goofy. Too cheap. Too many of the crew members having a bad day.

For example, Don McGregor, then a writer for Marvel Comics, savaged the movie in a lengthy article in a 1975 issue of Deadly Hands of Kung Fu magazine (which featured a cover drawn by comics legend Neal Adams).

Also, the former Her Majesty’s Secret Servant website had few kind words when its contributors (including myself) did rankings of the Bond films. (Speaking only for myself, as I look back on my comments, one about John Barry was over the top.)

Over the years, Bond fans have said it has an average John Barry score (though one supposes Picasso had average paintings). It has too many bad gags (Bond watches as two teenage karate students take out a supposedly deadly school of assassins). And, for a number of first-generation 007 film fans, it has Roger Moore playing Bond, which is bad it and of itself.

Golden Gun is a way for fans to establish “street cred” — a way of establishing, “I’m not a fan boy.”

Neal Adams cover to The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu magazine containing an article savaging The Man With the Golden Gun

However, the movie also has its defenders. Among them is David Leigh, who runs The James Bond Dossier website and is a regular guest on the James Bond & Friends podcast.  Also, the August 2018 issue of 007 Magazine (which is sold out) had an article titled, “In Defence of The Man With the Golden Gun.”

The movie was a bit of a disappointment at the box office. Golden Gun’s worldwide box office plunged 40 percent compared with Live And Let Die ($97.6 million versus $161.8 million, according to THE NUMBERS website). Within a few weeks of its December 1974 U.S. release, United Artists hurriedly paired Golden Gun with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, which UA released earlier in 1974, to make a double feature.

In terms of long-term importance, Golden Gun was the finale of the Albert R. Broccoli-Harry Saltzman 007 partnership. Saltzman would soon be in financial trouble and have to sell out his share of the franchise to United Artists. In a way, things have never really been the same since.

The end of the car jump of The Man With the Golden Gun

Golden Gun is not the best offering in the Eon Production series. Rather, in many ways, it’s the runt of the litter that many like to pick on — even among the same people who’d chafe at criticism of their favorite 007 film.

The documentary Inside The Man With The Golden Gun says the movie has all of the 007 “ingredients.” Of course, such a documentary is approved by executives who aren’t demanding candor.

But the statement is true. It has not one, but two Oscar winning directors of photography (Oswald Morris and Ted Moore); it has a score by a five-time Oscar winner (John Barry); it is one of 13 007 movies Richard Maibaum contributed writing.

Then again, movies sometimes are less the sum of their parts. It happens. Not everyone has their best day.

For many, Golden Gun is a convenient piñata. Despite some positives (including a genuinely dangerous driving stunt), it doesn’t get much love from part of the 007 fan community.