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.

More affordable merch from 007 Store

“I really don’t care. Do u?”

At this point, complaining about expensive James Bond merchandise is almost beyond the point. It’s clear that Eon Productions has a bias toward expensive licensed merch — outrageously priced backgammon sets, replica Aston Martin DB cars that can’t be driven on the street, etc.

Nevertheless, on social media today, a new Moonraker hoodie (price of 150 British pounds, or more than $205) caught some attention.

The hoodie includes an image of a Moonraker publicity still of Roger Moore in a space suit (never seen in the film). The image includes a garish typeface apparently meant to resemble handwriting. “Am I properly dressed for the occasion?”

It’s tempting to reply: “I don’t really care. Do u?”

Still, the entry on the 007 Store has the usual hype.

Introducing an exclusive 007 collaboration with luxury Italian streetwear brand Throwback.

The 007 x Throwback collection features hoodies and t-shirts paying tribute to iconic moments from Bond on-screen. Each design features original artwork by Italian digital artist Gianpiero, who has reimagined and enhanced classic images from the Bond Archive using iconic movie quotes from the series. A production anecdote from each film is printed on the back of each garment, giving further insight into the 007 world. 

If that’s higher than you care to pay, you may want to buy six pencils with Bond film quotes for just 14.95 British pounds (roughly $20.50). Of course, if you actually write with the pencils, you’ll grind the quotes away as you sharpen them.

Tanya Roberts dies amid media circus

Tanya Roberts in a publicity still for A View to a Kill

Tanya Roberts, who appeared in A View to a Kill, the Charlie’s Angels TV series and That ’70s Show, has died at 65, The New York Times reported, citing the actress’ companion/boyfriend, Lance O’Brien.

Her death was the center of a media circus.

TMZ reported the death on Sunday night. Roberts’ publicist put out a press release. Numerous outlets picked up on it.

Then, O’Brien was taped by Inside Edition, a “TV tabloid” show for an interview on Monday. He sat in front of a green screen, the type used to create fake backgrounds on TV. During the taping, he got a call that Roberts hadn’t died yet.

Naturally, an intimate, emotional scene followed. Inside Edition also posted the segment on YouTube for its 8.44 million subscribers.

TMZ followed up with its own “she’s alive” story. The website was glib about the whole affair. “As for how this could happen … beats us.”

The Roberts publicist, Mike Pingel, said in an earlier NYT story: “It’s a human miscommunication, unfortunately…It’s a shame this happened.”

Do tell.

Anyway, many “Tanya Roberts is still alive” stories ran while the “Tanya Roberts dies” stories were taken down. (The blog ran one of each.) Some of the “she’s alive” stories noted that Roberts was not in good shape. She had been at Cedars-Sinai Hospital since Dec. 24.

On social media, Bond fans made the inevitable 007-related puns because of the bizarre turn of events, including variations on “You Only Live Twice,” such as “this is her second life.” There were also comments evoking Mark Twain saying reports of his death were extremely exaggerated.

Now, O’Brien tells the Times that Roberts did pass away Monday night. TMZ came out with its third story Tuesday morning. Fox News said it got the same information from O’Brien.

In 1985’s A View to a Kill, Roberts played Stacey Sutton, who becomes the ally of James Bond (Roger Moore in his last 007 film) to foil a plot to destroy California’s Silicon Valley.

Stacey Sutton wasn’t the favorite of some Bond fans for the way she screamed “James!” There was also a 28-year difference between Moore and Roberts, who shared a romantic scene at the end of the movie.

Roberts was in the cast of Charlie’s Angels in its final season, 1980-81. She was in That ’70s Show from 1998 to 2004.

As for the media circus that surrounded Roberts’ passing, the MI6 James Bond website had a tweet that summed it up.

Tanya Roberts still alive, reports say

Actress Tanya Roberts still is alive, less than 24 hours after she was reported dead, according to a new set of reports.

TMZ, which had the original story, pushed out a report around 5 p.m. New York time that Roberts hadn’t died. It quoted the same representative who said she was dead.

Other outlets, including the Associated Press and Variety put out stories about the development. The AP story said Roberts’ representative, Mike Pengel, on Sunday night sent out a press release reporting the death.

Meanwhile, Inside Edition, a “tabloid TV” show posted a video where it was interviewing Roberts’ boyfriend when he got a call that she was alive.

The blog will take down the obituary it posted on Sunday night.

Meanwhile, TMZ’s latest piece has a glib final line: “As for how this could happen … beats us.”

About a possible ‘in memoriam’ title card for NTTD

No Time to Die poster

For a long time, James Bond fans have debated whether No Time to Die should have some kind of “in memoriam” title card for Roger Moore (1927-2017), the first film Bond in the Eon series to pass away.

In the past year, Father Time has caught up with the 007 film series. Sean Connery, the first film Bond, died in October. Before that, actresses who played the lead female characters in the Eon series (Claudine Auger, Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg) all passed away.

And this week, news came of the death of a major contributor, art department stalwart Peter Lamont, who worked on 18 Eon-made Bond films, at age 91.

That’s just for openers. Ken Adam, whose set designs on 007 Bond films established the look of 007 movies, died in 2016 at the age of 95.

So should No Time to Die have some kind of major “in memoriam” title card?

The Bond film series doesn’t do this very often. The end titles of GoldenEye noted the passing of special effects wizard Derek Meddings, who had worked on that film. But it didn’t note the deaths of Richard Maibaum (a 13-time Bond screenwriter) or Maurice Binder, who designed many Bond main titles.

1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies noted the death of Albert R. Broccoli, who co-founded Eon.

What would a big “in memoriam” title card look like?

Here in the U.S., there was a long-running Western series titled Gunsmoke (1955-75). In 1987, there was a reunion TV movie called Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge. In the end titles, there was a mammoth “in memoriam” title card noting key crew and cast members who had died in the intervening years.

Would such a thing even be a possibility for No Time to Die? Hard to say. It hasn’t been that much of an issue until now.

John Glen: Behind the scenes of Octopussy

John Glen

MI6 Confidential is out with a new publication, John Glen: All Time High. It’s a behind the scenes look at Octopussy, the 13th James Bond film made by Eon Productions.

What was different, my from perspective, is I had the chance to work on it.

Not to give too much away, but it was a chance to get a better look at the making of an important James Bond film. Octopussy was up against a competing Bond project, Never Say Never Again. The latter had Sean Connery returning to the role of James Bond. Eon brought back Roger Moore for his sixth Bond outing with Octopussy.

The focus on the new publication was always going to be on director John Glen. He helmed all five of Eon’s 007 movies in the 1980s. A lot was riding on Octopussy.

A personal highlight, for me, was the chance to interview Glen earlier this year. It took place by phone in June. I had a detailed list of follow-up questions to an earlier session.

Interviews are as much art as science. The interviewer needs to be prepared. At the same time, a good interviewer has to press for details at certain times while backing off at other times and let the subject provide their point of view.

Because of the time differences involved, I would be calling in early in the morning my time. I was preoccupied with mechanics, making sure the interview would be recorded properly.

Also, as the interview unfolded, I had to go with the flow. I had to make sure all the questions were asked. But I didn’t want to cut the director off. This was also going to be an important interview for the publication.

It wasn’t until hours after I had completed the interview, I had a chance to reflect on the experience. Yes, I had directed a five-time Bond director. It wasn’t until then I could take a deep breath about the experience.

In any event, I was just a cog in this production. For more information, CLICK HERE. The price is 17 British pounds, $22 and 20 euros, plus shipping.

A modest proposal for a Moonraker video game

Moonraker teaser poster

On a Nov. 27 James Bond & Friends livestream, the discussion veered into the opinion of participants about which films might make a good video game.

I suggested Moonraker. It takes James Bond into outer space (a place many fans say Bond should never go). It was a big, sprawling film that lends itself to video games.

The movie also has a number of similarities to 1966’s Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die. Since you’ve gone that far, why not adapt scenes from the earlier movie and provide Sony Corp. (parent company of Columbia, which released the 1966 film) a token payment.

For example, in a Moonraker video game, you could have a level where Jaws and other Hugo Drax henchmen chase Bond to the Christ the Redeemer statue.

Bond goes inside the statue, followed by the baddies. You could have a series of fights as Bond struggles to get to the top. Finally, Bond makes it. In comes Manuela, the local Rio operative from British Intelligence, flying a helicopter with a ladder dangling from it.

Bond gets on the ladder just in time as Jaws lunges for the agent. But Jaws only gets Bond’s shoe. Bond then smiles at Jaws (the way he did in The Spy Who Loved Me and in the film Moonraker) to taunt him. Jaws shakes his fist at the escaping Bond.

Another possibility would a proper sequence at Iguazu Falls. The location figures briefly into the movie but you don’t get a sense of the majesty of the place. Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die sets its title sequence at the falls and you get a better feel for the location.

Thus, with a Moonraker video game, another level would depict Bond with a mini-adventure at the falls.

Separately, Christopher Wood’s novelization for Moonraker had Bond doing a space walk to get from one place on Drax’s space station to another. Obviously, the could make an interesting level for a Moonraker video game.

Needless to say, these suggestions won’t be going anywhere. Consider them food for thought.

Happy 90th birthday, Sean Connery

Sean Connery in a 1960s 007 publicity still

Adapted and expanded from a 2011 post.

Sean Connery celebrates his 90th birthday today. There’s little more than needs to be said about Connery’s contributions to the James Bond film series.

Terence Young, director of three of the first four Bond movies, famously said the three reasons that 007 films took off were, “Sean Connery, Sean Connery and Sean Connery.” Young also tutored Connery in the ways of Bond.

Still, the blog can’t help but wonder if Connery had even the slightest hint of what was about to happen to him after being cast as Bond.

The answer is probably not. Who could?

Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were a couple of journeymen producers. Terence Young was a journeyman director. Richard Maibaum, a journeyman screenwriter and occasional producer.

Ian Fleming had written some novels that had gotten attention, including in 1961 when Life magazine listed the author’s From Russia With Love as one of then-President John F. Kennedy’s favorite novels.

Also in 1961, United Artists announced it intended to start a film series based on the novels. Connery would end up with a $16,800 paycheck for the first film, Dr. No. Hardly the makings of a phenomenon.

Life can change in an instant. That was certainly true of a Scot actor who was starting to make an impression with audiences.

Things were never quite the same after that. Connery has been retired for almost two decades. His Bond films perhaps aren’t seen with the same enthusiasm by modern audiences. So it goes.

Then again, without Connery’s Bond films, would there even be a 21st century Bond series?

Like with much of the 1960s spy craze, the Connery 007 films caught lightning in a bottle. Bond was able to remain relevant after Connery’s departure. But you can argue that Connery provided the foundation that others followed.

Broccoli is gone. Saltzman is gone. Young is gone. Maibaum is gone. Even one of Connery’s successors, Roger Moore, is gone. United Artists was bought by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1981. UA exists pretty much only on paper today.

Connery, in retirement, remains.

Happy birthday, Sir Sean.

1995: Gene Siskel really did not like GoldenEye

GoldenEye’s poster

Here in the United States, film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert enjoyed a long run on television reviewing movies. Both have long since passed, but for many their various shows remain memorable.

Thanks to THIS TWEET, the blog discovered a YouTube video of their 1995 review of GoldenEye, Pierce Brosnan’s debut as James Bond.

Ebert, then the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, gave it a passing grade. But Siskel, the then film critic of the Chicago Tribune, had nothing good to say about the movie.

EBERT: I enjoy GoldenEye for what it was, though, and I give it thumbs up.

SISKEL: That thumbs-up comes as a surprise because I didn’t get a sense at all you enjoyed the picture. I certainly didn’t.

EBERT: I’m sorry. (NOTE: He sounded a little sarcastic there.)

(snip)

SISKEL: I think he (Pierce Bronsan) isn’t an interesting Bond. I like (Sean) Connery and everybody else has been nothing compared to Connery. Frankly, Roger Moore has a more commanding physical performance than this guy. I thought this was an average picture….I can’t recommend this picture at all.

A bit of perspective: Siskel panned every James Bond film between Thunderball (1965) and For You Eyes Only (1981).

Anyway, if you’d like to take a look at the review, here it is:

UPDATE (2:15 p.m. New York time): In 1983, Siskel and Ebert took a look back at the first 21 years of James Bond films. CLICK HERE to view the episode. You see some promos at the start before the episode proper begins.