Two Awe Inspiring Character Actors We Lost Too Soon
Part 1: In Memoriam Yaphet Kotto
I don’t always pay tribute to actors or writers in TV who have recently passed away, unless they have made a significant impact on the medium as a whole. However, in the past two weeks, two of my favorite actors who played two of my favorite characters since I’ve begun watching television critically have passed away at comparatively young ages as opposed to some of earlier ones. (As much as I will miss Hal Holbrook, Cloris Leachman and Cicely Tyson, it’s been awhile since any of them played characters who meant a lot to me. Which doesn’t mean I still don’t feel anguish at their passing.) So I’m going to reflect on two superb characters who had many great roles over their long careers, but each of whom played a character that is indelible in the annals of TV history.
I will start with Yaphet Kotto. Kotto was a character actor’s character actor. With his massive build, there always seemed to be something vaguely fearsome about him, even when his characters weren’t. From the lead villain in Live and Let Die to the brash parker in Alien to his work in such varied films as Brubaker, Blue Collar, and Midnight Run, he had a posture and bearing that said authority figure. Which may have been the reason he was cast it what would be his most famous role: Lt. Al Giardello in Homicide: Life on the Street.
Anyone who has been a constant visitor to this blog knows how big a fan I was of this series, so in this case, I’d like to a little background. During the 1990s, in what was surely the most infuriating stereotype in the history of broadcast television: rather than give an African-American a real role as a police officer on cop shows, they would frequently put them as superiors, meaning that they’d be there but never have anything interesting to do or say. From Steven Williams in 21 Jump Street to James McDaniel on NYPD Blue to S. Epetha Merekson on Law & Order, these lieutenants would just tradition be there to back up their detectives in the office and against the bosses, and every so often, have to deal with a ‘race’ based episode.
It would’ve been very easy for Al Giardello to just be another one of those lieutenants. But Homicide was never that kind of show. In a sense, ‘Gee’ as he was known, would follow a lot of the tropes: he wouldn’t go out on the street (though there were a couple of exceptions) he would defend his detectives to the bosses, and he would deal with race based issues. But because the series was set in Baltimore, a lot of the authority figures that Giardello would clash with were African American themselves. Indeed, Giardello most frequently butted heads with Captain/Colonel George Barnfather (Clayton LeBoeuf), who more often would prove that a black man in charge could be just arrogant and snide as a white man in charge. (That was revealing in itself.) Perhaps the most significant thing about Homicide was that being black and in authority didn’t get you any bonuses even in a mostly African-American city.
And Gee, while he would be paternal and warm with most of his fellow detectives, especially the rookies, he would just as often butt heads with them too. He would often go head to head with Frank Pembleton, his best detective but also the one who caused him the most agita. There was a memorable storyline early in the series where Pembleton would investigate a shooting where it looked like a cop had been the trigger man. Pembleton wanted to go after the cops; Gee was adamant in giving them every chance. Pembleton memorably went over his head, leaving Gee to snarl “You son of a bitch, Pembleton.” This would lead to one of the most bracing sequences, where Pembleton, in order to appease his lieutenant, elicited a false confession from the friend of a victim. Giardello reluctantly tore it up and forced the investigation to go forward.
There were layers to Giardello that we almost never found in so many similar characters. He was a widower and a family man, with three children he rarely saw. (The final season would introduce his estranged son, Mike Giardello, played by Giancarlo Esposito, who returned to Baltimore to try and mend fences. It didn’t work out well.) We knew he had few friends and very little romantic attachments. We knew he’d been in Vietnam and a POW — who’d convinced his captor to defect. Kotto often complained his character was never quite developed enough, but every time he said something in Sicilian, there seemed to be more meaning than any monologue.
It was fitting that when the reunion film aired, what brought everybody together was the assassination attempt of Giardello, who was running for Mayor. And it was also right, even though it hurt, that he would not survive the shooting. Giardello was always larger than life, and somehow I think once he was gone, the series was meant to finally be done with.
Kotto was frustrated with the constant problems in working on television in general. When Homicide ended, he would basically retire with only a few cameos for the remaining twenty years of his life. I think in a way, that’s only right — that his greatest role would also be the last thing he ever really did for anything.
The final images of Homicide: The Movie took place in the squadroom in the afterlife, where all the police who died in the line of the duty — and some figures that were just as important to the series — were all there. The last image we ever saw was Gee sitting down to play poker with Steve Crosetti (Jon Polito) and Beau Felton (Daniel Baldwin). “When you’re gone,” Crosetti said “you’re a long time gone.” “Rest in peace,” Felton would say. “Means what it says.” Gee let down his problems and for the first time in maybe forever, finally relaxed. I’d like to take that image of Kotto with me, and hope he’s in a similar, peaceful place.