Remembering Yaphet Kotto's Strange Years in Colorado

A 1991 portrait of Yaphet Kotto shot by photographer Gary Isaacs for Westword and an image from his work in the 1979 film Alien.
A 1991 portrait of Yaphet Kotto shot by photographer Gary Isaacs for Westword and an image from his work in the 1979 film Alien. Gary Isaacs/YouTube
Actor Yaphet Kotto died on March 15, and since then, the tributes have rolled in for the 81-year-old actor, with news agencies such as the New York Times and CNN remembering his compelling work in film and television. But no obituaries we've found thus far, including ones published by local outfits such as 9News, have included anything about the several years Kotto lived in Colorado during the late 1980s and early 1990s, or the role he played in the 1991 Denver mayoral race between then-auditor Wellington Webb and former district attorney Norm Early.

But we remember. Kotto graced the cover of Westword's July 3, 1991, edition, published prior to the launch of our internet archive, and my interview with him, conducted at the food court at the Tivoli (now the student union for the Auraria campus), was as entertaining as it was strange. Not only did Kotto talk about an upcoming movie he planned to make about the mayor's race — a flick that never actually happened, though we definitely wish it had — but he discussed his assertion that he was actually a member of the British royal family.

Had his claim been proven, the resulting uproar might have put the reaction to Oprah Winfrey's recent interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle to shame.

The feature was headlined "Prince of the City: Yaphet Kotto played politics in the mayor's race. Now he wants to play it again on the big screen." It began with this:

"The recent mayor's race may not have provided much in the way of excitement, but it gave us something infinitely more important: a celebrity.

"God knows we needed one, because Denver's star power has been dim lately. Gary Coleman moved to Tucson. John Denver spends most of his time in Nebraska. Ann B. Davis quit dishing up dinners at a local shelter and Raymond Burr is threatening to retire.

"But just in time, Denver District Attorney Norm Early's mayoral campaign unveiled its secret weapon: Yaphet Kotto."

The piece acknowledged that "Kotto is not exactly a household name, but he is certainly a household face. Born in Harlem in 1937, he took up acting and subsequently made his rough, burly, commanding presence felt in movies such as 1968's The Thomas Crown Affair, with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. He was the villain in Roger Moore's first James Bond movie, 1973's Live and Let Die. He became a meal for the monster in the first Alien picture. He was a convict in the 1980 Robert Redford film, Brubaker. He chased Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin across the country in 1988's Midnight Run. He has appeared in a plethora of TV shows, ranging from The Big Valley to Hill Street Blues, and he'll co-star in the upcoming Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare, allegedly the last chapter of the Nightmare on Elm Street series."

At that point, we noted, "A theater was the place Denverites were most likely to see Kotto until a rash of public sightings was reported last month. At first, these viewings seemed more like a citywide delusion than a break in the celebrity drought. Rumor had it that Kotto had lived in the small mountain community of Conifer for three years. How surreal could you get? How could Yaphet Kotto live in Conifer for three years without anyone noticing?"

click to enlarge Yaphet Kotto on the cover of Westword in 1991. - PHOTO BY MICHAEL ROBERTS
Yaphet Kotto on the cover of Westword in 1991.
Photo by Michael Roberts
The narrative continued: "Soon, Denver voters couldn't help but notice Kotto — he was everywhere, absolutely everywhere, that Norm Early went. He was the grand marshal of the annual Juneteenth Festival. He was chatting it up on the radio with Ken Hamblin, Mike Rosen and Peter Boyles. And when Early traveled to the enemy camp on June 18 to concede the election to Wellington Webb, Kotto was only a few steps behind.

"But if seasoned politicos were surprised to find a Hollywood actor suddenly occupying most of Early's inner circle — Kotto had become 'the heart and soul' of the campaign, his publicist asserted — the bigger shock was yet to come. Two days after Webb walked away with the runoff, Kotto announced he would produce, write and star in War for the City, a film loosely based on the mayoral contest. The kicker? He plans to play 'local hero Clarence Chancellor,' a character based not on Early, but on Webb. So how does Early feel about that?"

Kotto's response: "I would hope he would understand. I would hope he would feel encouraged that his side of the story would be told, and I hope he would be able to put himself in my place and come to an understanding that Wellington Webb is the people's hero."

According to Kotto, he and his wife and three young daughters moved to Conifer in 1988 and initially kept a low profile, viewing their home as a sanctuary from the insanity of Hollywood life. But there was more craziness to come.

"Although Kotto's upcoming book, Royalty, has yet to be published," we wrote, "it's already speeding toward its target. The bombshell is Kotto's claim that he is the great-great grandson of Alexander Bell, one-time king of the Cameroon, and that Bell had been sired by Prince Edward, son of Victoria, the seventeenth-century English queen.

"The British press in particular has approached the book's purported revelation — that Prince Edward raped a princess of the Cameroon while exploring Africa in 1863 — with all the subtlety of a rabid dog ripping into rotting flesh. In May, the London Daily Mirror described Kotto as 'the black star who reckons he is a member of the Royal Family,' printed a picture of Kotto side by side with Victoria and excerpted a passage from Royalty in which Kotto describes Victoria having a tryst in a Scottish cottage that was overheard by one of his relatives: 'The Queen was heard in her room with rhythmic moaning and breathing in long shuddering, heaving gasps.' Kotto replayed these claims on a subsequent episode of Entertainment Tonight, where he went head to head with a British historian who pooh-poohed Kotto's assertions with an assertion of his own — that Prince Edward couldn't be a Kotto ancestor because he never traveled to West Africa."

While War for the City didn't come to fruition, Kotto's book did. It arrived in 1997 titled The Royalty: A Spiritual Awakening and remains available online.

Our Kotto story ends with another intriguing but unrealized prospect.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't have political aspirations," Kotto told us. "I think everyone has political aspirations, we all feel that we could get the job done, and the campaign was a powerful experience for me because I got to see the city and I got to know the people. So if God says, 'Yes, Yaphet, right now I want you to run for governor of the state, I think you've done a good job in your business here,' or if he says, "I want you to become a senator,' I would consider it. It has to be something you feel."

The Kotto family left Colorado before either of these goals could be realized, and that's too bad. Both Governor Yaphet Kotto and Senator Yaphet Kotto have a nice ring to them.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts