I've written before that one of the reasons I've always been drawn to Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) was that when I first saw it I was impressed that this was the first time I can recall 'regular folks' working in space. This was the onset of my teenage years, and up until that point I'd been enamored with roles of leaders and adventurers going into space. Captain Kirk -- the great American space cowboy -- had worked his way into my heart, as did the young and impressionable Luke Skywalker and his somewhat swashbuckling counterpart Han Solo. Still, I grew up in what I've always called a factory town, and space shows and movies rarely showed the blue-collar types in major roles. Oh, sure, Star Trek had its engineer Montgomery Scott, but even back then he seemed a bit more technobabble-lite to this young fan.
But the crew of the Nostromo?
Here, finally, was a captain and crew who looked, dressed, and sounded like the folks of my home town. They were a bit grubby and rough around the edges. They seemed very down-to-Earth and relatable. And unlike others who had ventured deep into the Final Frontier, they talked about money in a way that said it was important to their world. Wages mattered. What they could gross in their take-home-pay inspired them to take risks that ordinary folks wouldn't, and -- like it or not -- those were the kind of people I was surrounded by in my formative years.
So while others flocked to Alien to relish in its thrills, chills, and spills, I saw the film a bit differently. Sure, the Xenomorph remains the quintessential fright in the dark recesses of my mind, but the people populating this foundation of a franchise were finally regular Joes. This opened my mind to the days when I could truly see ordinary folks choosing space as a career: they might hail from Earth, but as Captain Kirk said, "I just work in outer space."
And that's what Yaphet Kotto was for me in that original film. He was back-breaking laborer. Sure, he knew his stuff. He was -- like Scotty -- more than familiar with whatever equipment surrounded him and could probably make it work in the same way as Trek's seminal engineer. But Starfleet had regulations on appearance, and Scotty rarely -- if ever -- looked like he got his hands dirty.
As a consequence, I watched Kotto's career over the years. He was never one of my personal favorites, mind you, but rather he was an actor who for the reasons mentioned above just kinda/sorta 'clicked' in my mind: if Kotto was in something, I'd probably check it out, if for no other reason than just to appreciate what he was doing. This, I'm told, is how we nurture interests over the years: instead of having deep-rooted psychological connections right up front and center, they take root in our brain and push us onto a certain course when we least expect it. That's how I think it all worked today. It wasn't an obvious fascination but a casual one that kept popping up every time I saw his face.
Lo and behold, the late actor's birthday was recently celebrated on one of the pages within SciFiHistory.Net's archives, and this prompted me -- much in the same way I've already laid out how his face triggers me subliminally -- to look back through his career. I relished some of memories I have associated his body of work -- the James Bond thing, again with the Alien performance, and one of my personal favorites was his time opposite Robert De Niro in Midnight Run (1988), a flick I consider De Niro's best work. This journey down memory lane brought some of the lesser trivia of the man's life bubbling back to the surface, and it made me reflective about what might've been some even bigger contributions to the world of Science Fiction and Fantasy.
I'd completely forgotten that he was almost Lando Calrissian.
As Kotto tells the story (if I have all the details correct), he'd been approached about taking the role in the original Star Wars trilogy by no less than The Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner. They met for lunch, discussed the script and the character, and Kershner offered the actor the part right then and there. There may've been some other bits and pieces chatted about -- I've read only a single account of Kotto's where he recalls their meeting -- but he inevitably turned down the part out of fear that -- as happened in Alien -- his character would simply be killed off and where would that leave him? He'd simply be off searching for another gig.
Now, we all know that never happened with Lando. The charming smuggler-turned-governor survives his confrontation with Darth Vader and the Empire, lives on to see a bigger role in Return Of The Jedi, and even turns up in a small way in the (dreadful) JJ Abrams/Kathleen Kennedy fan fiction sequel trilogy. And I can't help but wonder what that seminal Star Wars character would've been like if it had been played by Kotto instead of Billy Dee Williams.
This isn't meant as a slight in any way to Billy Dee. After all, Billy Dee became Lando. There's no way to separate the two in my mind. That swagger. That charm. But I can't even begin to imagine how all of that could've been played by Kotto. He's just an actor with a darker edge, a bit more physically intimidating, and it just makes me wonder about the possibilities.
And -- to push the envelope even further -- I'm completely forgotten about how the late actor had passed on another incredible opportunity, that being taking command of a particular flagship of the Federation fleet in Paramount's return to the Boob Tube with Star Trek: The Next Generation.
That's right: Yaphet Kotto was almost Jean-Luc Picard.
Amongst diehard Trek enthusiasts, it's fairly well-known these days that Gene Roddenberry wasn't exactly convinced that Patrick Stewart was perfect for the Enterprise's center seat. The actor was bald, for one thing, and the show's creator (for reasons I've never quite grasped) just didn't believe that in itself inspired greatness (or some such nonsense). And Stewart's biggest claim to fame (at the time) was his impressive stage work in various productions of Shakespeare. Was Roddenberry concerned that perhaps Stewart was too high-brow a choice? This was clearly going to be a different era for Star Trek -- not quite a generation away from when the original premiered but getting very close -- but would going with a formal actor push the program too far in the direction away from its 'wagon train to the stars' roots?
In any event, here was another opportunity for Kotto to gain some serious credentials in the world of genre entertainment. As I've read, both Roddenberry and Paramount were onboard and interested in the choice ... but the actor just wasn't interested. Again, I've not investigated it further -- when I have, I've only found Kotto saying that he eventually regretted turning down the job -- but it truly makes one wonder what The Next Generation might've been with someone of Kotto's stature in command.
Dare I suggest Wesley might've behaved better? I know I would've.
Again, just for the record: I've no problem with the work of Billy Dee Williams or Patrick Stewart in their respective franchises. As actors, they breathed life into their characters in ways we, as fans, will always appreciate, will doubtlessly cherish for years to come ...
... but today I find myself reflective over what might have been had Yaphet Kotto made different choices.
As always, thanks for reading ... and live long and prosper!