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Yaphet Kotto: "Blue Collar"

Yaphet Kotto, Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel.

“You know where this movie goes?” Yaphet Kotto was asking. “It goes right past ‘On the Waterfront,' that's where it goes. Paul Shrader took that ‘Waterfront' myth and smashed it, that's what he did. I like this picture so much, I even went to see it. It's the first movie I've ever been in that I went to see.”

The movie is “Blue Collar,” and stars Kotto, Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel as workers on a Detroit assembly line. It's an angry film, a radical one, and yet bursting with humor and life at the same time. And for Yaphet Kotto, who has lingered on the edge of stardom in movies like “Across 110th Street” and “Drum,” it's a personal breakthrough.

“I was ready to quit acting,” he said during a visit to Chicago. “I really was. Acting is so boring, man. And in the great scheme of things, who gives a damn about the motion picture industry? You think some cat goes to sleep at night thinking about a movie? He thinks about his wife, his car and his taxes, that's what.

“And that's what this movie is about: The working class. Guys on the assembly line, always just a little too deep in debt to quit and do something else, trying to put groceries on the table and being screwed simultaneously by the company and the union.”

Kotto was holding court at Hy's on Walton, having gathered up, during his day in Chicago, every friend, old and new, he came across. He is a tall, gregarious man with a natural charisma. He asks a waiter: “Now tell me the truth, man. Are the barbecued ribs here good enough to make me want to go home and slap my momma?”

He was assured they were. And what would he have to drink?

“Water, man. H2O, that's all I drink.” He lifted his glass for a toast. “I lead a real quiet life out in Los Angeles,” he explained. “Real quiet. None of that disco scene – it's against my religion. I'm a member of the Self-Realization Fellowship. If it hadn't been for the Paramahansa Yoganandias holding me together for the last eight years, I could have come apart. Really apart.”

He made sure I had that spelling right.

“I never leave my home unless I have to. I meditate between four and eight hours a day. All I care about is my relationship with God. And my wife and kids. Otherwise, I never leave my house.”

A sly grin. “Except sometimes. When Ali fights Norton, that's when I leave my house. I love that scene, man. All the drama and tension! Ali weighing in, surrounded by 1,000 Nikon cameras. And the rumors, man! Ali's upstairs! Ali's downstairs! Ali's not even here at all, man!

“When they fought at Yankee Stadium, my car was besieged by 2,000 black youths. I never knew I had so many fans. That's why I stay at home all the time… because then I'm building up for coming out. I might not appreciate it otherwise.”

“Blue Collar” was shot on location in Detroit and at the Checker Taxi plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Reports from the set, I said, described a lot of tension among Kotto, Pryor, Keitel and the movie's director, Paul Shrader, who was directing for the first time after having written such screenplays as “Taxi Driver,” “Rolling Thunder” and “Obsession.” Were the reports correct?

“I don't pay any attention to that stuff,” he said. “Far as I was concerned, we had an exceptional group of people doing an exceptional job. As to whether everybody got along with everybody else at every moment, what difference does it make, as long as we got a great movie?

“If I had a problem, maybe it was that I would know my lines, and then Pryor would come in with brand new lines out of his own head, man, and what are the rest of us supposed to do? I had to figure out my relationship with him in terms of the fact that the movie is about two black guys and one white guy. Pryor was playing an ethnic character – he was the black in the movie. I figured, we can't have two black ethnic portrayals in this movie, that'll get repetitive.

“So you know what I did? I played an Italian. Right! An Italian in a black skin – I modeled my character after this kid I grew up with. You won't find one so-called black mannerism or colloquialism in my entire performance. It was weird, man. I had to stretch myself to play that role. I had to find new places to be coming from. And this movie is so good. I did, I actually went to see it.”

Do you really not go to see your own movies? I asked.

“That's right. Well, when I make a movie for TV, like 'Raid at Entebbe,' I have to see it because I have to dub in my dialog. Otherwise, I don't go.”

That's right, I said… you played Idi Amin in "Raid at Entebbe."

“Let me forget that, man,” Kotto said. “Just let me forget. Have mercy. I did it in the first place because it was a challenge. If there's something I'm afraid to do, I got to do it. But now I tell people I didn't play it. That was NOT me! That was some other guy. I was at home, man. Meditating. I got witnesses, proof… you saw some guy that looked like me. I'm gonna sue him. I got private detectives, search warrants… find that guy!”

By now everybody at the table was laughing along with Kotto. But then he turned serious for a moment.

“I've made a lot of movies I'd never want to see,” he said. “But what happened over there in Kalamazoo, that kind of movie comes along once in a lifetime. It restored my faith in acting. That moment came along with ‘On the Waterfront,' and now it's come along again. If I never make one more movie, I can tell myself I made ‘Blue Collar.'”

Kotto was contemplative for a second, and then he started to grin again. “Meanwhile,” he said, “we got to get more guys on this case, tracking down that guy that impersonated me playing Idi Amin.”

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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