Clarence Williams III is not a horror specific actor; none of the performers in this post would be considered that. However, one of his last roles to gain him more considerable notoriety in pop culture was a significant horror role. Williams was born in New York City to a family of talented jazz musicians, so you may think he would have followed in those musical footsteps. A chance accident, walking on stage at a theater in the Harlem YMCA, set the young man down the path of a different sort of performing.
Military service slowed that trajectory down a bit, with Williams serving in the 101st Airborn Division for two years. A series of Broadway roles followed starting in 1960, and by 1965, Williams received a Tony nomination for his role in Slow Dance on the Killing Ground. The breakout role came in the form of Linc Hayes on the very 1960s crime drama The Mod Squad. The premise, a possible inspiration for the 1980s’ 21 Jump Street, has three young cops going undercover in the Sixties’ counterculture to stop crime. The show made a good attempt at including controversial issues in its episodes ranging from abortion to the anti-war movement and even police brutality.
Wiliams would have a lucrative career in the following decades as a guest and character actor, always bringing something interesting to every role. The reason I include him on this horror list is Tales from the Hood. In the middle of the 1990s, as shows like Tales from the Darkside and Tales from the Crypt enjoyed popularity, they also had a marked absence of nonwhite faces. Tales from the Hood takes a slightly serious, slightly tongue in cheek horror look at racism, drugs, and urban violence. Framing this anthology film is Mr. Simms, a mortuary owner being robbed by a trio of hoodlums. Simms relates stories about the bodies in his mortuary, which transition into macabre EC Comics style horror tales. Mr. Simms has become an iconic horror image, adding some diversity into the position of sadistic film & television storytellers.
Tony Todd has the distinction of playing one of the great modern horror icons, Candyman, but his career is such a vast and interesting series of parts. Life began for Todd in Washington, D.C., but he grew up in Hartford, Connecticut. Acting just seemed to be something Todd was destined for, going to multiple schools to get his degree and build out his c.v.
His first notable role came in Oliver Stone’s Platoon as a supporting player. He quickly started getting lead roles with the remake of Night of the Living Dead (1990) and then his big breakout role in 1992’s Candyman. Candyman isn’t the only horror part Todd has made an impression with, as he also appeared throughout the Final Destination series as a mortician who might actually be the living embodiment of Death.
Todd has a long history with the Star Trek television franchise as well. He played Worf’s brother Kurn in Star Trek: The Next Generation, an adult Jake Sisko in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, an alien in Star Trek: Discovery, and even as the voice of a Klingon general in the Star Trek MMO. His genre roles haven’t been limited to that specific universe either, with Todd making guest appearances Hercules, Xena, The X-Files, Smallville, Stargate, and Babylon 5.
Most recently, Todd has been focusing on voiceover work with the Transformers franchise and in various DC-related projects (The Flash, Young Justice). He even voiced Dracula in a 2016 audio drama adaptation. He still isn’t done with live-action horror, appearing in a significant role in the third season of MTV’s Scream series, and Todd is set to reprise his role of Candyman in the 2021 sequel.
Yaphet Kotto is such a larger than life presence in his film & television roles. I always remember him for two characters he played: Parker in Alien (the reason he is on this list) and Lieutenant Giardello on Homicide. Kotto, like Clarence Wiliams III, was also born in New York City. His family were not performers, a nurse & a U.S. army officer. Kotto was raised as a Black Jew, which made for a very unique experience, both being Black in a white-dominated country and non-Christian in a community that is predominately followers of Christ.
By the time he was 16, Kotto had caught the acting bug and was a member of the Actors’ Studio. He appeared in productions of Othello and The Great White Hope before picking up small film roles starting at age 23. Kotto would appear in supporting roles for the greater part of the 1960s, but it was his part as Mr. Big in 1973’s Bond flick Live or Let Die that really put a spotlight on the actor. The film was a major breakthrough for diversity in mainstream films, Kotto playing the first Black Bond villain.
This would lead to numerous film & television roles, including Parker in 1979’s Alien. Kotto fit perfectly with the aesthetic Ridley Scott constructed around that movie, less fancy science fiction & more blue-collar industrial sci-fi. Both Kotto and co-star Harry Dean Stanton feel like characters we can relate to and have met in contemporary society. They are just people doing their job, trying to make some money for their families. Kotto was always able to make his characters feel grounded yet with a sense of gravitas.
After being passed over for the role of Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation (I love Patrick Stewart, but I am very curious about what Kotto would have been like in that role), the actor kept busy with film & tv guest spots. That changed in 1993 when he was cast in the lead role of Lieutenant Al Giardello on Homicide: Life on the Streets. Kotto would play that role for seven seasons & a tv movie, and it is his best performance, in my opinion. He made Giardello a force you did not want to mess with, threatening when he needed but also understanding of the officers in his command when their personal lives became messy. The series didn’t shy away from the tension between police and the Black community, and Kotto always surprised the audience with how his character chose to handle that relationship.