After years of trying, actor Yaphet Kotto might finally be getting what he wants: a white wife.
Now a landed immigrant in Canada, Kotto is the cab-driving star of The Ride, a made-for-TV movie about Toronto's taxi drivers which premieres this Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showcase, and repeats at the same time on Wednesday. He plays a delusional former prizefighter who writers say will likely get involved with a white woman should the movie spark a series, as hoped.
It's a big change from his eight years with Homicide: Life on the Street, when he privately battled with writers to flesh out his character -- Lieutenant Giardello, the burly black cop whom everyone wanted as an uncle -- with what he argued was a controversy that would shock the American viewing public into reality and, he hoped, open their minds.
Instead, the writers eventually wrote that Giardello's Italian wife died before she ever appeared on screen. In fact, they never cast the part, and his character stayed more or less underdeveloped.
The strapping 6-foot-3 actor said he lived by the words, "There are no little parts, only little actors," and eventually left, swearing that he would never play a cop again.
"People were wondering why Yaphet Kotto went from being a movie star to getting lost in a television series," he said.
Now, he's in a major television role where, much like police work, he sees life from the level of the street. In the words of his character, Carter Hicks, "You never know who's going to get into your cab. It's all random."
If the networks smile on the movie and give the nod to a new series, The Ride will bring even more money and fame to Kotto, who is already very comfortable from his television work and 47 films, including Alien and Live and Let Die.
The drawback is the commute. Kotto now resides with his real-life wife, Philippine-born Tessie, in the tiny community of Marmora, Ont. -- its dubious claim to fame is that it was Canada's first mining community, founded in 1821. It is also a town that draws religious pilgrims from around the world, some claiming to see the Virgin Mary.
"Everybody's got to have somewhere to go and retreat inside," New York-born Kotto explained at the start of a four-hour stroll through a forest, when asked why he chose this far-flung location for an interview about The Ride.
How did he get to Marmora?
A friend drove him up for an unrelated project, and he fell in love with the silence and isolation of the area, about 200 kilometres northeast of Toronto. It seemed like a good escape, he said.
"No one's going to find me here," he said, spreading his arms wide and smiling. His face turned serious when he described how life in U.S. cities meant disguising himself in order to leave his own house. Some of the less amiable fans would hound him and sometimes chase his car down the freeway, he said. One woman even sent him a bottle of her urine in the mail.
"There's something about television," Kotto said. "If your face is on someone's television each night, they own you. It's scary," he said.
Even during his first years in Canada, living in Richmond Hill, Ont., just north of Toronto, he said there would be knocks on his door almost every day. In exchange for the freedom and space of losing himself in Canada's wilds, Kotto said he has turned down several jobs, including Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in New York and a series in Munich, Germany.
Certainly, the need for escape is a prominent theme in this latest project.
Kotto's character leads one of the several harsh and seemingly unescapable lives of the complex characters in this drama, which takes place over a single weekend in Toronto at City Cab.
When it comes to the big picture, Kotto could be missing the mark on his plans for his character. After all, as writer Paul Dreskin said, racism is less polarized in terms of black and white in Canada, and the controversy over a mixed marriage won't carry the same significance here, where there is more egalitarianism. Nonetheless, Dreskin said he likes Kotto's ideas and intends to follow through on the interracial relationship.
However, at least one character on the show is already in an interracial marriage. Rachael Crawford, 30, plays a swindling cab driver and struggling mother of a small boy. Her character's unemployed husband is battling for his dignity, while finding new ways to get out of doing the dishes and looking for work.
Crawford, who has also appeared on Traders, said it's the problems of her on-screen marriage that should get the attention, rather than the racial aspects.
"I've seen it done often enough, where it is clearly not an issue," said Crawford, adding that things are different in the United States. "By the time people get around to getting married, you'd think they'd [have]gotten through all that. . . . It would be immature to address that."
But Kotto doesn't see it that way. On television, particularly in the United States, he said it's less usual for black men to be seen with white women than the other way around, he said.
For now, however, the film deals with a different theme. Each character seems to be at a breaking point of some kind. The reason is money -- the need for it, and the misery it creates when there's not enough.
This is something that Kotto can fully identify with. For one thing, he said, he drove a cab during the early years of his acting career. He said he grew up with his mother in Harlem and then the Bronx, and dropped out of school at 16 to go to work.
Meanwhile, another Ride character is suffering the death of his wife -- an element inspired by the loss of Dreskin's own wife several years ago. Crawford's character rips off customers to feed her son, and suffers the consequences.
Only one character looks remotely happy: a dispatcher and retirement-home resident named Max Leiberman, played by veteran actor Al Waxman, formerly of The Hurricane and Cagney & Lacey. But even Leiberman has his troubles, said Waxman, who wants to help direct the series.
"He wants to work. He feels that if he's not working, he's just going to atrophy," said Waxman, adding that in real life, he tends to feel this way. At one point, his character says he wants to die with a microphone in his hands, yelling at a cab driver.
As with all the characters, there is much left to the imagination -- an obvious ploy to generate interest in the potential series. Much like a single episode of a soap opera, this movie is obviously not made to stand alone, and will likely fade obscurity should no series occur.
"It's a fine line to walk, you know, because you want to have some sense of completion for the audience," said producer Lawrence Mirkin. "Sure, there's some story points that are maybe a little vaguer than if we were doing Mission Impossible III.
"Hopefully it's enough of a slice of life that people will realize these are human beings, but we also would like them say that we'd be happy to spend 65 hours with them."
There are now four scripts in the second draft for The Ride series. The movie was created several years ago by Dreskin and Mirkin, who is sharing production duties with Arnie Zipursky of Cambium Entertainment. The creators had Kotto in mind for the part of Carter Hicks from the start, and were overjoyed when they learned that he had moved to Canada.
Should things work out, there is no shortage of material, Dreskin said.
"You and I get into a taxi, and we don't think about the cab driver. We'll say things that we wouldn't say if we really thought that someone was overhearing us," he explained. "This is about story-telling. Your stories get into the taxis, on a regular basis."