IN THE DAYS BEFORE the Internet Movie Database and Wikipedia, when "Internet" was somewhere that Ted Kennedy whacked tennis balls while drunk, it took more legwork for a movie fan to trace the career of his or her favorite actors. This was especially true for character actors. True, you might remember a person's face from one film or TV show to the next, but picking his or her name out of the credits, especially when that character merely appeared as "Guard" or "Henchman," was difficult without some fast taping and freeze-framing. (Did I mention we also lacked TiVo? Oh, the indignity.)
My friends and I reached adolescence in the 1980s, the Golden Age of the Action Film. We spent our nights playing Dungeons & Dragons or a host of other roleplaying games, and our audiovisual backdrop for this mayhem was a festival of endlessly rerun bullet operas on HBO, TNT, and the USA Network. By this method did we memorize such epics as Aliens, Lethal Weapon, and Big Trouble in Little China, as well as dozens of B-grade offerings at the unlikely hands (and sometimes feet) of the era's gun-wielding, roundhouse-kicking steroid abusers.
Casting agents for these films invariably turned to a regular cadre of action-film utility players for stuntwork and bit parts that usually ended in on-screen death. Working both ends of this equation was Al Leong. If your movie-watching history matches mine, you know of whom I speak. Asian gent, bald crown, long fringe of hair, bushy handlebar mustache. His characters were dynamic and generally doomed. You saw him electrocute Mel Gibson, watched him lead a gang of Tongs into battle, and laughed as he snarfed a candy bar amid the burglary in Die Hard.
My friends and I naturally picked up on the fact that Leong was typecast. We never actually got his name, though. For a while, he was "that guy from [insert film here]." Somehow, one of us — possibly me — got it into his head that this actor's name was Yaphet Kotto.
Now, we had seen Yaphet Kotto in a few things as well. He was an ill-fated crewmember of the Nostromo in Alien. He challenged Britain's greatest secret agent in Live and Let Die. And he was the FBI nemesis of bounty hunter Robert DeNiro in Midnight Run. Somehow, like a virus jumping species, Al Leong became, in name, Yaphet Kotto. It sounded exotic, had great "mouthfeel," and gave our geeky teenage minds a feeling of smug insider knowledge.
To be clear: This is Al Leong.
And this is Yaphet Kotto.
Why yes, my friends and I function quite well for Mongoloids.
It wasn't until the release of the aforementioned Midnight Run in 1988 that we learned our mistake. Whoever that nimble Asian mook who died in every film was, he wasn't named Yaphet Kotto.
With no swift or convenient way to find out his true name, said actor was dubbed "the false Yaphet Kotto."
People, we called him this for the better part of the next decade. Even after we saw him in more films, even when we could have stayed during the credits to settle, finally, the mystery of who this diehard from Die Hard really was, whenever we saw him, my friends and I would squeal with delight and say, "It's the false Yaphet Kotto!"
It wasn't until the Internet had wormed its way into every home that the resources finally sank to our level of laziness, and one of us learned that this guy was actually named Al Leong. I'd like to think that, on the other side of the country, Al felt a shiver of relief go through him, temporarily displacing the aches and pains from a hundred hyperkinetic stunts and a thousand explosive squibs detonating across his career and anatomy.
Then Steven Seagal probably broke his neck.