In 1993, Avery Brooks made history when he became the first Black lead character of a Star Trek series. Though the franchise had portrayed Black captains before, Captain Sisko was the first Black captain whose exploits were at the center of an entire series.
However, this almost wasn’t the case. Six years earlier, when the production team behind Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) was looking for their captain, the role almost went to a Black actor.
Yaphet Kotto was Almost ‘Star Trek’s’ First Black Lead
Yaphet Kotto, who passed away over the weekend, was a popular television and film actor for over three decades. He was best known for his roles in Alien, Live and Let Die and Homicide: Life on the Streets.
According to a Paramount Studios memo published to Letters of Note in 2010, in April of 1987, Kotto was on the shortlist for the role of Captain Picard in TNG. The other actors on that list included Mitch Ryan, Roy Thinnes, Patrick Bauchau and, of course, Patrick Stewart. The Star Trek behind-the-scenes book The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years, confirmed that the studio was very interested in having Kotto play Picard.
So, why didn’t it happen? Kotto actually turned down the role. In an interview with The Big Issue in 2015, Kotto admitted that he wished he hadn’t passed on the role.
“I think I made some wrong decisions in my life, man. I should have done that but I walked away. When you’re making movies, you’d tend to say no to TV. It’s like when you’re in college and someone asks you to the high school dance. You say no.”
It’s hard to imagine Picard being played by anyone but Stewart. However, having a Black man in the captain’s chair of the Enterprise would have been incredible.
Stewart Wasn’t the Favorite for the Role
Though Stewart has become synonymous with Picard, he actually wasn’t first in line for the role. In fact, Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry didn’t think Stewart was a good fit at all. According to The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years, Roddenberry had a very specific picture of what he wanted Picard to be. In the words of Robert Justman, one of TNG’s producers, Roddenberry was set on Picard being “a very hairy Frenchman.” So, a bald Englishman was not at all what he was looking for.
However, the production team had scoured the U.S. and Europe for an actor that fit Roddenberry’s vision and they couldn’t find one. So, they started looking for actors who didn’t exactly fit Roddenberry’s image of Picard.
Justman found Stewart by accident. He and his wife saw Stewart perform at UCLA, and his performance convinced Justman that he was perfect for Picard. However, Justman knew that Stewart didn’t fit any of the criteria Roddenberry was looking for. He asked Stewart to audition anyway, thinking that his talent and presence could change Roddenberry’s mind.
Unfortunately, Roddenberry was not impressed. According to Justman, Roddenberry’s exact words after the audition were “I won’t have him.” Luckily for Stewart, and Star Trek fans, Rick Berman, Roddenberry’s right-hand man, loved Stewart. He and Justman kept nagging Roddenberry about Stewart until he finally gave in.
TNG, one of the most iconic shows in the Star Trek franchise, second only to The Original Series, was almost a very different show than the one that made it to air. Though it’s practically perfect the way it is, it’s definitely interesting to envision how it might have looked with a different man in the captain’s chair.