The Star Trek franchise introduced its first Black lead in 1993 when Avery Brooks took on the role of Benjamin Sisko, but that moment could've come as soon as Star Trek: The Next Generation had one actor in contention for the role gotten the gig. Before Patrick Stewart was ultimately given the role and made it iconic, actor Yaphet Kotto was considered by Paramount as someone in the running to play Jean-Luc Picard.
A recently resurfaced memo shared by JoBlo.com from Star Trek: The Next Generation's casting listed Yaphet Kotto (who recently passed) as well as others in the running for the role of Picard. The memo, which was sent out in April of 1987, laid out all the actors in consideration for the series, including Wesley Snipes as Geordi La Forge. Kotto was the only Black actor listed for the role of Picard and about fourth down on the list.
Though he was in consideration for the role, a note later in the memo did not mention Yaphet Kotto specifically. Instead, it's stated that Patrick Stewart seemed to be the favorite of Gene Roddenberry and others to that point in the process and that actor Patrick Bauchau's reading was also well-received. Kotto and Bauchau both shared the honor of acting in a James Bond film, which is a cool little added connection in the casting.
Though the memo did not specifically note it, Yaphet Kotto said once in 2015 that he actually turned down the role of Jean-Luc Picard. Kotto told The Big Issue about his feelings years later about his rejection of the role and why he turned it down at the time.
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.
Obviously, Star Trek: The Next Generation found its man in the end, and while Yaphet Kotto never got a chance to be in Star Trek, he continued a successful run in film with some television work for a long time after. Though it never happened, it's interesting to imagine how things would've turned out had Kotto played Picard, and how he would've portrayed the Captain differently. Perhaps in some Terran version of Earth they saw this play out, but for us in the Prime (or possibly Kelvin) universe, we can only speculate.
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