Yaphet Kotto was born on November 19, 1939, in New York City, New York, United States to the family of Avraham and Gladys Maria Kotto. His father, Avraham Kotto (originally named Njoki Manga Bell) was a businessman from Cameroon who immigrated to the United States in the 1920s. In his autobiography titled Royalty, Kotto writes that his father was the crown prince of Cameroon. Kotto's father could speak nine or ten languages and had friends from many African nations. Before leaving Cameroon, and after he converted to Judaism, Bell changed his name to Abraham Kotto. Kotto means “trees” in Cameroonian. He would name his son Yaphet, which means “beautiful” in Hebrew.