by Deborah Harter Williams
Even if you saw the show only once, you would remember him: Lieutenant Theo Kojak, tough, bald, well dressed, smoker of small cigars, fan of Tootsie Roll Pops, famous for the signature line, “Who loves ya, baby?” It was an unforgettable character, brought to the screen by Telly Savalas in October 1973, and he was larger than life for five seasons and five TV movies. Thirty-five years after the show ended, and 19 years after the death of Savalas, Kojak was still listed by TV Guide as number 22 on its “50 Greatest TV Characters of All Time” list.
The character frequently refers to his Greek heritage (though Kojak is a Polish name), and the rest of his homicide team was well rounded ethnically, with Crocker (Kevin Dobson of Knots Landing) , Saperstein (Mark Russell), Rizzo (Vince Conti), Stavros (George Savalas), and later, African-American actor Roger Robinson as Detective Gil Weaver. His longtime supervisor was Capt. Frank McNeil (Dan Frazer).
The show was created by Abby Mann, Academy Award–winning film writer of “Judgment at Nuremberg,” (originally a 1959 television play). It evolved from a 1973 made-for-TV movie, “The Marcus-Nelson Murders,” which was based on a 1963 rape and murder case where a young African-American man was falsely accused. Mann, and collaborator Selwyn Rabb, were active behind the scenes in the final outcome of this high-profile case, which was significant in leading to the Miranda rule.
Corruption and institutionalized racial prejudice were major themes of the film. Telly Savalas starred as a police detective named Kojack, who became Kojak for the television series.
Savalas, With and Without hair
After being wounded during World War II, Savalas left the Army and studied radio and television, working for ABC and the Voice of America. But while accompanying a friend to an audition, he was spotted by a casting director who gave him his first part. A career and a character were born.
Prior to Kojak, Savalas had a successful television career as a guest star on crime series such as Naked City, The Untouchables, and The F.B.I. He also ventured to the Ponderosa as a villainous tycoon for a Bonanza episode, and made appearances on Burke’s Law, Combat!, The Fugitive, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. If you want to see him with a little bit of hair, check out the very creepy episode from The Twilight Zone called Living Doll.
Savalas appeared with Burt Lancaster in four films (The Young Savages, Birdman of Alcatraz, Cape Fear, The Scalphunters) and was in The Dirty Dozen as the psychotic Archer Maggott. In a sequel he redeemed himself by portraying an officer who leads a group of military convicts to save German scientists who were being forced to make nerve gas. When he played the part of Pontius Pilate in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), he shaved his head and remained shaved for the rest of his life.
Savalas: The Way He Talks
Critic Clive James is widely quoted saying, “Telly Savalas can make bad slang sound like good slang, and good slang sound like lyric poetry. It isn’t what he is, so much as the way he talks, that gets you tuning in.”
There is an almost musical swing to the way Savalas delivers his lines, and he snaps his fingers and gestures like a Rat Pack singer. He actually made several records including a spoken word rendition of the Bread hit “If.” He performs this while smoking a cigarette. If you are a fan don’t watch.
At the end of the day, Kojak and Savalas were both memorable characters. And characters well portrayed can last beyond their time. Such is the case with Kojak.
• In Hungary: The series was translated into Hungarian in the 1970s, and the actor who voiced Kojak, looked so much like Savalas that he was cast in an original Hungarian film, Kojak Budapesten (1980). According to the script, Kojak was actually born in Hungary.
• In Brazil, the show was so successful that the word Kojak became slang for “bald man.”
• In Chile (and several other countries around the world) Kojak was slang for “lollipop.”
• In 1989 and 1990, ABC aired five, two-hour Kojak TV movies. Savalas returned with Andre Braugher (already a star from Homicide) as a detective. Daughter Candace also appeared in several episodes.
• In 1990 the city of New York declared Kojak: The Marcus-Nelson Murders the official movie of New York City.
• In 2005, a new Kojak series debuted with Ving Rhames (Mission Impossible) as the title the character. It lasted one season.
• In cop vocabulary the magnetically mounted rotating emergency light that Kojak used on his car became known as a Kojak Light.
Does The Show Pass The Test Of Time?
Viewing it through today’s lens, I’d say the series doesn’t hold up overall, but it resonates almost too closely with its themes of corruption and racial prejudice. The original movie, however, is still a classic.
In the series, the costumes and sets reflect some of the worst of 70s style and the plots feel skimpy without the multiple storylines that we have come to expect in contemporary procedurals. But it is worth viewing as a historical representation of the post-Vietnam move from the gentler times of Adam-12 and Columbo into SWAT and The Rookies. With movies featuring cops like “Serpico” and “Dirty Harry,” “Kojak” is a good example of how a grittier style made its way to television. The interiors may be slick but the streets of New York were dark.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways, & short stories in our mystery section.