When 'Kojak' Was King
On the day that Kojak—available for the first time on DVD—premiered on CBS, the nation was losing a war in Vietnam and the President of the United States was on the verge of impeachment. The date was October 24, 1973. America was in turmoil. The tension was reflected in Hollywood, where bell-bottomed hippies, not neat policemen, were in favor. Though there were exceptions, cops were not cool. Cops were pigs.

Along came Kojak, played by Telly (short for Aristotle) Savalas (1924-1994), a tough New York City police lieutenant with brains, attitude and seething contempt for criminals. Character actor Savalas, who had starred in The Dirty Dozen, Cape Fear (1962) and Kelly's Heroes and was nominated for an Oscar for The Birdman of Alcatraz—was suited to the role. His Lt. Theo Kojak was no pretty boy—the motley crew of Manhattan's 13th precinct was not The Mod Squad—but he was no activist like Serpico. Brought to life with a sense of humor and a sense of purpose by Savalas, the son of Greek immigrants and a veteran of World War 2, Kojak was Hollywood's classic cop. Sharp-dressed Kojak even wore a Fedora.

Skeptical but not weary, Kojak worked every case as if it was his first, combining his street smarts with crackling wit. He drove a coffee brown, gas guzzling Buick Regal, and he dated working class dames who were nurses and cops. He went to bars, he smoked cigars and long, thin cigarettes, which he'd extinguish as quickly as he lit them, and, early in the series, Kojak started sticking lollipops in his mouth and saying things like "who loves ya, baby?"

It caught on. Previewed, as many television dramas were, in a made-for-television movie, The Marcus-Nelson Murders, the series was a huge hit. Kojak finished its first season in Nielsen's top ten, beating Mary Tyler Moore, Sonny and Cher and the Six Million Dollar Man. It ran until 1978.

Each episode featured Don Frazer as Captain Frank McNeil, Kevin Dobson as Lt. Bobby Crocker and Savalas' brother, George Savalas, as the hapless Detective Stavros. Plots typically featured a homicide or armed robbery, with drug addicts, pushers and pimps put in play by Kojak and his cops—and with some surprises, such as a police captain (underrated Frazer) who, contrary to cop show formula, was often Kojak's most devoted ally. Lt. Crocker—later the recipient of Kojak's harsh outburst, "Crock-uh!"—was Tonto to Kojak's Lone Ranger and the 13th precinct was a band of brothers. Camaraderie was important to the show's success.

Kojak became a symbol for cops across America. In the wake of the Supreme Court's Miranda decision granting a reading of one's rights and chronic claims of police brutality and corruption, police officers and unions were fed up with what they considered rules that violated the rights of the individual policeman and inhibited law enforcement. During a police labor demonstration in 1976, protesting officers spotted Savalas and pulled him onto their shoulders. Cops—reduced to cogs in the bureaucratic wheels of justice—viewed Kojak as their hero.

Judging by merchandising, Americans agreed. Demand for Kojak produced die-cast metal cars, episodes in paperback, a Milton-Bradley board game—even a Kojak siren kit (when he used a siren, he placed the cherry on top of the Buick). Not everyone was thrilled with the show. Series creator Abby Mann, who had written Judgment at Nuremberg, later criticized the weekly one-hour drama for making the character perfect.

Yet, during its five year run, Kojak featured top writers, directors and actors and was admired by the Queen of England—it was her favorite TV show—who liked it so much that she requested Savalas be invited to the White House for her Bicentennial visit. A single first season episode—"Die Before They Wake," included in the DVD—features Isabel Sanford (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?), before her starring role on The Jeffersons, and Tina Louise (Ginger on Gilligan's Island) as a prostitute, directed by Leo Penn (Sean Penn, Michael and Christopher Penn's father).

Other first season stars include Harvey Keitel (Mother, Jugs and Speed), John Ritter (Three's Company), and John Aniston—Jennifer's father—of Days of Our Lives. After CBS cancelled Kojak, Savalas played the character in TV movies and in a failed series revival in 1989.

Still, bald, steely Kojak stood tall, which did not go unnoticed by those whose work would eventually dominate the movies. When Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee was asked to comment on a 1970's CBS series based on one of his comic book characters, Lee replied: "A lot of the plots on the Spider-Man show are situations that Kojak could just as easily have handled." Kojak might reply: "bedda, baby, bedda."


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• 'Kojak' DVD Official Web Site

• Savalas Family Web Site

• About the Wylie-Hoffert Murders

Buy 'Kojak' on DVD from Amazon.com

• New USA Network 'Kojak' Series Starring Ving Rhames