Home Entertainment Review

'Kojak' Has Mojo, Baby
by Scott Holleran

The first season of Universal's Kojak on DVD—even if it is pegged to the remake series on Universal's USA Network, which apparently bears no resemblance—is a welcome blast of television's better days. When it premiered in 1973, it was a good, stylish cop show with a charismatic star—actor Telly Savalas—milking the part right on cue.

Today, it's like Shakespeare. Universal priced this boxed three-disc, double-sided, snap case package at $39.98. While it's bound to be found for less, 22 episodes of vintage Kojak beats four visits to the multiplex at ten bucks a pop any day.

Remastered to present excellent picture quality, the first season of the CBS show has plenty of mojo, which was actually the title of the 20th episode, when Lt. Theo Kojak dons a laboratory coat to go undercover as a chemist. Relishing the role of his career, Savalas smolders with anger, passion and irony. He is a policeman of purpose, showing up for work like the rest of us, groaning about the lousy coffee, but dedicated to masterful detective work through his street skills and logic. Forget lollipops and catch phrases. Kojak thrives on thinking.

Take the series premiere, a tightly conceived episode titled "Siege of Terror," starring Harvey Keitel (The Piano). A botched heist leads to a couple of police officers down, bleeding and lying in harm's way, while the thugs have snatched a bunch of hostages. Kojak rides in like a cross between mafia don and an urban cowboy. He assesses the damage, establishes a hierarchy of goals, measures the risk and commandeers a patrol car as a tank to rescue one of the wounded cops. As bold as he is bald, he sets the tone for five seasons: law and order is serious business, and Kojak makes it look easy.

The whole episode encapsulates the turbulent 1970's, when an anti-police philosophy permeated the nation; graffiti urges city dwellers to smoke pot and a gathering mob watches over the tense scene. When it's time to make a move, a trio of chanting Hare Krishnas tapping their primitive tambourines provides the nerve-wracking backdrop to the showdown, concretizing the contrast between active-minded cops and the passive bystanders whom they are sworn to protect. Series regulars step up one by one: there's McNeil (Dan Frazer), Crocker (Kevin Dobson) and Stavros (George Savalas).

Unlike today's grey, droning shows, gritty Kojak—the series and the policeman—is teeming with life. When Crocker first kills a criminal, in the eighth episode, "Dark Sunday," he is immobilized. Killing a man is not taken lightly. Kojak gently consoles him. But Crocker is not devastated with a three-part story arc; the plot, the pace and the police work move on, with taut direction. Commercial break spots are barely recognizable. New York City's Twin Towers—erected in lower Manhattan in the early 1970s—are first glimpsed in the same episode.

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The episode also features Kojak's first lollipop. He pulls it out of his desk drawer while talking with Crocker, who walks away, pauses, turns and asks: "Hey, what's with the lollipop?" Kojak says something about closing the generation gap before barking: "Get outta here!"

Missing from the basic package is the made for TV movie, The Marcus-Nelson Murders, audio commentary and other features. But the work does speak for itself, and there is no denying it is very good. What is most striking about this entertaining program: the hero is serious and, at times, idealistic, which makes Kojak more interesting than the villains—and Kojak more delectable than a Tootsie Pop.

3/22 - When 'Kojak' Was King
3/22 - Murders Remade for Television: From 'The Marcus-Nelson Murders' to 'Kojak'

'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