Bald, Tootsie Pop-snacking Kojak was the king of the police procedural from 1973 through 1978.
Over its five-season, 118-episode run on CBS, the tough-yet-dapper NYPD detective — played by Telly Savalas — showed a stubborn and tenacious desire to fight crimes and right wrongs in malaise-era New York City. While always willing to bend the rules if it would bring a suspect to justice, Kojak himself was incorruptible, despite his cynical side.
Kojak’s lollipop habit came out of a shift in American culture around the time of the show. Cigarette commercials had been banned in 1971, and many Americans had taken up the attempt to quit smoking — including Savalas, and his character as a result. Kojak took to the Tootsie Pops as a smoke substitute, but neither he — nor Savalas — ever managed to totally kick the habit.
Still, an entire generation grew up pulling lollipops out of their mouths while parroting Kojak’s signature line, “Who loves ya, baby?”
TV in review: Kojak, new on CBS
Telly Savalas’ tough, uncompromising competence as a New York City cop gives the new CBS series “Kojak” a very appealing ingredient.
Bald-headed, smartly-dressed Kojak offers us a character to admire. For if he is a man of high repute, he can also_talk tougher than the meanest criminal, and he’s not afraid to slap a despicable mobster around a bit. This Kojak is no pansy.
For instance, in one episode when Kojak finds out that a mobster was saved from assassination by a bullet-proof vest, Kojak contemptuously examines the vest as the mobster lies in the street, then flicks it away and mutters dark comments. The mobster, in his turn, rolls over and spits in Kojak’s path.
Kojak is a believer in “an eye for an eye,” though the restrictions of the law only allow him to imagine the real justice he prefers for the most venal of criminals. At the end of one episode, when ‘two “hit men” are indicted on charges that will send them away for 50 years, Kojak says, “Not good enough.” They killed an innocent elderly woman, he explains, yet they will live and perhaps eventually go free.
The series is cursed with the usual predictable plots that always keep the viewer a step ahead of Kojak, but on the other hand, there is more than a passing attempt at realism.
Photos taken with a mini-camera actually come out grainy; Walkie-talkie radio sets only work for short distances (as in real life) and Kojak even takes time to aim his pistol with both hands, as is done in the real police world.
And on the episode I saw, “Kojak” features some fine black acting. Several blacks play ghetto hustlers and petty criminals. Their jive dialogue shows how rhythmic, dramatic and pungent black street dialect can be.
Kojak, though, is the main attraction, and he represents a character many Americans might like to have in their government. He is a man of principles, high principles, but he is a man who can’t be fooled, and he’s as tough as they come.
“Kojak,” thanks to Savalas, is the best new police show I have seen. – Edward Meadows