As we continue with a new blog series, “One-Named Detectives,” we find ourselves in New York City on the search for a bald man with a lollipop in each pocket on Kojak.
From 1973-78, Lt. Theo Kojak (Telly Savalas) fought crime in the city with an amazingly upbeat personality. The first choice to play Kojak was Marlon Brando; he was willing to do it, but I never could find out why the network would not approve him. Kojak is known for his catch phrase, “Who loves ya baby.” And that lollipop fetish? Kojak was trying to cut back on his smoking habit and used suckers as a way to do so.
The show was created by Abby Mann, a television writer. The series had an interesting back story. Universal Television asked Mann to write a story based on a 1963 murder/rape case of Wylie and Hoffert, two women from Manhattan. Because of the attitude of many police about African Americans, after a shoddy investigation, the murders were blamed on George Whitmore Jr. A second investigation proved he was innocent and identified the real killer, Richard Robles who was then sentenced to life in prison. The story Mann created was titled the Marcus-Nelson Murders and Telly Savalas starred in the movie as “Kojack,” and the movie became the pilot for the television show.
There were several other cast members on the show including Telly’s real-life brother George who played Detective Stavros. Other regulars were Captain Frank McNeil (Dan Frazer), Detective Bobby Crocker (Kevin Dobson), Detective Saperstein (Mark Russell), and Detective Rizzo (Vince Conti).
It has a little bit of 1940s noirish feel mixed with seventies details. Plots frequently deal with the Mob. There were also several jewel heists, bad cops who were murderers, and serial killers.
A lot of guest stars appeared on the show and so did many of Telly’s friends including Tige Andrews, Jackie Cooper, Michael Constantine, Vincent Gardenia, Daniel J. Travanti, Bernie Kopell, Shelley Winters and Danny Thomas.
Two different theme songs were used for the show. Seasons one through four used “We’ll Make It This Time” composed by Billy Goldenberg with lyrics written by Bill Dyer. The last season’s theme was composed by John Cacavas.
In season one, Kojak was in the top ten. The show aired Wednesday nights on CBS following Cannon, the show we learned about last week. In season two, the show moved to Sunday nights after Cher and before Mannix (which we’ll discover next week). Seasons two and three the show was in the top twenty. The show had decent ratings the fourth season, but it declined for the fifth season which is when it was canceled.
Two CBS movies were made later–Kojak: The Belarus File in 1985 and Kojak: The Price of Justice in 1987. In 1989 ABC tried to revive the series again with five more movies.
Savalas was won an Emmy in 1974. The show was nominated for best drama series that year as well but lost to Upstairs Downstairs. That exact scenario also occurred in 1975.
I learned a few fun facts researching the show. One was that Savalas was typically cast as the villain before getting the role of Kojak. Savalas was also a singer who had released five albums between 1972-1980.
For all you vintage automobile fans, Kojak drove two cars during the series: a 1970 Ambassador and a 1972 Alfa Romeo.
One fact that really surprised me was that Queen Elizabeth was said to be an avid fan of the show.
Telly Savalas seemed destined to play Kojak. Film producer Howard Koch said, “Telly was great in everything. But he was born for ‘Kojak’—those snappy remarks, they were really him.”
At his memorial service, friends remembered how kind he was. A “little old lady” wanted an autograph from him at the exact moment he needed to pay attention to a blackjack game in Vegas. She got the autograph, and he didn’t get the hundreds of dollars he lost that round. They also told a story about one cold day in New York while they were filming and the only thing available for warmth was a lady’s mink coat which Telly proudly wore.
So, when you hear Kojak ask, “Who loves ya baby?,” you can confidently answer “We all love you.”