No quality seems to be presently valued in our society as highly as style. “Swag,” is only the most recent adjective for it. Charisma, magnetism, even coolness have all done the job. In 1973, Telly Savalas, who had previously only been known for playing wackos in Birdman of Alcatraz and The Dirty Dozen, brought a new type of cop to television screens. I know, just using “cop” and “television” in the same sentence already sounds like a tired cliché. But Dirty Harry and The French Connection proved that policeman as antiheros worked at the box office.
Americans had every reason to be cynical. The optimism of the 19660s gave way to the disappointment of the following decade. As Hunter S. Thompson so aptly put it in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, the wave had broken and was rolling back. You could still see the high water mark if you looked hard enough, even if you weren’t perched from a hotel room high above Sin City.
Las Vegas also defined the persona for which so many remember Telly Savalas. Some people know him as the “who loves you” guy who later became the Players Club International spokesman. Others remember some pseudo-Sinatra spouting out “coo-chee coos” and using “like that” instead of “etcetera.” Comedian Tom DiMenna has done a one-man tribute to Telly on both coasts over the last two years. His clips are all over You Tube. They’re great, but his Savalas is more like Will Ferrell’s pill-addicted Neil Diamond, which is really a mellowed-out Ron Burgundy. That’s not the Telly that made Savalas a star on Kojak.
Why did Kojak “Jump The Shark” (another clichéd expression, I admit)? Some suggest that the series lost its edge when it began filming the majority of its scenes in California instead of New York. Maybe Savalas, the subject of a Dean Martin roast in 1974, had stopped playing the Kojak character he created. Howard Cosell, a member of the dais for the roast, used to discuss how he eventually played a caricature of himself on television. Perhaps Telly Savalas and Lieutenant Kojak suffered the same fate.
Kojak began with a 1973 TV movie, The Marcus Nelson Murders, based on the “Career Girls” case of a decade earlier. Abby Mann, who authored the film and the series that followed, was hardly your average screenwriter. He had already won the 1961 Academy Award for his adaption of the television drama Judgement At Nuremberg. He was famous not only for his commitment to authenticity in his scripts but his constant focus on including social commentary in them as well.
Theodopolous Kapsalis Kojak was a composite character, drawn most heavily from Thomas J. Cavanagh, Jr., nicknamed “The Velvet Whip.” He earned the moniker for his ability to exact confessions, but it was his cracking of the brutal murders Janice Wylie and Emily Hoffert that made him famous. The murders of two educated, professional young women, committed during Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech was already a story made for Hollywood. The fact that a 19-year old African-American male with a low IQ initially confessed made that much more salacious. Cavanagh eventually exonerated the wrong man, of course, and the culprit was subsequently convicted.
The movie introduces Kojak as he arrives on the murder scene accompanied by a Dragnet-like narration, “My name is Theo Kojak.” But the old detective show conventions are fully abandoned with his next line, “It’s interesting how matter of fact death can become.” Kojak reveals that he threw up being called onto his first crime scene, a ghastly car accident. Now, all he thinks about is “who did it and why.” The ensuing case, unfolding during both the Supreme Court’s Miranda ruling and the civil rights movement “would change how I looked at my neighborhood, my city, my country, and myself.”
I’m not suggesting Kojak was as gritty as Hill Street Blues, The Shield or The Wire. But its initial entry for television laid the groundwork for those first powerful few seasons. The movie would make Savalas a sex symbol, a role he’d take full advantage of off screen. As Angie Dickinson said during his roast, sex appeal was just Greek for horny. On screen, however, Theo Kojak had élan. In The Marcus- Nelson Murders, he instantly reignites an old relationship with a pre-Jaws Lorraine Garry. But even with the women he didn’t bed on the show, Kojak used smooth speech and pillow talk to get what he needed. It could be a naïve teenager, prostitute or elderly Jewish widow. In the end, they’d all succumb to Kojak. His cooing to Kay Medford (Rose Brice from Funny Girl) is a sight to behold. Telly eventually gets her to stay under protection by not only promising to spend the night, but promising to get a bottle of Manischewitz the next day. The Marcus-Nelson Murders is a surprisingly good film, especially for one that was never released cinematically. It also features Ned Beatty, Marjorie Gortner of Earthqauke fame, and Principal Woodman before Welcome Back Kotter. When the actual series began, it kept an active New York City policeman, Burton Armus on staff as a technical advisor. But even he’d later admit that the role of Kojak was all Telly. “His personality was Kojak. The accuracy was what surrounded him.”
Amidst all the celebrity and “before they were stars” cameos (Harvey Keitel, Stallone, James Woods, John Ritter, Shirley McLaine, to name a few), Savalas was the undisputed catalyst of the show. It’s not easy to be smooth and still carry gravitas on screen each week. Kojak did more than that. Like Savalas, the character was a clotheshorse, the gold chains and medallions didn’t come out until later. He was a champion for the little guy who always did the right thing even though the game was rigged. Kojak would often straddle the line, but always stayed within the confines of the then-law. He was always being groomed for some job upstairs but could never tolerate all the politics that came with it.
The lollipops became as famous as the character itself, even though they were originally intended to help Telly stop smoking. Throughout the series, you see him pulling on cigarettes, cigars and cigarillos as well. The fact that Savalas could make being bald AND sucking on Dum Dums seem cool was no small feat. His soliloquies on life, love and death were delivered in equal parts legato and staccato. When Kojak entered a scene, he’d alternate between delicately-delivered aphorisms and wild machine-gun fire proclamations.
It was this Sinatraesque style that was so often parodied, eventually by Savalas himself. He railed against the “cock-a-roaches” he faced every day. When he wasn’t adding an extra syllable to words, he’d simply stretch out the existing ones. “Let’s use that word the lawyers use, what is it, hypo-thet-ical? It’s a Greek word, did you know? It means three other guys—not us.” Yes, every line sounded like there was a “bay-bee” was included even when there wasn’t. In fact, he didn’t actually say “Who loves ya, baby?” all that often. It was simply implied. Kojak was always storming into a room of gang members, made guys or professional hit men, oblivious and impervious to danger. He once busted up a table of thugs and got Moe Greene himself, Alex Rocco, to heel without a whimper.
“Look, uh, pussycat. Never, ever, ever talk to me like that, ok? You and the rest of you butterflies around me, I like to see smiling, happy faces. And when you speak, speak softly and with respect. Never, never with any harsh words—you understand?”
He imparts equal portions of homespun Greek wisdom and “Tellyisms” simultaneously. Of course, Savalas’ outsized personality would lead him towards a less-than-stellar singing career. His covers of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and “Something” are hard to hear. He released the inevitable single “Who Loves Ya, Baby,” which he’d perform after removing his Kojak-style trench coat and hat. But unlike William Shatner, Savalas’ kitschy side didn’t enhance his star quality. There would be no TJ Hooker to allow Telly a second act later on. The last couple years of the show were still good, but Theo Kojak began to lose his street credibility. By the series’ final season, Kojak had to crack a case in Las Vegas featuring Three’s Company’s Priscilla Barnes playing twins. At one point, Telly is riding a dune buggy decked out in a Yankees bucket hat and jacket. The latter was of course completely open and the inevitable cameo from Liberace would follow.
For those first three seasons or so, Kojak was a total bad ass. Somewhere along the way, the character slowly drifted into satire of itself. Maybe Las Vegas was where the series slow decline began five years earlier, albeit in a completely unintended way. The endorsement of The King himself is as good as any place to mark the moment where the character of Kojak officially became too big for the actor who created it. Savalas was in the audience for Elvis’ opening performance of his 1974 run at the Las Vegas Hilton. The surviving recording documents Elvis’ shout out from the stage to Telly. He refers to Kojak as the #1 show on television and Savalas as one of the coolest actors around. It’s far-fetched, I admit. But this is as good as any place to mark the moment when Savalas stopped playing the character he created. Like Elvis, Telly was slowly swallowed up by his own dramatic creation. When the wave breaks and begins building momentum in the opposite direction, it’s hard not to get swept up.