When the police drama Kojak aired on the CBS TV channel in 1973, critics and audiences knew this was a game changer. There had been plenty of cops and robbers TV shows up until the early 70s but Kojak brought a gritty realism and quality that had too often been missing. When it started broadcasting on the BBC in the UK, British reviewers presented Kojak as a radical makeover for the police genre. It’s hard to convey now just how much of an impact this series made and the enduring influence it has today.
True crime and cop series are booming in our time. And we don’t expect a clear blue line between police and criminals with one side wholly good and the other, completely evil. We know that law enforcement is a barrel with rotten apples. And those who break the law can be empathetic characters. Kojak was the first series to be morally complex. It taught us that the world is dangerous. The streets are unpredictable. And you cannot place absolute trust in anybody and anything.
Kojak was set in New York at a time when the city was on its knees. By the middle of the decade, it would literally go bust with the lights going out across the Big Apple leading to mass looting. As Kojak broadcast its first season, US President Richard Nixon was being exposed as a crook and about to resign. The Vietnam War was grinding to a bloody close. The confidence Americans had felt in their country and values in the 1950s was ebbing away. Kojak captured this darker zeigeist.
Kojak the 1970s police hero
Lieutenant Theodopolous “Theo” Kojak was played by the Greek-American actor Telly Savalas. He brought to the role his background, growing up in a tough working-class neighbourhood of New York. As a child, he spoke only Greek with English learned later on. Savalas supported his family be selling newspapers and polishing shoes. He served in the Second World War; studied psychology; worked for the US State Department’s information service; then a spell in TV news before moving on to acting and eventually, aged nearly forty, into the movies where he was cast as a cop.
Savalas enjoyed some success as an actor but it’s when his paths crossed with producer and writer Abby Mann that his fame went through the roof. Mann specialised in true crime and courtroom drama. In 1973, he produced a three-hour crime documentary special, The Marcus-Nelson Murders. A detective, Theo Kojak played by Savalas, believes his fellow detectives are trying to frame a young black man for the murder of two white women. The movie, aired on CBS, claimed to be based on real-life events, the so-called Career Girls Murder Case of 1963, and was laden with heavy themes around racism and police corruption.
In the murder scene, the two women who share an apartment are murdered while Martin Luther King is delivering his “I have a dream” speech on their television. Reading some of the reviews at the time, some baulked at the criminal being depicted as a wronged man while the cops were almost uniformly evil. They disliked the portrayal of a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office as a wannabe politician playing the law and order card. None of this would raise an eyebrow now but back then, it grated with conservative opinion.
One reviewer harrumphed that in Mann’s world, “complexity is sacrificed for impeccably liberal righteousness. Fact is stirred into fiction, and both are diluted”. The same reviewer disliked the Kojak character gazing out on a black housing area in Brooklyn while a voice declared that the truth doesn’t count in a courtroom. Yet whatever anybody thought of Mann’s true crime TV movie, it led straight to the Kojak TV series, which Mann produced.
Kojak dominates the early 1970s cop genre
With its grimly scored opening titles, revealing a sinister Manhattan, Kojak was cast as the tough but fair police officer holding the line between order and chaos. Reflecting the growing pessimism that was a hallmark of the 1970s, you were left in no doubt as a viewer that only a man like Kojak, who knew the streets and could see through any thicket of lies, was capable of keeping the bad guys at bay.
In Kojak’s world, whores and hookers are real people who the police might work with to solve a serious crime. Politicians cannot be trusted and are probably in bed with the very people Kojak is paid to arrest and imprison. Fellow cops are trying to do a good job but some of them are bad apples. Savalas drew on his entire life experience to breathe life into the Kojak character. And the detective famously sucked a lollipop in an effort to give up smoking as Savalas did in real life while rolling off corny catchphrases like “who loves ya baby?”
From 1973 to 1978, the series thrived and earned a batch of awards. But while the Emmys racked up for best acting, writing, and cinematography – so did its critics. In the summer of 1978, the National Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) condemned Kojak as the worst show on television. And what did the recommend instead? The PTA thought families should be tuning into Donny and Marie, Happy Days, and Little House on the Prairie. Sadly, Kojak was cancelled that year. In happier news, Donny and Marie was cancelled the following year.
Vin Diesel and Kojak
In 2015, there were reports that the actor Vin Diesel was being lined up to be the new Kojak. To my knowledge this never happened. What a relief!