Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Kojak Revisited

When Kojak starring Telly Savalas debuted in October 24, 1973, I was in the sixth grade at St. John’s grammar school in the Bronx. Pleading nolo contendere to charges of having accepted bribes while governor of Maryland, Vice President Spiro Agnew had resigned exactly two weeks earlier. President Richard Nixon’s infamous “Saturday Night Massacre” had occurred several days before. And a whole lot was happening in New York City, too, with Mayor John Lindsay in the final two months of his second term as mayor of the city Theofilides “Theo” Kojak valiantly endeavored to keep safe.

In the broader historical picture, the 1970s were not good years for the Big Apple. A fiscal crisis and layoffs of city employees, including cops, left the metropolis dirtier and less safe than it had ever been. My favorite decade is nonetheless the groovy 1970s. And it isn’t because of the increases in crime and grime. Where I grew up, Kingsbridge, there was a fair share of both, but it was notwithstanding a great neighborhood to be a kid. The old-fashioned urban childhood still existed then, but its days were definitely numbered. Simply understood, we spent an awful lot of time in the great outdoors back then—winter, spring, summer, and fall—and weren’t preoccupied with technological devices that had yet to be invented.

Along with The Rockford Files, Kojak is my favorite TV detective show of all-time. On the boxes of the recently-released Kojak DVD sets I just purchased, the character is referred to as “Bald, bold, and badass.” That’s a contemporary hipster’s description of Lieutenant Kojak, who was wont to say to a bad guy, “Cootchie-cootchie-coo,” while not-so-gently pulling on his cheek. He was the epitome of cool in his Bailey Gentry fedora, spiffy three-piece suits, and stylish sunglasses.

I liked Kojak for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was its New York ambiance. McCloud just didn’t do it for me! It didn’t matter to me that the episodes were largely filmed in Los Angeles and at Universal Studios. Kojak and company visited The Twilight Zone street, as I call it, too many times to count. You know the street: the bars are named just bars and the jewelry stores, just jewelry stores. I wasn’t even bothered that the stock shots of Kojak driving around Manhattan frequently didn’t jibe with where he was actually going in the scripts. I remember him heading north on the West Side Highway to go to Brooklyn.

So, does Kojak hold up for me more than forty years later? In my opinion, Telly Savalas punctuating his sentences with his Tootsie Roll Pop is timeless. Flipping an organized crime boss out of his chair never gets old. The Universal Studios streets and buildings can be a bit distracting, I know. Floodlights in the windows of building exteriors don’t exactly enhance nighttime realism. And location shots filmed in Los Angeles that attempt to pass for Manhattan never work. Fortunately, the middle seasons of Kojak—which represent the best of the show—filmed a little more in New York itself.

In fact, season three’s two-hour debut episode, “A Question of Answers,” is filmed entirely in New York and features guest stars Eli Wallach, F. Murray Abraham, Jerry Orbach, Jennifer Warren, and Michael V. Gazzo, who plays a hooligan loan shark. The year prior, Gazzo won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Frankie Pentangeli in The Godfather: Part II. In the Kojak episode, there is a scene of Savalas and Gazzo in a parking lot just north of the Twin Towers along the Hudson River. That’s what that area was like in 1975. Run down and atmospheric with parking lots—in some instances—on property now gentrified beyond recognition. A footnote on the season three opener is that Telly Savalas’s brother, George Savalas, who played Detective Stavros, is finally credited with his full name, instead of “Demosthenes,” his middle name, which was used in the first two seasons’ credits.

Theo Kojak could do no wrong then and now, with one exception that I’ve gleaned in watching the old shows. So far, I’ve seen him toss his lollipop wrapper off a building rooftop, throw its stick on the sidewalk, and fling an unlit cigarette of Eli Wallach’s into the Hudson River. He has also placed his empty coffee up atop a fire hydrant upon exiting his car. It was the dirty 1970s after all.

One final word on Kojak’s legacy: The coolest cop is part of the Urban Dictionary. “To drive straight into a parking space, improbably available right outside the place you were headed,” which Kojak consistently did at crime scenes, midtown hotels, busy courthouses and apartment buildings, is thusly named. You have “kojaked” if you are so fortunate in your travels to find such an ideal parking spot.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro) 

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