Sidebar: Burton Armus Remembers Kojak
November 1, 2011
Burton Armus is a writer, story editor, and producer who worked on, among others, Bronk, Delvecchio, Vega$, Paris, Cassie & Co., Airwolf, Street Hawk, Knight Rider, Star Trek: The Next Generation, the late eighties revivals of Dragnet and Adam-12, and NYPD Blue.
The majority of credits on his resume are cop shows, and there’s a good reason for that: Armus spent twenty years as a member of the New York Police Department. His unexpected second career in show business began when he was recruited as a technical advisor for some television shows that were filmed on location. Armus tried his hand at writing and, when he retired from the force in 1976, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue it full-time.
Armus’s longest stint as a technical advisor was on Kojak, which I wrote about last month. Though he had written one script for the innovative police drama N.Y.P.D. just before that series was cancelled in 1969, Armus established his reputation as a talented writer with his unusually gritty and undeniably authentic scripts for Kojak. Earlier this month, Armus – speaking with both the gruffness I expected of an ex-cop and the economical wit I’m accustomed to among TV writers – took a few moments to recall his Kojak days.
So how exactly did your relationship with Kojak work?
On Kojak, I was still on the job. I would get the scripts sent to me in New York. I would come out here once a year, for a couple or three weeks. My vacation. They’d buy me a plane ticket. Then the last year I did it, I had retired, and I was out here. And that’s when they moved the show to New York!
As a technical advisor, were you mainly advising on the accuracy of the scripts?
Mostly the scripts, and also, when they shot it, how certain things were done. They tried to adhere to it, but naturally they took many liberties.
But there was at least some interest in technical accuracy.
At the beginning, they tried to be very accurate. But as they got greedy and as the network got more and more involved, they got less and less accurate. By the fifth year it was a fuckin’ joke. They were just doing it like any one of these silly cop shows that are on now.
Was Telly Savalas’s performance accurate, would you say?
Well, Telly was Telly. Telly – he’d fill the screen. His personality was Kojak. The accuracy was what surrounded him. But the character of Kojak was a conglomerate of many people, and mostly of Telly.
So you did work with the actors on their performances?
They would ask questions [about] what actually happened, and I’d say, “Well, this is what we did. This is what some other guy I knew did.” They would use that approach. If they were real good pros, like [Kojak guest stars] Armand Assante or Jimmy Woods, people like that, they cared. But most of them were just happy to get a day’s work, and they would do what the director said. And if the director wanted it a certain way, that’s the way it was done.
Telly would do things his way, like the lollipop and the “who loves ya, baby” bullshit. That was Telly. I would keep it as legitimate as I could get away with. There were times when he just did what he wanted. But not often. And the network went along with what he wanted to do. He was the show. If it weren’t for Telly, it would’ve been just another pretty good cop show.
I thought your own scripts were especially rich in details that feel authentic.
Well, I wrote ’em, so therefore they were as accurate as they could be. Telly couldn’t take too many liberties on them, because I would write a pretty tight script, and he didn’t have a lot of freedom to do some insanity. So the accuracy would be more than the average script. But we tried to do all the shows with a certain accuracy.
Did any of your episodes draw on your own experiences on the force?
Yeah, in the beginning they did. Then I stopped doing it, because as the network and Telly would get involved [and make changes], I didn’t like to be offended in that way. So I stopped doing [stories] based on me. But the first year or two, I did that.
Do you remember any specific examples?
There was one where some cop shot a guy, and they were looking to indict the cop. I don’t remember the cases any more. If you look back on it, the second year of the show, I think I wrote three or four scripts. Those are pretty accurate.
Was that episode you mentioned “The Best War in Town,” with Mark Shera as a cop who has a shootout with some gangsters on his first day on the job?
That was based on an actual event, but not mine. It was the Gallo Brothers – they ran Brooklyn. What happened is, the cop walked in when there was going to be an execution in a bar, when they were going to hang the guy. And he got shot at.
Do you remember the producers of Kojak?
Jim McAdams was really the muscle behind it all. He was the day-to-day line producer, and he kept it all together. The executive producer was a guy by the name of Matt Rapf. He knew story and he was very good. But Jim was a day-to-day workaholic who really did it all. He was with the show from the beginning to the end, and he was at Universal for twenty-five years. He just died in the last year or two. He was living in Connecticut, he hadn’t worked in a bunch of years, and he was very ill. I was hot at one time and I tried to get him some work, but listen, when you’re done, you’re done.
What about Jack Laird?
Jack Laird was a writer, predominantly. He had been around for many, many years, and he was a character. He would lock himself in his office. But he was a writer. He was a producer by title only, which there’s many, many of today. But Jack Laird’s strength was the typewriter. He was very talented and very crazy.
How much of Kojak was shot in New York versus on the Universal backlot in Los Angeles?
Every year they’d go to New York. But they would go for a week or two and they would pick up surrounding shots, background shots, one or two scenes, and that was it. When they shot in New York, they made sure they got production value out of New York.
How did the N.Y.P.D. feel about your moonlighting in television?
Mostly they left me alone. One didn’t interfere with the other. Any writing I did was on my own time. I always made the police department look good. So I never got any trouble, except from some guys who were always jealous. There was a lot of notoriety involved. There was some money involved. There was some old-school jealousy there.
Were you a detective during that period?
Yes. I was in Bronx Homicide at that time. I used to be in Midtown, then I went to Bronx Homicide.
Kojak worked out of the “Manhattan South” division. Was that a real designation?
I worked Manhattan South for six years. We based it in Manhattan South because it gave us license to midtown. People, the general public, understood Manhattan and they understood midtown. That gave us a chance to use the downtown area to our advantage.
One thing that struck me as funny about the show is how Kojak is always ordering his boss around.
Yeah, Dan Frazer. Very much a gentleman, and he was a very strong actor. Well, that was Telly. Telly took over the scene.
But I’m guessing a real N.Y.P.D. lieutenant couldn’t get away with that kind of insubordination.
Oh, no. First of all, you’d never see the captain. He was in some other building somewhere. But it worked.
Was the show’s main set, in all its dingy squalor, accurate?
The set was accurate. The set was designed after the Four-Two Squad. There were pictures of the squad, and then they built it.
And a lieutenant like Kojak would have had his own office?
What did you think of the character played by Telly’s brother, George – Detective Stavros?
We had to get him a job. All right? And he was harmless, just harmless. He’s dead, so I can tell the truth. Nah, that was a joke. But the audience liked him, so they’d give him more lines. But he was just what he was.
During the first season, another technical advisor was credited along with you – Sonny Grosso, who was then famous as one of the detectives in the real-life case that was dramatized in The French Connection.
Sonny was involved with the original writer, Abby Mann. He knew Abby Mann, so when Abby Mann wrote The Marcus-Nelson Murders, which was the pilot that Kojak was based on, he laid Sonny on it. But Sonny’s personality was abrasive to most humans. So they had to give him a credit for a while, but he had nothing to do with it.
How did you get connected with Kojak in the first place?
I had done N.Y.P.D., Madigan, a couple of movies, and they were looking for a T.A. I got a call and I made a deal, and that’s how I got it. I did the job. I knew how to keep my head down.
So how did you happen to get that first technical advisor position on N.Y.P.D. in 1967?
I worked Midtown at the time, and I was semi-famous. Mid-sixties. And there was [executive producer] Danny Melnick, needed publicity for his show, and they linked it together. I think I got a hundred dollars a week or something, which was a lot of money in those days.
For comparison, how much were you making as a police officer?
About a hundred and fifty a week. So that couple of grand a year was a lot of money. I think I was making six or seven thousand dollars a year as a detective, and to pick up two thousand dollars like that was like a blessing. Then they gave me two thousand for that script. I bought my wife a new washing machine, and a car.
How about N.Y.P.D.? Was it factually accurate?
They tried to be also. All of them tried in those days, because they were going against [the reputation of] Naked City, and Naked City was a very good show. So they tried. And it was a half-hour show, shot only in the streets. It was new at the time, shooting on location. It was on sixteen-millimeter; they could get around with it. So they tried to be accurate, and the first script that I wrote for them was a very accurate script. And it did well, so I got a little rep out of it.
How did you become “semi-famous” as a police officer?
I worked Midtown, on the wiseguys. Organized crime. So, you know, you get a little publicity out of that. Somebody falls down with a bullet, you get famous.
Okay. Was there any particular case of yours that made the papers?
I don’t remember. I don’t remember any of that shit!
I’ll bet that when you were a police detective, you had no idea that you’d end up as a writer and producer in Hollywood.
Absolutely not. It was Disneyland!
Armus, above right in the episode “The Chinatown Murders” (1974), also made several cameos as N.Y.P.D. plainclothesman on Kojak.