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.
October 18, 2011
My favorite Kojak is still the first season’s “Cop in a Cage.” It’s not even one of the best episodes but it’s an astounding artifact, especially for viewers (like me) who tend to delight in performance above all else. In “Cop in a Cage,” the cult actor John P. Ryan plays a mad bomber who gets out of prison and vows revenge against Telly Savalas’s Lieutenant Theo Kojak, because (groan) Kojak was the cop who put him away.
Ryan’s mushy delivery and smirky “who, me?” expression made him a familiar villain in the seventies. But, like Timothy Carey, Ryan exuded a sense that the craziness extended beyond camera range; and so, also like Carey, he tended to turn up in small roles and marginal efforts. It’s a semi-rare pleasure to find him center stage in “Cop in a Cage,” and, as the title promises, the show quickly turns into a cage match, as Ryan and fellow hambone Savalas try to top one another in scene after scene. The pair don’t just chew up the scenery; they regurgitate it, drop to all fours, lick the puddles of bilious sawdust off the floor, and spitball the remnants back and forth in unholy congress. The premise is a cliché and “Cop in a Cage” is even a semi-betrayal of the semi-serious character drama that Kojak was trying to pull off. But it’s brilliant camp and on a series as generic as Kojak initially was, one must admire whatever sticks.
The thing about Kojak, its genius and its curse, is that the show was television’s ultimate star vehicle. It started with Telly Savalas, he of the overwhelming personality and the deep metallic voice and the startling afro-era chrome-dome, and very little else. The showrunners of Kojak were first-rate, veterans of Ben Casey (executive producer Matthew Rapf and supervising producer Jack Laird) and Night Gallery (Laird and story editor Gene Kearney). But nobody was asking them for a new spin on the television police drama and, at first, none of them tried to come up with one.
“I’m a super cop. I’m only out for big busts,” Kojak says in the episode “Two-Four-Six For Two Hundred,” and he’s not expressing his love for Russ Meyer films. The concept, I think, was to make Kojak not just a hard-assed cop but also a showboating, larger-than-life king of the streets. That idea may seem more far-fetched now than it did in the early seventies, when a number of self-styled N.Y.P.D. cops became minor celebrities as much on the strength of their swaggering personas as their actual, er, busts. Remember Eddie Egan, Sonny Grosso, “Batman and Robin,” Frank Serpico, and Robert Leuci? The pilot telefilm that launched the series, The Marcus-Nelson Murders, fictionalized a real case and a book about it by Selwyn Raab, and its writer, the celebrated live TV dramatist Abby Mann, based the character of Kojak in part on a real detective, Thomas Cavanagh, a skilled interrogator known as “the Velvet Whip.”
Kojak makes his entrance in the second season with siren blaring and the line, “If I have to get up at six o’clock in the morning, so can the rest of Manhattan.” He orders around not only his underlings at the Manhattan South station house, but also his milquetoast boss (played by Dan Frazer); in one episode he even eats food off poor, droopy Captain McNeil’s plate.
Savalas eats this up, of course, barking every line of dialogue and affecting a seemingly endless catalog of mannered schtick: the lollipops, the hat, the shades, the black-pencil cigarettes, the neon pink-and-orange paper coffee cups, the effetely high-pocketed, bathrobe-sized suit jackets, the Nelson Muntz-ish mocking chortle, and of course the hipster slang (“That’s the way the crook-ies crumble, bayyyyby!”).
(Like “Play it again, Sam,” which nobody ever says in Casablanca, Kojak’s catchphrase “Who loves ya, baby,” is maddeningly hard to actually catch in the show, although Savalas does utter variations on it often enough to have permanently removed the words “love” and “baby” from the seventies hippie lexicon.)
The problem is that Theo Kojak was that guy who thought he was cool but was actually a big square. Watching the early episodes, I imagine the other cops laughing behind his back, not quaking in fear, every time Kojak walks out of the room. At least at first, there’s a buffoonish edge and an element of petty cruelty in Savalas’s performance. That cruelty becomes especially pointed with the increased prominence of Detective Stavros, a fat, slow-witted slob upon whom Kojak heaps both verbal and physical abuse. Savalas installed his own non-lookalike and very un-cop-like brother, George (billed ridiculously as “Demosthenes”) in this role, which says a lot about the control the star wielded over his series and perhaps also about how much of his own personality he transferred into his character.
Botany 500, which designed Telly Savalas’s wardrobe for Kojak, also outfitted the titular star of The Dick Van Dyke Show. I like to imagine that all of Rob Petrie’s suits were maroon and pink.
When the first season of Kojak came out on DVD in 2005, I binned it after ten episodes. Now, six years later – more time than the whole network run of the series – Shout Factory has sublicensed the property from Universal and released a good-looking second season set. (And yes, I do know that that particular label spells its name with a superfluous exclamation point, but I refuse to enable cute punctuation.) I almost didn’t ask for a screener but it’s a good thing I’m a whore for freebies, because a funny thing happened on the way to the center of that lollipop: Kojak got better.
A lot of great series needed a season to find the right tone, the right balance – shows as diverse as The Andy Griffith Show, The Defenders, M*A*S*H. Kojak took almost two full years to hit its stride. If you watch the second season in sequence, you can track this process as it takes place. You can see the writers figuring out which kinds of stories worked best for their characters, and then refine those into repeatable storytelling strategies.
The early episodes in the second season comprise a catalog of ideas that don’t work, at least within the constraints of Savalas’s persona and Universal’s resources. The feature-length opener, “The Chinatown Murders” (which, incidentally, ran in a full two-hour slot and is not a ninety-minute episode, as the DVD copy and various internet sources suggest), pits Kojak against warring factions of mafiosi. It has a huge cast and real epic sweep, but a tired story and amateur-hour production mistakes sink the show into melodrama that no one who has seen The Godfather (and in 1974, that was everybody) would tolerate. As the sickly mafia don Michael Constantine (a dull actor who worked constantly and never gave a subtle performance) wheezes and spasms through every line, as if he’s Jimmy Durante kicking the bucket in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. It doesn’t help that his age make-up, and that of another key character, are marred by the most obvious join-lines I’ve ever seen. (And is it really too hard to put some fake wrinkles on the actors’ hands as well as their faces?)
“You Can’t Tell a Hurt Man How to Holler” requires Kojak to spend the whole show trying to un-arrest a black ex-con (Harrison Page) whom he, and only he, believes is innocent of murder. The script is not atrocious (even though it requires the ex-con to be deceived very obviously by a conniving pal), but it’s all wrong for Kojak. In the post-French Connection, post-Serpico era, the Naked City paradigm of the TV cop who helped out the down-and-out was no longer tenable. Kojak and his crew were there to put away the bad guys, not bend over backward to prove their liberal bona fides. The author of “Hurt Man,” Albert Ruben, was a committed lefty and a writer of good scripts for The Defenders and N.Y.P.D., and it’s sad to see how badly his New Frontier-era point of view founders in the cynical seventies.
Gradually, though, the producers found their way. By the end of 1974, most episodes conformed to one of three distinct patterns: character-driven stories in the Quinn Martin mode (think The F.B.I. or The Streets of San Francisco), in which the cops played second fiddle to an often sympathetic antagonist; crime capers that pitted Kojak, Columbo-style, against some con perpetrating a clever robbery or murder; and streetwise police procedurals rich in French Connection-style detail.
Most of the character shows were the work of Kearney, a talented writer (and a tragic one; he died of leukemia before he turned fifty). But his episodes, sensitive as most of them are, live or die on the basis of casting. If the guest star couldn’t hold his or her own against Savalas’s all-consuming ego, then the show collapsed. John Randolph, a fine supporting actor, doesn’t have the presence to make the crooked magistrate of “The Best Judge Money Can Buy” a formidable enough adversary for Kojak. But Martin Balsam, the consummate underplayer, ducks and weaves all around Savalas as a noir-worthy private eye on the take in the bleak “A Killing in the Second House”; and Zohra Lampert is extraordinary as an embittered con artist who stumbles into a chance to mastermind a bank robbery in “Queen of the Gypsies.” Lampert’s intricate shadings of bravado and vulnerability divide the viewer’s loyalty, leading one to root for her even against our man Kojak.
Kearney’s basic empathy for his outlaws made his scripts the deepest Kojaks, and as they departed from the show’s usual tight procedural focus they allowed for welcome variations in tone. The dreamy, murky “I Want to Report a Dream” casts Ruth Gordon as a medium who has premonitions of a serial killer’s escapades, which may or may not be genuine, and who may or may not have a concealed personal relationship with said killer. “Cross Your Heart and Hope to Die” is as fragile and sensitive as its two ill-starred young lovers (Andrea Marcovicci and Next Stop Greenwich Village star Lenny Baker, both terrific), a cloistered girl who hides in her retro-decorated room and the mama’s boy across the courtyard who loves her. Kearney’s twist is that the boy happens to be a homicidal maniac, and his triumph is that the show feels more like a lost Curtis Harrington film than an episode of a weekly cop show.
Sultry Zohra Lampert may have been Kojak’s greatest adversary.
The category I labeled as “crime capers” in my formulation above is a bit of a cheat, a loose grouping of varied but superlative Kojaks that pit Kojak against clever criminals and their complex schemes. “Night of the Piraeus” is one of these, a duel between two rival collector-smugglers (Norman Lloyd and Ivor Francis) over a rare stamp whose value is too abstract for any of the cops to understand. Ray Brenner’s “The Goodluck Bomber” obscures the true intentions of an expert bombmaker (a mesmerizing Richard Bradford), who could be villain or tragic hero, for far longer than one would think possible. Beginning with the seemingly pointless theft of a paint truck, James M. Miller’s ticking-clock puzzle “Two-Four-Six For Two Hundred” sets Kojak on the trail of a bigger heist that’s happening right now. Robert Loggia plays a supercriminal cocky enough to insert himself into Kojak’s investigation (a bad idea), and Miller hides the details of his good-enough-to-work-in-real-life plot in plain sight, saving a great twist for the very end.
The police-procedural episodes are the rarest orchids in Detective Stavros’s desktop garden. (If you don’t get that, watch the show.) There are only three in the second season, two of them written by Burton Armus (a real N.Y.P.D. detective who served as the show’s technical advisor) and one by the aptly-named Joseph Polizzi. Armus’s episodes are choked with such dense insider lingo that, at times, it’s hard to follow what’s going on. That’s not a complaint; for a show like Kojak, authenticity has more value than clarity. In Armus’s scripts, the police do not behave like television heroes; they are smart, bold, and unpredictable, but also very careful and plausibly self-interested. In Armus’s first script, “The Best War in Town,” Kojak disarms an internecine mafia war Yojimbo-style, by isolating the rival gangsters and playing upon their vanity and their paranoia, getting them all to squeal on each others’ past misdeeds. It’s hilarious in a just-crazy-enough-to-work kind of way, and it anticipates The Sopranos’ depiction of mobsters as vicious, dull-witted, and unintentionally funny.
Polizzi’s “The Betrayal” examines the relationship between an ambitious detective (Richard Romanus) and his weaselly informant (Paul Anka). Polizzi probes the gray area in which cops allow or even facilitate petty crimes in order to catch major felons in the act; in a key scene, Kojak and McNeil disagree over whether Romanus’s character has gone too far. In Armus’s “Unwanted Partners,” Detective Crocker (Kevin Dobson) gradually realizes that an old acquaintance from the neighborhood has become a violent gangster. When it comes time to bust the guy, Crocker wants to go in alone to try to prevent a shootout. Kojak immediately shuts down that cop-show cliché. He insists that Crocker confront his old friend from behind a makeshift bulletproof barrier (a hotel room mattress, ingeniously rigged) and stations the rest of his squad outside in the hallway. Essentially, Kojak turns Crocker’s non-violent gesture into an ambush rigged in favor of the police.
It’s a shame that Kojak couldn’t achieve this kind of naturalism every week. Of course, to do that, it would have needed a writing staff of all cops. Not until The Wire, which was written mostly by ex-police beat reporters, did television offer a crime series that was entirely suffused with such street authenticity.
It wasn’t just the writing that improved over time on Kojak. The series was an instant hit in its first season, and I suspect that made Universal generous enough with the budget for the producers to fix some crucial production problems. The most significant of those was the location issue. During the first year, a second unit picked up a library of establishing shots on the streets of Manhattan, but nearly all of the principal photography was done on Universal’s cramped, inauthentic backlot. The clash between real and fake New York was jarring, and it happened over and over again in each episode. For the second season, the New York lensing was more extensive, and the producers allocated their resources more shrewdly. Some episodes (like “Close Cover Before Killing”) were mostly backlot and others (like “Wall Street Gunslinger”) were were mostly location, but the whipsawing back and forth came to a halt.
Kojak also gained a gifted composer in John Cacavas, who joined the series early in the first season and by the second was contributing rich, diverse scores to every episode. Cacavas hasn’t gotten as much attention he deserves (Jon Burlingame’s definitive TV’s Biggest Hits mentions him only in passing), but I think the variety and unpredictability of his music adds a great deal to the series, especially relative to Billy Goldenberg’s middling opening title. (Was there a seventies crime show that didn’t have sirens, or at least a blaring rock-music approximation thereof, running through its opening theme? See also: Ironside; Mod Squad; The Streets of San Francisco.)
Then there was Kojak himself. Even Savalas modulated his performance during the second season, saving the worst abuse for the bad guys who deserved it. Just as you can sense the writers finding their groove, you can watch Savalas relax into his role in the second season, diluting the meanness with humor and the occasional glimmer of warmth. In “Unwanted Partners,” which brings the implied father-son relationship between Kojak and Crocker to the fore, Crocker asks his boss to stop calling him “kid.” The lieutenant’s response is a reluctant grunt of assent. For Theo Kojak, that was quite a concession.
A clever script, real New York locations, great character actors (pictured, David Doyle and Normann Burton), and exciting compositions (by director Richard Donner): “The Best War in Town” was one of the first Kojaks to assemble all the elements into near perfection.