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.

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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.

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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*HKojak 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.

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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.

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