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The popular TV series Kojak took its name from the character of Lieutenant Theo Kojak, the iconoclastic commander of a detective squad at the Manhattan South precinct in New York City and one of the more memorable characters to appear on 1970s television. With his habitual consumption of lollypops and his trademark line, "Who loves ya, baby?," Lt. Kojak earned a loyal TV following that ultimately led to cult status as one of the small screen's most endearing law enforcers.

At first Telly Savalas, the actor who brought Lt. Kojak to life, might have seemed an unlikely candidate for a television hero. The fortyish Greek-American actor, with his shaven head, substantial nose, and unconventional looks, had generally played villains throughout his career. Among his many portraits of evil, he had depicted Pontius Pilate (The Greatest Story Ever Told), James Bond's nemesis Ernest Stavro Blofeld (On Her Majesty's Secret Service), and redneck psychopath Archer Maggot (The Dirty Dozen). But Savalas turned out to be an inspired choice for the role of the tough-but-tender detective. Kojak's first appearance was in the made-for-TV movie The Marcus-Nelson Murders, broadcast in the spring of 1973. Widely regarded as one of the best television films ever made, the two-hour special won two Emmy Awards (for writing and directing) and generated network interest in a series, which premiered in the fall of 1973 and ran five seasons, airing a total of 112 hour-long episodes.

Although the opening title sequence included footage of Kojak firing a pistol, the character rarely engaged in violent action during the weekly episodes. Kojak usually solved crimes by interpreting evidence, persuading reluctant witnesses, playing department politics when necessary, and directing his squad of detectives while conducting an investigation. As an urban crime drama, Kojak did not lack for incidents of violence—but these were typically played out either by criminals or by Kojak's detectives while engaged in apprehending the criminals. As such, the principal enforcer on Kojak's squad was Detective Bobby Crocker (played by Kevin Dobson). Other regular cast members included Kojak's boss, Captain McNeil (Dan Frazier), Detective Saperstein (Mark Russell), and Detective Stavros (played by Savalas' brother George, but billed in the cast as "Demosthenes").

Although the show was cancelled in 1978, the character of Kojak was revived several times during the next decade. He was the protagonist in two made-for-TV movies: The Belarus File (1985) and The Price of Justice (1987). Then, in 1989, Savalas agreed to portray Kojak in a series of two-hour shows to be part of a "wheel" program, The ABC Saturday Mystery. As such, the adventures of Kojak alternated with three other detective shows, including the popular Columbo, starring Peter Falk. The new show, which lasted only one season, promoted Kojak to Inspector and surrounded him with a new supporting cast—including Andre Braugher, who would later go on to acclaim and an Emmy Award for his work on another cop show, Homicide: Life on the Streets. Telly Savalas died in 1994.

—Justin Gustainis

Further Reading:

Myers, Richard. TV Detectives. San Diego, California, A. S.Barnes, 1981.