The show was created by Abby Mann, an Academy Award-winning film writer best known for his work on drama anthologies such as Robert Montgomery Presents and Playhouse 90. Universal Television approached him to do a story based on the 1963 Wylie-Hoffert "Career Girls Murders". The crime involved the brutal rape and murder of two young professional women in Manhattan.
Due to poor police work and the prevailing casual attitude toward suspects' civil rights, the crimes in the Wylie-Hoffert case were pinned on a young African-American male, George Whitmore, Jr., who had been arrested on a separate assault charge. After illegally obtaining a confession, the police had the suspect all but convicted until a second investigation by a different team of detectives exonerated the suspect and identified the real killer, a white junkie.
Mann developed the project as a gritty police procedural, but with a subtext focusing on institutionalized prejudice and the civil rights of suspects and witnesses. The result was the 1973 made-for-TV movie, The Marcus-Nelson Murders. The opening and closing titles of the film emphasized the point that it was a fictional account of the events that led to the creation of Miranda rights by the US Supreme Court in 1966.
Telly Savalas starred in The Marcus-Nelson Murders as a police detective whose last name was spelled "Kojack." The film would serve as a pilot for the Kojak television series. Kojak himself was a composite character, based on a number of detectives, lawyers, and reporters who were involved in the Wylie-Hoffert murder case.
The series was set in the New York City Police Department's Thirteenth Precinct, Manhattan South Patrol Borough. The show revolved around the efforts of the tough and incorruptible Lieutenant Theo Kojak (Telly Savalas), a bald, dapper, New York City policeman who was fond of lollipops and for using the catchphrase, "Who loves ya, baby?" Kojak was stubborn and tenacious in his investigation of crimes - and also displayed a dark, cynical wit, along with a tendency to bend the rules if it brought a criminal to justice. Savales described Kojak as a "basically honest character, tough but with feelings -- the kind of guy who might kick a hooker in the tail if he had to, but they'd understand each other because maybe they grew up on the same kind of block."
In the early episodes of the series, Kojak smoked heavily; in order to reflect the anti-smoking sentiment gaining momentum on American TV, the writers decided that Kojak had quit smoking. He began sucking on lollipops as a substitute, which became a trademark of the character (although Kojak is frequently seen smoking a cigarillo when he winds up a case by interrogation of the main suspect(s)). The lollipop made its debut in the Season 1 episode "Dark Sunday", broadcast on Dec. 12, 1973; Kojak lights a cigarillo as he begins questioning a witness, but thinks better of it and sticks a lollipop (specifically, a Tootsie Pop) in his mouth instead. Later in the episode, Kevin Dobson's character asks about the lollipop and Kojak replies, "I'm trying to bridge the generation gap."
Telly Savalas as Lt. Theo Kojak with ubiquitous lollipop
His longtime supervisor was Capt. Frank McNeil (Dan Frazer). Later in the series, McNeil was promoted to Chief of Detectives in Manhattan. Kojak is the commander of the Manhattan South Precinct's detective squad. His squad includes one of his favorite employees: young plainclothes officer, Det. Bobby Crocker (Kevin Dobson). Detectives Stavros (played by Telly's real-life brother George Savalas, who originally used the name "Demosthenes" as his screen credit; under his real name, Savalas also received a Production Associate credit during the early seasons), Saperstein (Mark Russell), and Rizzo (Vince Conti), all gave Kojak support.
Although the show primarily focused on Kojak's police work, it occasionally veered into other areas of the character's lives, such as the first season episode "Knockover" which included a subplot involving Kojak romancing a (much younger) female police officer.
In 1976, acclaimed crime writer Joe Gores received an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Episode in a TV Series Teleplay for the third-season episode "No Immunity for Murder" (first aired November 23, 1975).
The show ended in 1978, after five seasons, due to low ratings. Reruns of Kojak became successful in syndication and TV Land. Years after the series ended, Savalas reprised the role in two TV movies, The Belarus File (1985), an adaptation of the John Loftus book The Belarus Secret, and The Price of Justice (1987), based on Dorothy Uhnak's novel, The Investigation. Kojak is not a character in either book.
In 1989–1990 Kojak returned to television in five two-hour episodes that aired on ABC, rotating with three other series as part of the ABC Mystery Movie. No longer a lieutenant commanding a precinct detective squad, Kojak had been promoted to inspector and put in charge of the NYPD's city-wide Major Crimes Squad. Andre Braugher was cast as a young detective assigned to Kojak's command.
Series stars The Savalas Brothers (Telly & George), Frazer and Dobson are the only cast members to appear in every episode of the series, and stayed throughout the entire run.
Telly Savalas - Lieutenant Theo Kojak - A bald detective
Dan Frazer - Capt. Frank McNeil - Kojak's boss
Kevin Dobson - Det. Bobby Crocker - Kojak's partner
George Savalas (Demosthenes) - Det. Stavros - Kojak's supporting co-worker
Mark Russell - Det. Saperstein
Vince Conti - Det. Rizzo
Andre Braugher - Det. Winston Blake (1989-90 ABC revival)
A roster of guest stars
During its five season run, many unfamiliar and/or familiar actors who guest-starred on the show went on to greater fame; among those appearing in Kojak episodes are: John Ritter, Bernie Kopell, Kathleen Quinlan, Sharon Gless, Swoosie Kurtz, Stacy Keach, Sr., Sylvester Stallone, Thayer David, Lenny Montana, Jayne Kennedy, David White, Harvey Keitel, Charles Siebert, Joan Van Ark, John Pleshette, Pamela Hensley, Dominic Chianese, Yvonne Craig, Mary Beth Hurt, Roosevelt Grier, Lynn Redgrave, Kene Holliday, John Larroquette, Lonny Chapman, Judith Chapman, Richard Eastham, Erik Estrada, Robert Ito, Richard Herd, Robert Webber, Sally Kirkland, Richard Gere, Paul Benedict, James Luisi, Roger E. Mosley, Stephen Macht, Nicholas Colasanto, Dabney Coleman, James Sloyan, Michael Ansara, Paul Michael Glaser, Marco St. John, Ken Kercheval, Judith Light, John M. Pickard, Eileen Brennan, Al Franken, Irene Cara, Hector Elizondo, Jackie Cooper, William Katt, Jerry Orbach, Danny Thomas, Allan Miller, Danny Aiello and James Woods, among many others.
Future Hill Street Blues stars, Daniel J. Travanti and Veronica Hamel would make guest appearances on the show, along with future Falcon Crest stars David Selby and Susan Sullivan, future The Young and The Restless stars Eric Braeden and Jess Walton, and Len Lesser, who portrayed Uncle Leo on Seinfeld, made appearances on the show, as well.
The somewhat more well-known first Kojak theme, in two distinct arrangements is the work of Billy Goldenberg, who scored the early episodes. John Cacavas composed the second main title theme used throughout the show's 5th and final season.
Main article: List of Kojak episodes
Kojak aired for 5 seasons on CBS, from 1973-1978. In the mid-eighties Kojak returned in two made-for-TV movies. In 1989, eleven years after the series ended, Telly Savalas returned to play Kojak in 5 TV movies that aired on ABC as part of their ABC Mystery Movie theme block which aired on Saturday nights.
Main article: Kojak (2005 TV series)
In March 2005, a new Kojak series debuted on the USA Network cable channel and on ITV4 in the UK. In this re-imagined version, African-American actor Ving Rhames portrays the character. The series only lasted one season.
In the hit 1977 movie Smokey and the Bandit, Cledus Snow (Jerry Reed) referred to a police officer with a radar gun as a "Kojak with a Kodak".
In Brazil the show was so successful that in the 1970s and 80s the term "Kojak" became Brazilian slang for "bald man". Telly Savalas visited the country to do promotional work.
In Rio de Janeiro, the expression: "I won't give a chance to Kojak" became popular among criminals — as in, the speaker would avoid leaving any clue that would lead the police to him or her. Later, this expression became popular among lay people. Nowadays, it means "I won't let anyone see my mistakes".
On French television, actor Henry Djanik dubbed Kojak. He also dubbed "Dog Savalas", who was modelled on Telly Savalas, and was a character from the manga and anime versions of the popular Japanese series Space Adventure Cobra.
In Chile and Romania, a "kojak" is a slang to refer to any kind of lollipop.
In poker, specifically Texas Hold 'Em, the starting hand K-J is often referred to as Kojak.
In Ace Attorney Investigations, the trenchcoated Detective Badd is first seen with a white stick between his lips. When he takes it out it's revealed to be a lollipop.
Universal Studios Home Entertainment has released Season One of Kojak on DVD in Region 1, 2 and 4.
Mediumrare Entertainment released Seasons 2 & 3 on DVD in Region 2 on April 26th, 2010.
DVD Name Episodes Release dates
Region 1 Region 2 Region 4
Season One 22 March 22, 2005 July 18, 2005 June 1, 2006 Season Two 25 N/A April 26, 2010 N/A
Season Three 24 N/A April 26, 2010 N/A
Season Four 25 N/A N/A N/A
Season Five 22 N/A N/A N/A