On Oct. 24, 1973, one of the most memorable cop series in the history of the world officially arrived.
Starring Garden City native Telly Savalas, with the indomitable dome and incisive wit, "Kojak" lasted five seasons and 118 episodes on CBS. The show won a few Emmys, lots of fans (many in England, for some reason) and conferred on Savalas an international cache that continues to this day. He died on Jan. 22, 1994, the day after his 72nd birthday.
But unlike so many other '70s cop procedurals, "Kojak's" was based on a real-life tragedy, and the work of a dogged investigative reporter who refused to accept the official police version of what happened:
On Aug. 28, 1963, two young women, Emily Hoffert and Janice Wylie, were murdered in their Upper East Side apartment. The "Career Girls Murders," as the press called this, traumatized a changing and unsettled city. Nevertheless, an arrest and speedy conviction wouldn't come for months — a Black teen from Brooklyn who would be released after two years behind bars because of police and prosecutorial misconduct so extreme that the Supreme Court cited the case when establishing the Miranda rights in 1966.
Universal decided to make a movie, and turned to an Oscar-winning screenwriter, Abby Mann, who had a reputation for turning socially progressive subjects into watchable live productions, mostly for '50s classics like "Studio One" and "Playhouse 90."
Mann's source material was a 1967 book, "Justice in the Back Room," by Selwyn Raab, a crime reporter for the (long defunct) New York World-Telegram and Sun. Raab's reporting for the paper exonerated the Brooklyn teen, George Whitmore Jr., in part by establishing that a confession had been beaten out of him, while cops fed him details of the crime scene. Raab also proved that Whitmore was in New Jersey at the time of the murders. The real killer, Richard Robles, was arrested in 1965.
Mann lined up Marlon Brando for the lead, but when Universal decided to make the movie for TV, Brando left for another project ("The Godfather," in case you were wondering). As Raab, 89, now recalls, the Fortune Society, a prison reform group, sued to block it, claiming a film would compromise Robles' appeal. To sidestep the lawsuit, Mann changed the names, including the movie's, which became "The Marcus-Nelson Murders." It finally aired March 8, 1973.
The hero was one Lt. Theodopolus "Theo" Kojack of Manhattan South's (fictional) 11th precinct. (The "c" in "Kojak" was dropped for the series.) Already well known for a menacing big-screen presence, Savalas brought that same exacting menace to TV. Without so much as a lollipop or "who loves ya baby" — those came much later — he instantly created one of the great cops of TV history. With smooth head, aquiline nose, penetrating eyes, Savalas' Kojack was soul on ice — the toughest of cops who was determined that at least one injustice in the cold, cruel city would be set right.
Raab (pronounced RAB) has long been considered the model for the crusading detective of the 11th, but in a recent phone interview, insisted he was not — "I don't suck lollipops,'' Raab says, as proof. Besides, Universal "didn't think a reporter would play in Peoria. They wanted a good cop" in the title role (yet another setback because the real-life one Mann had settled on was later indicted on a charge of suborning perjury, Raab recalls.).
"I thought the movie was pretty good, although I never watched the spinoff because I was too busy," he says. Raab went on to a celebrated career as an investigative reporter, mostly for The New York Times, while his 2005 bestseller, "Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America's Most Powerful Mafia Empires" will become a History Channel series next year.
Of "Kojak," there was a nice side benefit: "I was able to put my daughter through law school."