For at least one night this week, the streets of New York will be safe again.
Kojak is back.
Saturday night, CBS returns Telly Savalas to television as Theo Kojak, the nail-tough police lieutenant who for five seasons of network prime time made staples of Tootsie Pops, the line "Who loves yuh, baby?" and a marginal regard for the Miranda rule.
The return of "Kojak," which won Savalas an Emmy at the end of the show's first season in 1974, raises basic questions: Why is CBS bringing the show back now? Why at all? Will it ever be a series again?
">'Kojak' would have been back sooner," said Savalas, "but Universal (the show's producer) felt, let's bleed the syndication. That's the way it looks from my point of view. As I understand it, the network wanted it back sooner. But Universal wanted to go the syndication route."
What he means is, "Who pays yuh, baby?" Producers of TV series generally make more money when a show goes into reruns than during a program's original airing. And "Kojak" reruns are seen all over the country, all over the world in fact. Locally, it's on at 11:30 weeknights on Channel 5.
Saturday at 8, Savalas and most of the orginal cast appear in a two-hour episode, "Kojak: The Belarus File." Theo, still holding the rank of lieutenant, investigates the killing of several Russian emigr,es and soon finds himself embroiled in a thick plot that reaches from the current-day State Department back to the days of the Nazi occupation of the Soviet Union.
Resuming the role of Kojak is a bit like putting on an old velvet harness. On the one hand, the role brought Savalas instant fame and recognition. "I'd done some 60 movies before 'Kojak' and people said, 'There goes what's-his-name,' " said Savalas, recalling a string of films in which he often played a villain. In one of those movies, "The Greatest Story Ever Told," Savalas played Pontius Pilate -- one of his bigger villain roles -- and shaved his head for the part. Good career move. The clean head and bullish demeanor later made Kojak one of television's most distinctive characters. Since the series, Savalas has never had to carry his American Express card -- he's recognized everywhere. "I was amazed by the treatment I received while touring Leningrad," he said, recalling being singled out of the crowd and given his own tours. ">'Kojak's' piped into Russia from Finland."
The down side of that fame and character association comes in trying for the follow-up. Savalas noted that he's done movies and commercials since the series left prime time, that he's been busy and selective. But who kids yuh, baby? There's been nothing like 'Kojak' to rivet public attention.
"Kojak" loyalists will be pleased to know that most of the original 13th precict crew is back for Saturday night's outing -- McNeil, Stavros, Rizzo and Saperstein. But Savalas does not get to bellow, "Crocker, get in here!" Kevin Dobson, who played Crocker, is out on another case as a regular on "Knots Landing." More good news: the episode also stars Suzanne Pleshette and Max Von Sydow -- he played Christ in "The Greatest Story Ever Told."
So, does this movie signal the return of "Kojak" as a series? "I don't know," said Savalas. "I don't know what they're thinking in the towers."
Savalas is not a man opposed to new beginnings. Two months ago, his third wife bore his fifth child, a boy, just a month before Savalas' 59th birthday. Professionally, he's in the script stage for three other TV projects.
If Saturday's ratings are high and the CBS executives in the towers want another New York street-smart series, say, to fill the Saturday night spot left by "Mike Hammer," would Savalas revive "Kojak" fulltime?
"I think I'd be available to do about six to eight a year," he said. "I'd like to know more about Kojak," he said. "Is he married? Does he have any kids? Where does he live? Who is this gorilla?"
Telly Savalas and Max Von Sydow in "Kojak: The Belarus File" Saturday.