Set in "Manhattan South" (New York City's Thirteenth Precinct), the series is named for Lt. Theodore "Theo" Kojak (Telly Savalas in his most famous role besides that one time he played Blofeld). He might not observe all the niceties when it comes to his $240-a-week-after-taxes job, but he gets the job done, ya dig? A Greek-American who pronounces the "w" in "sword," this cop knows who Confucius is, and has read Edgar Allan Poe. He grew up in a "sewer" he now wants to clean up, but he's also sympathetic to the junkies, whores, stoolies, and other damaged people he encounters. After all, he grew up alongside them, in the same neighborhood. Also added to the mix are members of his squad: wet-behind-the-ears Det. Crocker (Kevin Dobson), slovenly Det. Stavros (George Savalas), and fretful Cpn. McNeil (Dan Frazer).
Kojak originated in a TV movie called The Marcus-Nelson Murders, based loosely on the "Career Girls Murders" used in the ground-breaking Miranda Supreme Court decision. Kojak was a stand-in for the various detectives involved in the case. 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—along with his Bailey Gentry fedora and sunglasses.
The series was rebooted in 2005 starring Ving Rhames in the title role, but was axed again after a single ten episode season. Vin Diesel has more recently been trying to develop a feature film adaptation of the series as a starring vehicle.
Kojak provides examples of:
- Addiction Displacement: Kojak's lollipops. They became an icon for both the original and the revival.
- Artistic License Gun Safety: As with most fictional cops before The '90s, the police on this show are way too trigger happy, frequently firing off warning shots and trying to shoot out people's tires in high-speed chases.
- Bald of Awesome: An early example.
- Big Applesauce: Nearly every episode is set in NYC.
- Catchphrase: "Who loves ya, baby?"
- For a supposed Catchphrase, he doesn't actually say it very often.
- Conspicuously Public Assassination: An attempted hit on a Mafia boss at a Columbus Day rally in "One for the Morgue." As it turns out, it was all a frameup to get the cops to break up his biggest rival's gang.
- Crime After Crime: In "Web of Death," a police detective murders his wife's lover. Then he murders the junkie he had planned to use as his alibi when he thinks he might talk. When Kojak catches him, he's literally seconds away from a third murder, this time of the pimp who sold him the gun.
- Detective Drama
- Detective Mole: In "Web of Death," Kojak investigates a murder that was committed by his temporary partner.
- Bittersweet/Downer Ending: The episode "Monkey on a String" is about a down-on-his-luck cop who gets increasingly caught up with a rich criminal who pays him handsomely for supplying information, thus saving him from various debts and allowing him to splash out on his beautiful wife. Things come to a head as the cop is eventually asked to commit One Last Job for the criminal - a takedown of a witness that could land the criminal in jail. After a series of complications the cop ends up in the same car as the witness and his partner as the killers arrive to take the hit. The cop saves the witness and his partner but he gets killed in the process, and dies mid-sentence asking Kojak to tell his wife something. Damn.
- Dirty Cop: Det. Ferro in the season one episode "Web of Death". Ferro finds out his wife is stepping out on him, kills the boyfriend, and attempts to cover it up without much success.Kojak: Frank, it hurts. I pinned the gold on him myself.
McNeil: No need to gouge yourself, Theo. He kept it polished.
Kojak: Mm hmm, until last night.
- Dolled-Up Installment: The first two TV movies in the '80s, Kojak: The Belarus Secret and Kojak: The Price Of Justice, were respectively based on the novels The Belarus File by John Loftus and The Investigation by Dorothy Uhnak.
- Everybody Owns a Ford
- The Ghost: Cleveland, the mobster suspected of ordering the assassination attempt in "One for the Morgue," spends the entire episode in hiding. Kojak only encounters his goons.
- Hardboiled Detective: Kojak's speech was clearly inspired by a lot of hard-boiled fiction, such as when he forces a guy to jump from a pier, then tells a subordinate, "Look, there's some debris floatin' in the river. Would you fish it out before it pollutes the entire eastern seaboard?"
- Hostage Situation: The pilot episode, "Siege of Terror."
- Idiot Ball: In "One for the Morgue," the cops don't realize that a Mafia boss set up his own assassination attempt until they see him chatting with the hitman, even though they already know he was wearing a bulletproof vest at the time of the attack (which they concede was unsual for him) and that the bullets were packed with only small amounts of gunpowder to make them less deadly.
- MAD: "Jojerk."
- Not Himself
- Oral Fixation: the switch to the ubiquitous lollipops.
- Pilot Movie: The Marcus-Nelson Murders (in which the detective's name is spelled "Kojack").
- Police Procedural
- Quip to Black: Kojak has an early version in most episodes.
- Replaced the Theme Tune:original from Billy Goldenberg. The replacement by John Cacavas, a Savalasnote regular. by this time Savalas' wardrobe was credited to - "Telly Apparel For The Man." (Thus explaining the opening...)
- Revival: The series was brought back for two TV movies in the mid 80s and then brought back for a sixth season consisting of 5 movie length episodes that featured Kojak in the rank of Inspector as part of The ABC Mystery Movie in 1989 along side a revival of Columbo as part of that series.
- Reverse Whodunnit: "Web of Death."
- Ripped from the Headlines: "One for the Morgue" was loosely inspired by the attempted assassination of Mafia boss (and self-proclaimed "Italian-American rights activist") Joe Colombo, which occurred two years previously.
- Roguish Romani: Kojak consults with one of his streetwise snitches, a Romani fellow wearing a tattered jacket and a gold watch. Kojak asks him who he stole that from, then confiscates it. The snitch reminds Kojak that when the Romans led Christ to Golgotha, they brought five nails with them, one for each hand, one for each foot, and an extra-long one through the thorax. A Gypsy stole two of the nails, so the long one had to be used on both feet together. Since then, God has granted Gypsies the right to steal for their part in fulfilling the prophecy.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Leans to the cynical side. The 1970s was a time of rising crime in New York City, and the show reflected the frustration.
- Spin-Off: Theo Kojak began life as the lead character in The Marcus-Nelson Murders, a TV movie loosely based on a real-life double murder. In this (and the pilot episode of his titular series), his name is alternatively spelled "Kojack".
- Sweet Tooth: Kojak and his lollipops, as always. Even before he started on the lollipops, he could often be seen snacking on candy or ice cream bars.
- Title Drop: "Death Is Not A Passing Grade." Yes, someone (James Woods, no less) actually says it.
- Waistcoat of Style: For a guy who constantly complains about his $240-a-week-after-taxes job, Kojak sure can afford some nice threads.