"Who loves ya, baby?" he used to say, with the lollipop in his mouth.
Well, Queen Elizabeth, for one. Once upon a time, the woman whom Bette Midler immortally described as "the whitest woman in the Western World" never shrank from telling a living soul that her favorite TV show was "Kojak."
In the entire history of pop cultural taste, I'm not sure I've ever encountered a weirder or more delightful affinity. Just take a few minutes and picture it: Elizabeth Regina, swathed in comfy flannel and with her Windsor feet encased in sleeping socks, sits on the bedroom couch in one of her palaces dedicatedly watching Theo Kojak. Kojak, in turn, barks at one of his underlings ("Crock-UHHHHH") and prowls through his home borough with a felt "stingy-brim" hat and the cheapest coats off the rack in all of Macy's.
Telly Savalas' OTB wardrobe in "Kojak," by the way, was always to be distinguished from the biggest mystery of all in "Kojak" which was this: how on earth did Crocker afford that perfectly-tailored camel's-hair coat on "Kojak" when his boss always looked as if he should be reading the Racing Form in a bus station? It was one thing to establish the point that Kojak's fictional underling was more than a bit of a clothes horse; it was quite another to give Crocker a wardrobe that even Kevin Dobson -- the actor who played him -- might have had trouble affording. (Extra credit question: Was Crocker TV's first metrosexual?)
I was never a "Kojak" devotee, mind you -- not like Elizabeth Regina, as her friends call her -- but I certainly saw it often enough. And heaven knows there was nobody else on television who got away with the narcissism, arrogance and crassness that Savalas exuded in every camera angle.
The minute Savalas walked into a room, it became a tiny extention of himself, until whatever case he was working on was solved. Come to think of it, that's probably what Queen E liked so much; underneath all that schlocky affect, Savalas carried himself as pure royalty -- He Who Must Be Served ("Crock-UHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!")
And now we've got Ving Rhames, a wonderful actor whose default mode is Droopy Dog, not Aristotle Onassis. He's got Savalas' lollies and Savalas' shaven head. (Though the meaning is entirely different. For Rhames it's commonplace, for Savalas it was in-our-face priapism.)
He's even got his very own Crocker -- not one, though, whose camel's hair coat costs as much as a used car.
Otherwise, this new Kojak has so little to do with the old that you wonder why on earth they even bothered to call it "Kojak." They could just as easily have called it "M-Squad." Or "87th Precinct." Or, considering the pilot ending, "Cagney and Lacey." (In the final frames, Theo, in a bar, sobbed inconsolably in the arms of Chazz Palminteri. Somewhere in the Great Beyond, the sucker dropped right out of Telly's mouth. Every effort should be made to keep the episode from the Queen.)
It started right out with the new Kojak doing an Andy Sipowitz and slamming a perp's head against an interrogation room table. I doubt frankly whether King Telly would have found that necessary.
If Kojak was a boss -- of a sort delightful in fantasy and insufferable in the world -- Steve Carrell's version of Ricky Gervais' nightmare boss in NBC's rip-off of BBC's "The Office" is a splendidly funny example of what can happen when ordinary clueless doofuses have delusions of being Telly Savalas: they tell weepy underlings they're being laid off for the "joke" of it; and they evince, at any given moment, less native ability than you'd find in the lining of Crocker's overcoat.
Carrell as the ultimate boss jackass is perfect casting. So is Ving Rhames as a dogged USA network sensitive cop for weekly consumption.
Ving Rhames as Telly Savalas? You've got to be kidding.