Kojak is an American television series starring Telly Savalas as New York City Police Department Detective Lieutenant Theo Kojak. 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. 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 series was set in the New York City Police Department’s Eleventh Precinct Manhattan South Patrol. Drama revolved around the efforts of Kojak, a tough, incorruptible, bald, and dapper New York City policeman fond of Tootsie Roll Pops and using the catchphrase, “Who loves ya, baby?” Kojak was stubborn and tenacious in his investigation of crimes. He also displayed a dark, cynical wit, and a tendency to bend the rules if it brought a criminal to justice. Savalas described Kojak as a “basically honest character (who is) tough but with feelings. He’s 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.” Kojak’s Greek American heritage, shared by actor Savalas, was featured prominently in the series.
Kojak was also revolutionary for the amount of shots filmed on the streets of New York. While early episodes were mostly filmed on set, with stock shots taken on the actual New York City streets, the first episode called “Siege of Terror” featured numerous street shots, specifically during the opening of the show.
Originally airing on October 24, 1973, the plot revolved around a robbery of armored car guards that morphs into a deadly hostage standoff, with Kojak as the negotiator. Half the gang escaped with the cash, but when the other half is cornered, they invade a surplus store, crammed with guns and ammo. The robbers also had bargaining chips: 5 people in the building, plus a badly wounded patrolman. While young detective Bobby Crocker pursues the thieves who got away, Kojak smooth-talks Jerry Talaba (played by Harvey Keitel) to get the hostages out. Hothead Talaba demands a fueled 707 at JFK, or he’ll “start killing the hostages, then toss them out before the TV cameras and hundreds of spectators, one by one!”
All of these shots were taken in Lower Manhattan. Shots showing the Brooklyn Bridge and waterfront were taken on South Street, looking towards Brooklyn. The modern building in the first and third shot is the base of 2 New York Plaza, located on Broad and South Street. The shots of the squad car (Kojak’s 1973 Buick Century) next to the Brooklyn Bridge onramp were taken on South and Water Street. The corner building in those photos is today’s Bridge Cafe, which took extensive damage during Hurricane Sandy. The housing projects are the Hamilton/Madison houses north of the Brooklyn Bridge near Corlear’s Hook. Manhattan in the early 1970s, especially lower Manhattan, was a much different place. I can’t imagine Fulton Street and Church Avenue ever being this deserted today, even on a Sunday morning.
I’m a fan of how Kojak portrayed 1970s New York City. Not every story had a happy ending, and although Kojak is masterful at wrapping up a case in a T.V. hour, it was mostly an unbiased view of cops in New York. They showcased both the good and bad of being a police officer and what living in New York was like at the time. As you can see in these actual 1970s NYC crime photos, much of lower Manhattan neighborhoods alternated between blue-collar families, and the seedy underworld. The area in which the “Siege of Terror” was shot is better showcased in these dirty, dangerous, and destitute photos of the time. Take a look at some of these stills on Lower Manhattan’s streets from Kojak’s first episode. I’ve included an embedded video of the opening credits above the photos.