Ving Rhames isn’t Savalas but his own man in ‘Kojak’

Times Staff Writer

“Kojak” is back, 11 years after the death of Telly Savalas, in a limited series from the USA Network, and let us all admit from the start that, lollipops and “New York setting” aside -- Toronto standing in for the back lot at Universal standing in for Manhattan -- this isn’t “Kojak” in any way that matters. Kojak is not a role like, say, Hamlet, where any old actor will do.

TV characters, by virtue of long, weekly association and custom-tailored scripts, are mostly inextricable from the actors who first play them. (There are exceptions -- the two Darrins of “Bewitched,” most famously -- but even there, controversy rages.) It’s like remaking “Mary Tyler Moore” with Parker Posey, or “Columbo” with Jim Belushi -- or “Kojak” with Ving Rhames -- not the worst idea in the world, possibly, and with clear commercial logic, but a trip in no way necessary. Let sleeping icons lie!

Things get underway tonight, nevertheless, with a movie-length premiere before settling down next Sunday into an eight-week run of hourlong episodes. And wouldn’t you know it, here’s another serial killer on the loose -- there are enough of them out there, apparently, to start a guild -- and he’s dispatching prostitutes in a particularly gruesome way, involving bondage and razor blades, I’ll just mention for anyone considering sitting down for this with the kiddies.


There are a few twists and turns to the case that, if you are paying the least bit of attention, you will untangle long before Kojak does, but essentially it’s the old case of killer versus cops. This is all rendered elegantly enough, with a few suspenseful moments when guns are drawn, though it doesn’t add up to much in the end. (It also leaves you with a Kojak uncomfortably easy with the idea of vigilante justice, to the point of personally precipitating a murder. Classic Kojak bent rules, but he had a little more respect for the law.)

Certainly, if I had to cast a new Kojak, qualifications to include shaved head and an air of authority not undermined by conspicuous hipster dandyism, I could think of no one better for the role than Rhames (“Pulp Fiction”), unless it were Isaac Hayes, who is probably too old for it. That Rhames is a black man wearing a Greek name is a question raised early on by a talkative hoodlum -- “What kind of name is Kojak for a fine handsome Nubian prince like yourself?” -- and it’s a question the script slyly lets hang. But why not, after all? And if costar Chazz Palminteri can play a Capt. Frank McNeil, Rhames can surely be a Kojak.

And he’s his own Kojak, after all, low and slow where Savalas was fast and loud, a Kojak who feels your pain as though it were his very own -- there is a lot of sentimental stuff involving the children of one of the murdered women, and he takes it on himself as well to tell the estranged father of another, “You need to know in your heart that all you needed was more time.” He’s the crying Kojak, which will surprise no one who remembers Rhames’ lachrymosity on the occasion of winning the Golden Globe for “Don King: Only in America.”

For those who prefer “original recipe” Kojak, the first season of the Savalas series, which ran from 1973 to 1978 with occasional brief returns, has just come out on DVD. It’s something to see, if only because it so vividly recalls a gone era, both a time in the life of New York (whose actual city-self shows up quite often in the first few episodes before tapering off into a large library of inserts) and a time in TV drama when the ranks of the justice system were not swelled with cops and prosecutors who might easily have worked their way through the academy posing as underwear models. The detectives of old “Kojak” are, with a couple of exceptions, middle-aged men with sallow skin and off-the-rack suits, working in drab offices with flaking paint and old furniture, and they work a wide range of cases, not just murders but good old ordinary robbery and extortion, drug-dealing and fraud. This is really refreshing.

The original is also quite a bit of fun -- corny and overwritten, to be sure, but fast-paced (where the new model is often ponderous), with a lot of funky characters filling up the corners. (The new “Kojak” makes a few stabs in that direction, notably in a scene with a singing streetwalker, but could profitably make a few more.) Like the crime films of old, it has the quality of seeming phony and true-to-life at the same time -- not unlike Savalas himself, who sounds something like a cross between Rodney Dangerfield and Frank Sinatra and goes around with a mouthful of ripe corn -- “Who loves ya, baby?” etc. -- and suckers.

“What’s with the lollipops?” someone asks him.

“I’m lookin’ to close the generation gap,” replies old Kojak. “Get outta here!”




Where: USA

When: 9 to 11 tonight. Regular time 10 p.m. Sundays, beginning April 3

Ratings: TV-14 V (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisory for violence)

Ving Rhames...Lt. Theo Kojak

Chazz Palminteri...Capt. Frank McNeil

Roselyn Sanchez...Asst. District Atty. Carmen Warrick

Executive producers Tom Thayer and Ving Rhames. Director Michael Watkins. Writer Anthony Piccirillo.