NETWORK - USA NETWORK / PHOTO CREDIT - ©STEVE WILKIE/USA Enlarge
Who loves ya, baby?
Why, Kojak does, of course. But given that Telly Savalas, originator of the bald and bold Manhattan police lieutenant, died in 1994, USA Network had to come up with somebody equally bald, equally bold, and equally adept at sucking on a lollipop - Kojak's signature move - if it hoped to remake the popular '70s cop series and score itself a hit with its new original series, Kojak.
The show premieres at 9 p.m. Friday as a two-hour movie before settling into its regular 10 p.m. Sunday time slot on April 3.
Enter Ving Rhames, sauntering down the precinct hallway in his polished two-tone shoes and natty suit, his chrome dome covered by a fedora tilted just so, his burly presence filling the screen in more ways than one.
Setting aside for a moment the question of whether a remake of an old series can be considered a "new" anything, USA has made an odd but gutsy choice with its casting of Rhames, an African-American, in the role of Lt. Theo Kojak in the series.
Rhames, 43, a veteran of dozens of stage productions and more than 50 films and TV shows, is probably best known from his roles as a drug dealer in Pulp Fiction, a computer hacker in the Mission Impossible feature film and its sequel, and for playing the lead role in the HBO film Don King: Only in America, for which he won a Golden Globe Award.
It wouldn't be easy for any actor to fill the Emmy-winning Savalas' gumshoes. His CBS series was a major hit for five seasons, much admired at the time for its realistic portrayal of big-city cops, and its charismatic Greek-American star became a TV icon, famous for his lollipops and his catchphrase, "Who loves ya, baby?"
To cast a black man in that role signaled that the new show's producers weren't interested in imitating the original Kojak, but were looking to use the brand name as a jumping-off point for a more contemporary cop show. In announcing the series last fall, USA Network President Bonnie Hammer said that, "in the hands of the great Ving Rhames, this is definitely not your father's Kojak."
OK, so it's less than honest to use the title of a beloved old show to lure viewers to what is intended to be something completely different. But if the result is good television, then maybe that can be forgiven.
So is the new Kojak any good? Well, let's just say that for those who remember the original series, this one won't make them forget it. The premiere movie, which focuses on a serial killer who's targeting prostitutes, is not particularly creative or fast-paced. The best thing about the show is undoubtedly Rhames, who brings a tough kind of dignity to his role, even when he's called upon to recite silly dialogue like, "I want this freak off my streets."
His Kojak is not a one-dimensional hero. He cries easily and has a soft spot for kids, but isn't above slamming a suspect's head on a table to loosen his tongue, or even arranging for a victim's father to get his own shot at justice.
He's still into lollipops, but he never utters the phrase "Who loves ya, baby?"
Others in the cast who bring a fresh approach to what could be standard-issue roles include Chazz Palminteri (Bullets Over Broadway) as Kojak's onetime partner and current boss, and Roselyn Sanchez (Rush Hour 2) as an assistant district attorney and Kojak's love interest.
Another star of the show is Manhattan itself, whose skyline is featured in a series of stunning aerial shots that are used over and over - and over - to transition between scenes.
Other than a little manhandling of bad guys, there's not much in the way of on-screen bloodshed in the show's premiere, which isn't surprising given that Rhames is also a producer, and he's long been an outspoken critic of violence on television.
As good as Rhames and his supporting cast are, the only way that they're going to get much love from audiences over the next several weeks will be if the quality of the scripts on Kojak gets considerably better.
Contact Mike Kelly at: firstname.lastname@example.org