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The Man With the Lollipops

CRYSTAL TUBE BLUES

By Jefferson M. Flanders

THAT SPRING, Long John and Bentley spent a great deal of time watching Kojak. They had plenty of opportunity: every other day, it seemed, the listings in the Globe announced another Telly Savalas rerun on late night TV. So they would seat themselves in Bentley's Tower room and wait. At the end of the news at eleven, Jack Cole (a neo-Byronic hero himself, with his own three-piece suits and tough guy act) would make some off-hand comment about the man with the lollipops and then Kojak would appear on the screen.

Sure, they were seniors. Sure, the mid-winter grind of producing a thesis they had lost faith in demanded some respite. Sure, the post-thesis partum depression also required therapy. But Kojak? It made sense, convoluted sense, to Long John. It was his (and Bentley's, as well, he suspected) life-line. Everyone needed one that spring. One friend, Mac the Knife, occupied his evenings setting endurance records at local bars, jumping over parking meters and scheming up wild fiscal take-overs of global publishing companies. (The consensus was that Mac had gone crazy.) Or take Harpo: his spring a nightmare of lost sure-bets and misplayed poker hands. Still other of their friends had tamer indulgences: non-stop tennis; non-stop sex; non-stop boozing; non-stop talking. The first long-delayed try at acting. Trips to the Vineyard, California, Mexico. Bank interviews. But Long John and Bentley had Kojak.

Long John enjoyed Kojak for its simple, uncluttered black and white structure. No complexity, no troubling questions of historical perspectives or methodological approaches. Simple. Bad guys versus good guys. Black and white. Each episode opened with a violent crime. Kojak would be called in--the bald, wise-cracking New York cop specializing in homicide and a professional hater of a) crooks, b) rich crooks and c) the rich, who probably were crooks anyway or they wouldn't have so much money. Kojak would eventually solve the case in his alloted hour or so and dispatch the criminal by bullet or indictment.

Long John was almost afraid to ask Bentley what he thought of the show. Bentley, a liberal Democrat with the tastes of the Brattle Street chic, was bound for the Law School after a year off. (That, in itself, surprised Long John. He had begun to think only young Marxists wanted to go to law school. To burrow from within, or so they said.) Bentley was a quarterback, a winner. He had composed a magna thesis in two weeks working with very little research and a very shaky theoretical knowledge. Bentley was against nuclear power and for gun control. But for all of his ACLU Nader's Raiders sensibilities. Bentley--reclining in comfort on his waterbed, propped up by cushions--would grin in agreement as Kojak violated civil liberties right and left. To his amazement. Long John discovered Bentley applauding a particularly artistic gun battle one night. Kojak's appeal cut across political lines that spring.

"Crocker," Kojak would say, musing over the body of a just dispatched crook, "...don't worry. It happens." For Long John and Bentley, facing generals and then orals, facing the real prospect of unemployment in June, that was transcendent wisdom. It happens. No use worrying. The simple serene Greek wisdom of Theo Kojak. There was another side also appealing, to Kojak: he was a tough, single-minded avenger of slights, insults and crimes. On the trail of a double-crossing jewel thief or of a big-time narcotics gang, he'd snap orders to Crocker and Stavros, ignore the warnings offered by the ancient lieutenant and press on--determined to catch his man. And, amazing in an age where the South Koreans owned Congress and the Nixon gang made money off Watergate, there could be no fix. When it came to Theo Kojak, the Knapp Commission was out-to-lunch. He just couldn't be bought: the nation's last honest cop. Maybe the nation's last honest man. And what added to his luster was his incredible omnipotence; Kojak simply never made a mistake. He might be wrong for 59 minutes but in the last minute of the show he'd figure out everything. Never wrong, never out-foxed. Not even by the upper-crust criminals wearing Pierre Cardin suits who would sneer at the deductive efforts of the clod named Kojak. Until it was too late. And at the end, Kojak would permit himself a grim "gotcha" as the inevitable police dragnet closed in, even reaching to the hallowed environs of Central Park West.

Style? From the bald pate to the thin cigars to the vested suits, Kojak exuded a distinctive charm. (Long John learned from his barber that a shaved head was now a "Kojak" --in the old days they had been called "Yul Brynners.") Sure, he was rough, often abrasive. Admittedly there was little of the intellectual about him. But who would you want when you faced a cornered pack of diamond-smuggling mobsters: Theo Kojak or John Finely? So much for urbanity. And for all his gruffness, Kojak could display that heart of gold all macho crime fighters are obliged to possess. That was where the lollipops came in--handed to ailing grandmothers and young Greek relatives alike.

So they had reason to spend those warm evenings in front of the set. Bentley summed it up: "Kojak is something to believe in when the rest of the world has gone crazy." Long John wasn't so sure he believed in Bentley's theory; he was suspicious of anyone assigning grand motives to him--whether commencement speakers or his parents. But it was as good a theory as the next. And Kojak was a cheap and convenient life-line. Besides, he didn't have the liver for non-stop drinking and his backhand had always been suspect.

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