The Man Behind Kojak
The Man Behind Kojak Tells How To Write Successful TV Scripts.
Kojak, that quintessential 70’s detective, first saw life as a movie-of-the-week. It was written by the venerable and prolific, Abby Mann. He modeled his character after a real NYPD detective. His creation certainly wasn’t the Kojak that we had gotten to know—the wise-cracking character who was a top-rated cop on 70’s television.
The credit for that metamorphosis goes to two people; Telly Savalas, who added many of the quirks and mannerisms that made his role distinctive; and the man who really made the show a hit, Jack Laird. In addition to penning many scripts, Laird oversaw the work of the freelancers who wrote for the show.
I was one of those freelancers.
I was invited to a meeting on Kojak because of a story I wrote. In those days (and it’s still true today), novice writers wrote scripts for shows even though the scripts were rarely used. But if they thought the writer had promise, they were called in for a meeting. If a good story was hammered out during the meeting, the writer was told to go home and finish it up.
I had bypassed that first step. Laird had bought my story outright and my meeting was arranged so him and I could flesh out the details for a script.
I was nervous. I was a beginner writer and Kojak had thirty-two million people tuning in each week. I entered Jack Laird’s office with trepidation.
I have to say, Laird’s office was a mess. The place was flooded with scripts, newspapers, and books shoved in bookcases or leaning against the wall. Quite a few were also on the floor.
Behind a battered desk sat Jack Laird. He suited the surroundings. His t-shirt and jeans looked like they had escaped from a Goodwill bin, along with his scraggly beard, long hair and overweight figure.
I heard rumors about Jack. People said that he lived in his office because he worked 20 hours a day, that he brushed his teeth in the men’s room, and took showers with the garden hose outside his office window.
After my first impression—I thought the rumors were also true.
I stood transfixed until Jack motioned me to a seat with a dozen scripts on it. “Just shove those on the floor and sit down,” he said.
Jack had a nice smile. I liked him immediately. And Jack liked my story. “It’s very good for a first try, but there’s a problem,” he said. I must have made a face because he laughed and said, “Don’t let it stress ya. We can fix it. What this story needs is white shoes.”
My face betrayed me once more. I didn’t have the foggiest notion what he was talking about. “White shoes are my way of saying maguffins. You know what a maguffin is?” said Laird.
That I did. A maguffin was a clue. It was Alfred Hitchcock talk. Hitchcock said he always started a movie with a maguffin—a small, supposedly unimportant clue which he would insert in the first act. In the final act that clue (maguffin) would pay-off the picture.
“O.K., I’ll give you a maguff—I mean white shoes,” I said. “Good, by the way, you play chess?” asked Laird. “I played a little,” I said.
“Good. Writing this stuff is like chess. Think ahead. You gotta consider the ramifications of every move. So don’t put the kind of white shoes in page 2 that are going to fuck the script up when you get to page 57,” said Laird.
I went back to work and the next week I submitted a script with a well thought out white-shoes maguffin on page 2, which paid-off handsomely on page 57.
Laird was pleased, but there were still some things missing. The TV audience was a distracted mass, and they certainly didn’t hang on every word in the teleplay, according to Laird. Instead, they were busy hitting the john, diapering a baby, or dozing off while the program was on. So, for all the important action, a writer had to do four things: 1. Tell his audience his character was going to do something. 2. Make his character do it. 3. Say his character had done it.
I went back to work and made the changes. Laird seemed pleased, but when I handed in the draft, Laird had one more word of advice—“Cut the stage directions. Only put-in action descriptions when they are necessary, and no character descriptions! I cast actors on how they handle dialogue, not from what you say they should look like.”
To see how Laird handled directions, I got some of his scripts. They were punchy with dialogue, but sparse on stage direction.
In one of my favorites, instead of going into a description of a beautiful woman, Kojak was going to meet, Laird wrote: Int. Hallway. Night. Kojak knocks on a door. It opens. It should happen to all of us.
I knocked off the stage directions and handed in my polished script. It was well received and was nominated for an Emmy. It didn’t get the Emmy that year, but more important than any prize, I learned some essential things about script writing.
Of course a good script needs more things than I have enumerated. It needs conflict, story arcs, and subtexts; all things a writer should know instinctively. But, I think if young writers would follow Laird’s simple rules, they would save themselves a lot of time and money that they now spend in film schools.
Just remember: white shoes. Hit the story points. You have just written a wonderful script.
Telly Savalas & Kojak
I had the opportunity to write for the TV show Kojak, back when the dawn of uber-detective TV was popular. In those days as a freelance writer, I was never allowed on the set. We were hired hands, and once we turned in a final version of our scripts, that was it until the next assignment.
On Kojak (which I loved writing for) there were even more restrictions. One of the characters, Telly, created his own quirks to draw attention, with the use of lollipops and the line “Who loves ya baby.” As writers, we were never supposed to include them in our scripts.
One day I got him in a round about way. I created a boxing gym scene and placed the action close to a punching bag. I knew what would happen, and I was right. To button the scene, Telly smacked the bag, uttering his usual line “Who loves ya baby.”
I was never able to insert lollipops into scenes. I tried once using them as an important clue in a murder. The clue was changed to a different confectionary–salt water taffy.
Although I never met Telly Savalas, I learned quite a bit about him while writing for the series. I knew he loved gambling, could toss a few with the rest of them, was super proud of his Greek heritage, and faced death like a man.
When he discovered he had incurable prostate cancer, he moved to The Sheraton in Studio City and held court in the bar that bore his name. I was told he was always gracious. He laughed and joked and gave autographs to everybody who asked, and definitely did not play the movie star.
Though I never met him—I’m proud he said my words. And I’m glad I put in the punching bag.
A word about myself: I am a cantankerous, old guy who had a lot of fights during my show biz career, but none of them took place on Kojak. I had fun there. It was a happy period and I will be blogging about some of the people who made Kojak such a great experience on my site, erickaldor.com. My site contains a variety of items. There’s a novel, podcasts, and blogs that are inflammatory and XXX rated. But everything I have written is how I saw and see American Life.
I hope you take the time to browse the site and let me know your reaction.