It's difficult knowing what to make of Who Loves Ya, Baby?: The Songs of Telly Savalas a sort of play-cum-lounge act that endeavors to give us the posthumous spirit of Telly Savalas, singing the songs he recorded and waxing philosophical about manhood; the joke of course being that he wasn't a singer but an idiosyncratic character actor who turned his burly frame, bald head and signature growl into icons of leading man masculinity when for half a decade he immortalized the role of NYC police Lieutenant Theo Kojak on television. But he was a fellow given to extravagant gesture, and like other unlikely pop culture icons of the period who had no business singing—Burt Reynolds and Bill Cosby to name two—he thought he could persona his way through a few record dates and nightclub appearances, crooning.
Now in a way, the hubris of this is risible, to say the least, but there are two factors to consider before trying to harness it for parody. The first is the degree of self-parody already intrinsic to it; one has but to see YouTube clips of Telly doing his extracurricular musical thing to understand that its silliness speaks for itself. The second is that, even within the hipness-challenged context of certain popular media of the ‘70s, struggling to come to grips with new vocabularies—during that weird transitional decade that bridged the counterculture revolutions of the ‘60s and the integration of their more permanent achievements and consequences into the mainstream of the ‘80s—there’s a degree to which Savalas has to have been in on his own joke.
But in Who Loves Ya, Baby? directed by Taylor Negron and written by Hunter Nelson, actor Tom DiMenna, though a more-than-passable Savalas-surrogate for such an evening (though nowhere near the “channeler” that Frank Gorshin was as George Burns in Good Night, Gracie), seems caught between an SCTV style parody of persona and a genuine homage. Clearly too, the creators (I include the actor in this) have something serious in mind as a subtext: the loss of iconic pop-culture role models who can demonstrate to future generations of American males what it is “to be a man.” (The fictional Telly makes the amusing observation that the only actor on TV currently carrying the persona-as-measure-of-coolness torch is David Caruso—and love Caruso or hate him, never mind what you feel about his implicit “teachings,” the comment is weirdly truer than not.) But then the question becomes, how much do the creators see self-delusion as part of the formula? Nowhere does the schism in the show’s approach become more pronounced than in its depiction of Savalas’s actor brother George (who played Detective Stavros on Kojak and for the first season or two was billed as Demonsthenes, rather than as himself). George was an avuncular, overweight character man with a limited palate but, countering that, the authenticity of who he was. George, also from the afterlife, makes a cameo appearance in the show (I cannot find my program and I cannot seem to locate the actor’s name online, but perhaps that’s just as well) and he’s as far from evoking George as Dimenna is close to evoking Telly; he’s palpably a skinny actor in a fat suit, playing brother-as-sycophant. And it shreds the illusion which is tenuous enough.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m thinking about it too much. It’s all meant as lightweight and frothy. And it is, and it’s even entertaining—modestly, to my taste. But I grew up watching guys like Savalas (my personal icon was Robert Culp in I Spy). And while the whole subject is rife for both parody and social comment intertwined, I think there’s a finer balance to be achieved than the one that’s currently at the SoHo playhouse. And zappa-doo, like that…
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