Monday, April 11, 2005


The new version of 'Kojak' stars Ving Rhames in the role made famous by Telly Savalas. Both men share similar qualities; for example, when necessary, both Kojaks are implacable forces in the battle for Justice.

But their hardened exteriors could just as easily be replaced by their Inner Theos..... They're not afraid nor ashamed to show their softer sides.

Physically, their Kojaks are similar - imposingly solid and most definitely bald. Their sartorial style is distinctly their own and they both have a predilection for lollipops.

But even though a gulf of thirty years separates the debuts of both characters, it's a physical difference that really throws them into two different worlds......

Unlike the original Kojak, this year's model is black, Baby.

It's not the first time a show has been recast with black actors to play roles once perceived as being white. And I'm thinking that for the Television cosmos, these examples might be enough to warrant a whole new TV Land - Earth Prime Time Noir, perhaps? - where characters we once thought of as being white are now portrayed as being black.

ARCHIE BUNKER: How come every picture I ever see of God, He's white?
HENRY JEFFERSON: Well, maybe you were looking at the negative!
('All In The Family')

The first example I have isn't actually a remake of a TV show......

In 1970, Neil Simon's 'Barefoot In The Park' crossed over from the world of Theater and then the realm of Film before finally settling down into TV Land. Simon apparently wrote it as somewhat of an autobiographical piece I think; and after the play and the movie versions, I see the main characters as being inherently white - but not so much that racial recasting affects the believability. (It's not like having the Osmonds playing the Jackson Five.....)

There had been no other TV version of the stage play before that, so by all rights 'Barefoot In The Park' should not have to be forced to relocate. That's quite understandable; if you want to consider it part of your own main TV Land, that's fine. I'm just trying to get enough shows to justify this separate dimension. (Bad enough that I've got '24' in isolation in its own dimension.)

A decade later, and another TV show appears on the schedule which could be included in this "Earth Prime-Time/BET".

In 1982, fussy photog Felix Unger and sloppy sportswriter Oscar Madison returned to the airwaves, but not played by Tony Randall and Jack Klugman. (That wouldn't happen again in the main Toobworld until the 1993 reunion movie 'The Odd Couple Together Again'... not to mention the several commercials and public service announcements they did together in character.)

One quirk of this universe that is highlighted in the 1982 version of 'The Odd Couple' was that not everybody who is white in the main TV Universe would be automatically black in this one. Murray the Cop was played by Al Molinaro in the 1970s version of 'The Odd Couple', and it was John Schuck who took on the role in the 1980s version.

Schuck may have been green at one point in Toobworld (actually, in one of the offshoot dimensions) when he portrayed Herman Munster. And he may have had pink blood as several Klingons in the 'Star Trek' franchise, but not even Henry Jefferson could make the argument that John Schuck was black.

(I had a joke about that just now, but I won't debase my blog by repeating it. Not that it was politically incorrect, - which it was! - but because it would have invoked 'Holmes & Yoyo'.......)

Just as an allowance was made to bring 'Barefoot In The Park' into this new Toobworld dimension, I think we should trigger one of the other exemptions to add yet another candidate to the lineup on Earth Prime-Time/Bet. Certain movies have been considered part of the TV Universe because they are too closely connected to either TV shows which they spawned, or which grew out of successful TV series.

The 'Star Trek' franchise, 'Charlie's Angels', 'Batman-1966', 'The X-Files: Fight The Future', 'Buck Rogers In The 25th Century', 'McHale's Navy Joins The Air Force'...... I even argue to include 'Maverick' in the bunch.

Those I would totally dismiss as not having any connection whatsoever to the TV Universe aren't because of artistic failings (although it's certainly a viable argument against watching some of them!) Some of these movies, like the 'Addams Family' movies, are quite good. It's just that their castings leave no link to Toobworld.

Among these movies would be 'Sgt. Bilko', 'Leave It To Beaver', 'Dennis The Menace', 'The Beverly Hillbillies' with Jim Varney and 'McHale's Navy' with Tom Arnold. (Even though 'Barnaby Jones' and the original McHale make appearances in those last two, respectively.)

For this new Toobworld dimension, I'd like to offer up a candidate that hasn't even been released yet.......

Cedric the Entertainer is playing Ralph Kramden in the movie version of 'The Honeymooners'. This version is cast with African-Americans as Ralph, Alice, Norton and Trixie.

'The Honeymooners,' the much-loved TV series from the 1950s, starred Jackie Gleason (Kramden), Art Carney (Norton), Audrey Meadows (Alice) and Joyce Randolph (Trixie).

But the movie version, directed by John Schultz and written by Barry W. Blaustein and Danny Jacobson, features Cedric, Mike Epps, Gabrielle Union and Regina Hall, respectively, in the same roles.

Producer Paul Myler was angry when it was suggested that what makes the screen will be a rehash of what has been on the tube, albeit with a black cast.

"This is a new movie, not a remake," he insisted to the New York Daily News. "The script is based on a new story, using the characters of the TV show."

And that brings us back to 'Kojak'.......

Ving Rhames, who stars as 'Kojak' in the USA Network series remake, said that when he was growing up in Harlem, he never watched Telly Savalas in the original production.

"Who wanted to see a white man arresting some black people?" Rhames joked during an appearance before members of the Television Critics Association. "I saw that every day."

Asked to explain how his character came to have a Greek name like Kojak, Rhames said he'd never even been asked to explain the origins of his own name - either Rhames, which was partly Egyptian and Greek, or Ving, which, he revealed somewhat sheepishly, was short for what he called a Jewish-sounding first name.

"Irving," he said, and added tersely, "Next question."

I suppose I could have saved myself all this typing and any possible charges of cathode apartheid by just letting the show settle in with the other remakes on Earth Prime Time-Delay. But where's the sport in that? Like the 'Sliders' have shown us, there are thousands of possible Earths out there, why not one where it's possible that Beaver Cleaver and Mary Hartman (Mary Hartman!) are African-Americans?

What the Flicka! Why not 'Mr. Ed' as a hip, jet-black stallion?

But would that be popular?

I think you could make "BET" on it.....


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