Trading Card Set of the Week (Special “Who Loves Ya, Baby?” Edition) – Kojak (1975, Monty Gum)
There are times in your life when something utterly inconsequential can fill you with untold delight. The moments often come when enjoyments intersect, when likes combine into love.
If you like trading cards, if you like Kojak, you had better sit down. Because my God in heaven, there were Kojak trading cards.
Kojak ran for five seasons, and few shows, even those with double the episode count, can lay claim to as much of a cultural footprint. The very name is a byword, whether for shaved heads, lollipops or no-nonsense cops with hearts of gold. Though cancelled after a too-short run, it was kept on life support during the 1980s with TV movies, and then had a brief renaissance in 1989, as part of the ABC Mystery Movie wheel series (which introduced Andre Braugher to swathes of the American viewing public). Along the road it became a touchstone. In every iteration Telly Savalas injected all his talents into the role with which he’d become synonymous (though his turn in The Dirty Dozen would stay with us too). Kojak was a dapper, bullish, kind man, dealing with some of the toughest crimes in the grandest city in the world, watching the filth roil from behind his tinted glasses. It was a wonderful show, and the seventies original, long in syndication, has taken on some retroactive interest in later years as a launching pad for several high-profile film careers — Sylvester Stallone and Richard Gere being prime examples. But always at the core was Savalas, with that magnificent clipped diction of his, which could make the most mundane lines sound like soaring poetry.
The day I stumbled on an eBay listing for the 1975 Kojak bubble gum card set was a glorious moment indeed, an eventuality even more improbable than, say, the Alien cards. It was one of those situations where you do a double-take, rub your eyes, and immediately try to learn more. And, in this case, it’s then that you find out what a bizarre little set (literally) the Kojak cards were.
Produced by Monty Gum, they were issued in Holland. Yes, Holland. There’s no grand reason for this, no “Germans love David Hasselhoff” Norm Macdonald schtick. There was no Dutch Telly Savalas cult (as far as we know). The cards just were, along with other American properties that found purchase on European soil. You wouldn’t know it from the set itself, though, as there’s no text on any of the cards to mark them as coming from the land of clogs, windmills and dikes. In fact, the cards are remarkably bare bones. And remarkably tiny.
There are 72 cards in the base set, which measure 1 7/8 in. x 2 5/8 in. — like the tobacco cards of old. They’re simple character cards, featuring stills and production photos of the cast principals. Here’s Savalas as the titular Theo Kojak, a man who can pull off both a hat and a pink shirt with aplomb:
Here’s Kevin Dobson as Kojak’s young right-hand man, Detective Bobby Crocker (who would re-appear once in the ABC revival):
And Dan Frazer, as Kojak’s long-suffering boss/old partner, Captain Frank McNeil:
And George Savalas, Telly’s brother, as Detective Stavros — “Fatso” to his friends and colleagues:
Even some of the less-seen members of the troupe get cards. Roger Robinson’s Gil Weaver only appeared in a dozen episodes, but he’s in here, in all his gun-pointing glory:
The backs of the cards are pieces of a puzzle that, when assembled, is a nice promo shot of the four main principals. Suitable for framing.
The most bizarre yet joyous part of the whole thing is a set of Kojak playing cards. Yes, Kojak playing cards, foreshadowing Savalas’s eventual Player’s Club International spokesman days. There are 56 of them (four wild cards), which are slightly larger than the base cards, measuring 1 7/8 x 3. Here’s Kojak on the card most suited to him — the King of Hearts:
The backs of the playing cards — which you’ll be staring at while playing your high stakes poker in Monaco, Vegas or the gambling capital of your choice — look like cookies:
The final tier is a 100 (yes, 100) card puzzle set, the assembled totality of which you see at the very top of this post. (The pieces don’t lock together like jigsaw puzzles, hence the haphazard assembly.) They measure 1 7/8 x 2 3/4. Here’s one of the backs that they all share, which makes Kojak look like Al Jolson — Mammy! Mammy!:
The oddness of the cards simultaneously enhances and detracts from your enjoyment. It’s a wash. I have no idea how they were distributed in packs, i.e. how many of each different kind of card were included in each, or if it was a haphazard insertion. If anyone has any idea, please feel free to chime in. You can find complete sets up for auction on eBay at times, occasionally at reasonable prices. Personally, I had to bid on the three separate components individually, which saved a little money. They’re great for any fan of the show, if a bit strange, and a perfect companion when you’re watching a classic episode on Me-TV. RIP, Mr. Savalas. We love ya, baby.