Likely the name was selected prior to choosing the lead actor. The harsh “k” and “x” sounds respectively give (to me, anyway) an idea of a strong, no-nonsense character, as opposed to, say, Sgt. Percy Dovetonsils. (Remember, folks, this is tv fiction - they can name their characters anything they want, and my apologies to any Sgt. Percival Dovetonsils out there.)
And you are right - the surname usually has nothing to do with the actual ethnic heritage. Case in point - me.
My family is Polish and Lithuanian on my father’s side, Czech, Russian and Gypsy on my mother’s. Good strong Eastern European stock. My last name? English (and an obscure name, at that). When my ancestors emigrated ‘to the new country’ a few generations ago, some over-worked bureaucrats at the immigration processing center decided that the family name was too difficult to spell, pronounce, or whatever reason. So they lopped it from 7 syllables to two, and several Ws, Ss, Ks, Zs, and countless vowels lost their lives in the process.
WAG Part of it may be that Kojakopoulos or Mannixanian may draw out ethnic prejudices. Whereas names like Kojak and Mannix seem to convey a more American sense. Also, shorter names are easier to say and pronounce.
Those shows came out about the time when TV was first beginning to give their characters an ethnic background. Mannix was earlier (1967), before ethnicity was a selling point. The name was probably chosen simply because it sounded good.
By the early 70s, though, ethnic was in. The first may have been “Banacek” (Polish), quickly followed by “Toma” (Italian; the show is better known as its later incarnation, “Baretta”), “Petrocelli” (Italian), and “Kojak.”
Note that the names used (except Petrocelli) weren’t names that you particularly identified with the group (Banacek, especially). I’d guess the idea was to have a fallback position – if it looked like the ethnicity was hurting ratings, they could drop that from the plotlines (it was often tagged on – Banacek would have a line or two an episode saying he was proud to be Polish, but they had nothing to do with the plot).
Bear in mind that Kojak was not originally created with
Telly Savalas (or any other actor) in mind, and he was
never supposed to be the lead role in a weekly TV
series. Rather, Lieutenant Kojak was one character in
Abby Mann’s made-for-TV movie, “The Marcus-Nelson Murders.”
That movie dealt with a poor, black teenager being railroaded for a murder he didn’t commit, and the (ultimately unsuccessful)efforts of a gritty, hard-working, Caucasian detective to clear him and keep him out of prison).
Abby Mann’s script tells us almost nothing about Kojak’s
background. All we see is that he’s a decent, honorable,
world-weary cop who lives for his job, and doesn’t seem to have any family or any interests outside the job. Kojak’s ethnicity was never spelled out, but my guess is that Mann envisioned him as a blue-collar Slavic-American.
As it turned out, of course, the vaguely Slavic role of Kojak went to a Greek-American actor, Telly Savalas, who was brilliant in the role- so brilliant that CBS decided to build a weekly series around the character.
Now, in a 2-hour movie, there isn’t time to delve into characters’ personal histories, but in a weekly series, it’s necessary to flesh out characters, and show us their backgrounds. I suspect it was Telly Savalas who pushed to make Kojak explicitly Greek, though he hadn’t been in the original movie.
I can’t argue with what he was supposed to be, but the “classic” Mannix is most definitely Armenian. I watch the program. I know. And although there are passing references here and there to his Armenian background–and at least one full episode in which, while working on a case, he goes to see his Armenian immigrant father–there are absolutely none to indicate an Irish background. There is, however, a “lost” Mannix season, the first, which was pre-Peggy. It was so different from the succeeding seven seasons, though, (and no Peggy presence, which, in my mind is sine qua non) that it is rarely shown, and might not even be part of the syndication package.
So, it is possible that during the first season, that his ethnicity was either neutral or Irish.
BTW, the “-ak” names became popular after Kojak’s success. Other shord lived series in the same era: “Kolchak,” “The Family Holvak,” and “Kodiak.”
I remember those episodes! Mannix was an operative at a computer detective agency called Intertec. This was the clever “hook” that was supposed to distinguish Mannix from the host of other detective shows on TV. Mannix, of course, didn’t fit well into the organization, being too much the independent operator, and he was always at odds with his boss, played by Joseph Campanella. I thought this phase lasted longer than one season, but I’m relying on a faulty memory.
As for Kojak’s ethnicity, I didn’t see the original TV movie or read the script, but I got the very definite sense that he was supposed to be Polish in that. His name properly would’ve been pronounced “koyack”.
Of course, even aside from Ellis Island hijinks, last names might still not reflect ethnicity. I know a kid who’s 15 parts out of 16 Irish… but his father’s father’s father’s father happened to be German, so he has a German last name.
Though “Mannix” was one of my favorite shows when I was a kid, I haven’t seen it in at least 20 years… I don’t RECALL Mannix referring to his Armenian heritage, but I’m perfectly willing to take the other posters’ word for it that he did.
My point was only this: The characters of Kojak and Mannix were created LONG before anyone knew who’d play the roles. Their ethnicity was only HINTED at by their names (Kojak sounds vaguely Polish, Mannix sounds unmistakeably Irish). There was nothing in early scripts to suggest that Kojak was Greek or that Mannix was Armenian. And I’m sure that the casting directors weren’t looking for a Greek actor to play Kojak or an Armenian to play Mannix. It just so happened that, during auditions, a Greek actor snagged the part of Kojak and an Armenian earned the role of Mannix.
And, over time, Telly Savalas and Mike Connors probably pushed to make their characters a little more ethnic. The fact that Kojak was NOT a Greek name and Mannix was not an Armenian name seemed unimportant.
They aren’t the ONLY actors to try to impose their own ethnicity on their characters. I’m pretty sure Max Klinger on “MAS*H” was not originally supposed to be an Arab, but Arab-American actor Jamie Farr (born Jameel Farah) eventually persuaded producers to portray Klinger as an Arab (even though “Klinger” doesn’t sound like a very Arabic name).
Similarly, Karl Malden is a proud Serbian. His real last name is Sekulavich… and I’ll be darned if he doesn’t find a way to say the name “Sekulavich” in nearly every film or TV show he appears in (example: his first line, as Omar Bradley in “Patton,” is “Hand me those field glasses, Sekulavich”)! VERY rarely are the roles he plays explicitly Serbian! And yet, he’s often found ways to allude to his heritage, or to suggest that the character he’s playing is, despite his WASP-sounding name, a Serb.