Telly Savalas, 1969
January 21, 1922
Garden City, New York, U.S.
|Died||January 22, 1994 (aged 72)
Universal City, California, U.S.
|Spouse(s)||Katherine Nicolaides (1948–1957)
Marilyn Gardner (1960–1974)
Julie Hovland (1984–1994)
Aristotelis “Telly” Savalas (January 21, 1922 – January 22, 1994) was an American film and television actor and singer, whose career spanned four decades. Best known for playing the title role in the 1970s crime drama Kojak, Savalas was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). His other movie credits include The Young Savages (1961), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Battle of the Bulge (1965), The Dirty Dozen (1967), The Scalphunters (1968), supervillain Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), Kelly's Heroes (1970), Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971), Inside Out (1975) and Escape to Athena (1979). He was easily recognizable with his shaved head and strong, masculine features.
Savalas, the second of five children, was born as Aristotelis Savalas in Garden City, Long Island, New York to Greek American parents Christina (née Kapsalis), a New York City artist who was a native of Sparta, and Nick Savalas, a Greek restaurant owner. When he entered Sewanhaka High School in Floral Park, New York, he initially only spoke Greek, yet learned English and graduated in 1940. After graduation, he worked as a lifeguard, but on one occasion, was unsuccessful at rescuing a man from drowning, an event which would haunt Savalas for the remainder of his life. When he entered Columbia University School of General Studies, Savalas took a variety of courses, such as English, radio and psychology, graduating in 1948. At that time, he fell in love with radio and television, which led to his interest in acting. Savalas also gained life experience with a three-year stint (1943–1946) in the Army during World War II, working for the State Department as host of the "Your Voice of America" series, then at ABC News, before beginning an acting career in his late thirties. In 1950, Savalas hosted a popular radio show called The Coffeehouse in New York City.
Savalas started out as an executive director and then senior director of the news special events at ABC. He then became an executive producer for the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports where he gave Howard Cosell his first job..
Prior to his movie career, Savalas was a character actor on TV shows during the late 1950s and the 1960s. His first acting role was on And Bring Home a Baby, an episode of Armstrong Circle Theater in January 1959. He appeared on two more episodes of this series, in 1959 and 1960. Between 1959 and 1967, he made more than fifty guest appearances in various television programs, including Naked City, The Eleventh Hour, King of Diamonds, The Aquanauts, The Untouchables, Burke's Law, Channing, Combat!, The Fugitive, Breaking Point, Bonanza, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The F.B.I. and the classic The Twilight Zone episode Living Doll. He also had a recurring role as Brother Hendricksen on the popular crime drama series, 77 Sunset Strip.
While playing Lucky Luciano on the TV series The Witness, actor Burt Lancaster "discovered" him. He appeared with Lancaster in three movies — the first of these was the crime drama The Young Savages (1961). After playing a police officer in this movie, he moved on to play a string of heavies. Once again opposite Lancaster, he won acclaim and an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as the sadistic Feto Gomez in Birdman of Alcatraz (1962).
Savalas shaved his head for his role as Pontius Pilate in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), thus becoming the first modern day actor to play the Roman Governor of Judea bald. After completing work on the movie, he chose to remain bald.
Savalas was memorable as the weirdly religious and very sadistic convict Archer Maggott in The Dirty Dozen (1967), the seminal ensemble action film by director Robert Aldrich. He later returned to play a different character in two of the movie's TV sequels - The Dirty Dozen: The Deadly Mission (1987) and The Dirty Dozen: The Fatal Mission (1988). He co-starred with Burt Lancaster for the third time in The Scalphunters (1968), a comedy western that revealed the absurdity of racism during the Civil Rights movement. Two more appearances in comedies for Savalas were as Herbie Haseler in Crooks and Coronets (1969) and opposite Clint Eastwood in Kelly's Heroes (1970).
His career was transformed with the lead role in the celebrated TV-movie The Marcus Nelson Murders (CBS, 1973), which was based on the real-life Career Girls Murder case, and pop culture icon Theo Kojak was born.
Savalas' most famous role was as the star of the television series Kojak. Lt. Theo Kojak was a bald New York City detective with a fondness for lollipops and whose trademark line was "Who loves ya, baby?" and "Everybody should have a little Greek in them." Reportedly the lollipop gimmick was added in lieu of having the character smoke, although in addition to indulging his sweet tooth he also smoked heavily onscreen — cigarettes, cigarillos and cigars — throughout the first season episodes. "Telly Savalas can make bad slang sound like good slang and good slang sound like lyric poetry. It isn't what he is, so much as the way he talks, that gets you tuning in ," wrote the critic Clive James trying to explain some of the great popularity of the show.
He was nominated for a Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series two years in a row, winning the Emmy in 1974. He was also nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a TV Drama Series from 1975 to 1978, winning twice, in 1975 and 1976.
His brother George played the regular role of Detective Stavros — a sensitive, wild-haired, quiet, comedic foil to Kojak's street-wise humor in an otherwise dark dramatic TV series.
Kevin Dobson played the role of Kojak's trusted young partner, Det. Bobby Crocker. The on-screen chemistry of Savalas and Dobson was a success story of 1970s television. After the show's cancellation, Dobson kept in touch with Savalas and they maintained a close, personal friendship until Savalas' death. The death of Savalas' mother Christina in 1989 drew Savalas and Dobson closer.
Dobson went on to gain greater fame in the popular prime-time 1980s soap opera, Knots Landing. As a result, he did not appear in the majority of the Kojak TV movies. However, Savalas and Dobson were reunited on-screen for one last time when they appeared together in the 1990 TV movie Kojak: It's Always Something, where Kevin's character was a lawyer — similar to his role on Knots Landing - instead of a police officer.
While working on Knots Landing with Savalas' stepdaughter Nicollette Sheridan, Dobson said of his first meeting with Savalas: "The moment I met Telly Savalas, we shook hands and our eyes met and locked and the chemistry was there. It was just there and it proved, once we got him filmed."
On filming Savalas' lollipops, Kevin said: "The lollipops scene took place in the fifth show, when we're in the office and we're about to do the scene, he said, 'I need something, you know?' And here's a guy standing over there with the Tootsie Pop sticking out of his shirt. Give me a Tootsie Pop, huh? Telly, they flipped it to him, doing it like this, unwrapped it, stuck it to him and his head, his mouth and became a lollipop cop."
In 1978, after 5 seasons and 118 episodes, CBS cancelled the show due to low ratings. Savalas was unhappy about the show's demise, but he got the chance to reprise the Kojak persona in several TV movies.
Savalas portrayed Kojak in the following shows:
As a singer, Savalas had some chart success. His spoken (i.e. not sung) version of Bread's If produced by Snuff Garrett was #1 in Europe for 10 weeks in 1975 and his version of Don Williams' Some Broken Hearts Never Mend topped the charts in 1980. He worked with composer and producer John Cacavas on many albums, including Telly (1974) and Who Loves Ya, Baby (1976).
In the late 1970s, Savalas narrated three UK travelogues titled Telly Savalas Looks at Portsmouth, Telly Savalas Looks at Aberdeen and Telly Savalas Looks at Birmingham. These were produced by Harold Baim and were examples of quota quickies which were then part of a requirement that cinemas in the United Kingdom showed a set percentage of British produced films. He also hosted the 1989 video UFOs and Channeling.
Savalas wrote, directed and starred in the film Beyond Reason (1977).
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Savalas appeared in commercials for the Players' Club Gold Card. These commercials were parodied by Phil Hartman on Saturday Night Live as "The Player With Yourself Club". The line from the parody was "If you're a player, you need to be where the action is, and when there's no action you have to create it yourself. That's why I'm telling you about the Player With Yourself Club." Savalas' commercials also inspired a skit on In Living Color, where Jim Carrey played Savalas, who wields a literal "player's club" and knocks successful gamblers unconscious, taking their winnings, though tossing them a chip or two out of generosity.
Savalas was married three times. In 1948 after his father's death from bladder cancer, Savalas married his college sweetheart, Katherine Nicolaides. Daughter Christina, named after his mother, was born in 1950. In 1957, Katherine filed for divorce after she found out from Telly that he was running away to flee his creditors. She urged him to move back to his mother's house during that same year. While Savalas was going broke, he founded the Garden City Theater Center in his native Garden City. While working there, he met Marilyn Gardner, a theater teacher, and they fell in love. They married in 1960. Marilyn gave birth to daughter Penelope in 1961. A second daughter Candace was born in 1963.
In 1969, while working on the movie On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Savalas met Sally Adams. Sally gave birth to their son Nicholas Savalas on February 24, 1973. Gardner filed for divorce from Savalas in 1974. Although he and Sally never married, he was stepfather to Adams' daughter, actress Nicollette Sheridan of Knots Landing and Desperate Housewives fame.
In 1977 during the last season of Kojak, he met and fell in love with Julie Hovland, a travel agent from Minnesota. They were married in 1984 and had two children together, Christian and Ariana. Julie and Telly remained married until his death. Christian Savalas is a actor, singer and songwriter. Ariana Savalas is an actress and singer/songwriter. Julie Savalas is an inventor and artist.
He held a degree in psychology and was a world-class poker player who finished 21st at the main event in the 1992 World Series of Poker, as well as a motorcycle racer and lifeguard. His other hobbies and interests included golfing, swimming, reading romantic books, watching football, traveling, collecting luxury cars and gambling. He loved horse racing and bought a racehorse with movie director and producer Howard W. Koch. Naming the horse Telly's Pop, it won several races in 1975 including the Norfolk Stakes and Del Mar Futurity.
In his capacity as producer for Kojak, he gave many stars their first break, as Burt Lancaster did for him. He was considered by those who knew him to be a generous, graceful, compassionate man. He was also a strong contributor to his Greek Orthodox roots through the Saint Sophia and Saint Nicholas cathedrals in Los Angeles and was the sponsor of bringing electricity in the 1970s to his ancestral home, Yeraka, Greece.
Savalas had a minor physical handicap in that he was missing part of his left index finger. This missing digit was rarely indicated on screen; one exception was the first season Kojak episode "Requiem for a Cop" in which a close-up of Savalas holding his chin in his hand clearly shows the incomplete finger.
After Savalas came back to reprise his role on Kojak in the 1980s, he began to lose close relatives.
George Savalas, his brother who played Detective Stavros on the original Kojak series, died in 1985 of leukemia at age 60. His mother Christina, who had always been his best friend, supporter and devoted parent, died in 1989. Later that year, Savalas was diagnosed with transitional cell cancer of the bladder. He refused to see a doctor until 1993, but by then he did not have much time to live. While fighting for his life, he continued to star in many roles, including a recurring role on The Commish.
Savalas died on January 22, 1994, the day after his 72nd birthday, of complications of cancer of the bladder and prostate at the Sheraton-Universal Hotel in Universal City, California. He was interred at the George Washington section of Forest Lawn - Hollywood Hills Cemetery. The funeral, held in a Greek Orthodox Church, was attended by his third wife Julie and his brother Gus. His first two wives, Katherine and Marilyn, also attended with their own children. Some of the many other mourners present included Angie Dickinson, Nicollette Sheridan, Jennifer Aniston, Sally Adams, Frank Sinatra, Don Rickles, and several of Telly's Kojak co-stars - Kevin Dobson, Dan Frazer and Vince Conti.
His silver screen career usually involved him being cast as the villain in such films as:
Other movie roles where Savalas didn't play the villain were: