Telly Savalas, known professionally as: Aristotelis Savalas (January 21, 1922 – January 22, 1994) was an Academy Award-nominated and Emmy Award-winning American film and television actor whose career spanned four decades. He was nominated for an Oscar in 1963 for his supporting role in Birdman of Alcatraz. He also starred with Burt Lancaster in The Young Savages and The Scalphunters. For the course of his long career, he was best known for his work playing the title role in the popular 1970s crime drama, Kojak, and for also playing Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service. He co-starred with Angie Dickinson in the 1971 film, Pretty Maids All in a Row. His trademark is his shaved bald head.
He was the second oldest of five children born to Greek American parents Christina Savalas, who was a New York City artist, and Nick Savalas, a Greek restaurant owner, as Aristotelis Savalas in Garden City, New York. He had his first job at age 10 as a newspaper boy, when he constructed a shoeshine stand made of crates. When he entered Sewanhaka High School in Floral Park, New York, he initially only spoke Greek, yet he learned English and graduated in 1940. After graduation from high school, he worked as a lifeguard, but on one occasion, was unsuccessful at rescuing a man from drowning; this would haunt Savalas for the remainder of his life. When he entered Columbia University, Savalas took a variety of courses such as English, radio and psychology, later studying at Manchester University in England. At that time, he fell in love with radio and television, which led to his interest in acting. He graduated in 1946. Savalas also gained life experience with a three-year stint (1943-1946) in the Army during WWII, working for the U.S. State Department hosting the "Your Voice of America" series and then at ABC News before beginning an acting career in his late 30s. Before he would get to any of that, starting at age 30, Savalas's next job was that of a popular radio talk show host at a coffeehouse in New York City. On one of his shows, he invited actress Ava Gardner, to guest-star, on the air, and the two "clicked" as they both enjoyed the longest conversation about a party Ava would ever have.
Pre- and early television work
At first, Telly was an executive director and then senior director of the news special events at ABC, Savalas then became an executive producer for the "Gillette Cavalcade of Sports", where he gave Howard Cosell his first job. Savalas first acted on the TV show Armstrong Circle Theater (1959) and then on the series "The Witness" as Lucky Luciano, where actor Burt Lancaster "discovered" him. Savalas was cast opposite Lancaster's idealistic D.A. in the melodrama The Young Savages (1961). He moved on to play a string of heavies, winning acclaim and an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as the sadistic Feto Gomez in Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). After portraying Pontius Pilate in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), he chose to remain completely bald and this signature look, somewhere between the comic and the ominous, stood him in good stead in the years that followed.
Savalas was memorable in The Dirty Dozen (1967), the seminal ensemble action film by director Robert Aldrich, and reappeared as a different character in two TV movie reprisals. He also appeared as star in two classics, Kelly's Heroes (1970), and The Scalphunters (1968), a western that revealed the absurdity of racism during the Civil Rights movement. His career was transformed with the lead role in the celebrated TV-movie The Marcus Nelson Murders (CBS, 1973) where the pop culture icon of Theo Kojak was born. Savalas polished his hard-boiled image to a brilliant sheen over the long run of Kojak (CBS, 1973-1978). During those years, he co-bought racehorse Telly's Pop, recorded many albums, including "Telly" (1974) and "Who Loves Ya, Baby" (1976) and directed and wrote the film Beyond Reason (1977). After the very popular series ended, Savalas reprised the Kojak persona in several Kojak-based TV-movies, furthering his public canonization. One of Savalas' brothers, George Savalas (known professionally for a time simply as 'Demosthenes') played the character 'Stavros', a sensitive , wild-haired, quiet, comedic foil to Kojak's street-wise humor in an otherwise dark dramatic TV series.
Life after Kojak
Throughout his life, Telly Savalas was a charismatic creative writer, director, and producer. He won the Emmy, the Peabody, and Golden Globe Awards. In 1990, the city of New York declared "The Marcus-Nelson Murders" as the official movie of New York City, and awarded Telly with the Key to the City. 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 '70's to his ancestral home, Yeraka, Greece. His mother, Christina, was a world recognized contemporary of Picasso, and he himself released several records, the most remembered was his version of "If", that was #1 in Europe for 10 weeks in 1975.
Many people do not know that Telly was a world-class poker player, degreed in psychology; a motorcycle racer, and lifeguard. He appeared in over 80 movies. 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 a generous, graceful, compassionate man.
Prolific character actor
Prior to being a successful movie star on the big screen, Savalas became one of the most charismatic and beloved character actors of all time during the late 1950s and the 1960s, where he made his very first guest-starring role on an episode of Armstrong Circle Theater, in fact, he appeared on the show, twice. He also made 54 more guest-appearances between 1959-1967 in most of these shows, Naked City, King of Diamonds, The Aquanauts, The Untouchables, Burke's Law, Combat, The Fugitive, Bonanza, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The F.B.I., and the classic Twilight Zone episode Living Doll among many others. He also had a recurring role as Brother Hendrickson on the popular crime drama series, 77 Sunset Strip, as his career already launched.
Undoubtedly Savalas' most famous role was that of the tough detective Kojak on television. Lt. Theo Kojak was a bald New York City detective who had a fondness for lollipops and whose trademark line was, "Who loves ya, baby?" Reportedly the lollipop gimmick was added in lieu of having the character smoke. Savalas himself was quitting smoking and the lollipops may have been his own trick for defeating his habit. Kojak was also the first show ever to feature a bald officer whose actor was also bald, in reality, as this police drama was the answer to nine successful 1970s cop series: Ironside, Hawaii Five-O, Adam-12, McMillan and Wife, The Streets of San Francisco, Barnaby Jones, Police Woman, The Rockford Files and Switch. Also starring on the show was (of course), Telly's brother George, who played the regular role of his supportive partner, Detective Stavros. And also starring on Kojak, was an unfamiliar actor, former train conductor, bartender and waiter from the Queens suburb of Jackson Heights, Kevin Dobson, who played the role of Kojak's trusted and closest young partner, Det. Bobby Crocker. The on and off-screen chemistry of both Savalas & Dobson would become an instant success story of 1970s television, and they remained good friends even after the show's cancellation. He was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, two years in a row, and won the Emmy in 1974. He was also nominated for Golden Globes, four times in a year, and won between 1975 and 1976. In 1974, prior to starring on Kojak, he also became a singer, proving that he sang just like that of Frank Sinatra, his old pals (Don Rickles and Angie Dickinson) would even watch him sing the songs that Sinatra did. In 1978, after a 5 season run on the air, and 111 episodes, CBS had decided to cancel the show due to low ratings.
Telly portrayed Kojak in the following shows;
- The Marcus-Nelson Murders (1973) (TV) The pilot for the Kojak TV series.
- Kojak (1973–78) TV Series
- Kojak: The Belarus File (1985) (TV)
- Kojak: The Price of Justice (1987) (TV)
- Kojak: Ariana (1989) (TV)
- Kojak: Fatal Flaw (1989) (TV)
- Kojak: None So Blind (1990) (TV)
- Kojak: It's Always Something (1990) (TV)
- Kojak: Flowers for Matty (1990) (TV)
Just 9 years before working on Knots Landing with Savalas’s stepdaughter, Nicollette Sheridan [who joined the cast in 1986], Kevin Dobson said in a 2007 interview with Mickey Sanarty @ The Celebrity Trade Center about Savalas’s character who always called his co-star’s character’s last name to work on a lot of criminals with him, which made the two very popular, “Thank God it was me he was yelling at! We were on the front cover of TV Guide, a longtime ago, and I love that, we did that, and I have that memorabilia myself, and I did Kojak for 5 years with Telly.” Then, he also said about Savalas’s own private life, before and after Kojak, “Telly was as soft as they come, he was like lemon meringue pie, he was a terrific guy. Very good family man, always had family, his mother was around, his brother [of course] worked with him on the show, and there were always people around. You know, when you met Telly, you know, you walk away, you feel like your best friend. You just renew the relationship. He’s very gracious, and he lived life to his fullest!” Then in a 2007 interview on TV Land Confidential, Kevin said if he was ever going to work with an iconic actor, who was also no stranger to him was, “I heard that Telly Savalas was going to do a TV series --- he was a friend of mine. Called my agent. Get on it, right away; went on to it, the next day, and said, ‘What happened?’ Call or what? Look, Telly Savalas is doing this and I’m right for him, you know, and he did and he made the arrangements. At that time, I had nothing, and a friend of mine, he had a vest, suit, everything.” Kevin also said of his longtime professional friendship with Savalas, of two decades prior to introducing himself to the legendary actor was, "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, Dobson also 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." Prior to the show's cancelation, Dobson said, "I just couldn't understand why? It was like, oh, it's time now for me." Just the year after Kevin’s second show had ended, he realized of Telly’s long fight against cancer before his death: “I knew he was sick. His famous line a lot of people said over the years, and the one thing I remember, ‘Who loves ya, baby,?’ I do.” The last thing that Kevin said about himself working with Telly, who had been a part of his young career, “When you met him, you walked away from just meeting him. You felt like you met your best friend again!” For most of the 16 years after Kojak, Dobson kept in touch with Savalas and maintained a close, personal friendship until Savalas's death. In addition, Christina's (Telly’s real-life mother) death in 1989, drew Savalas & Dobson real closer, as Dobson received word all about his co-star's mother's death, while being hard at work on a second TV series, working alongside Savalas' stepdaughter, Sheridan. In addition to his previous role afterwards, Dobson also went on to gain greater fame in the popular prime-time 1980s soap opera, Knots Landing. As a result of Dobson, working on another successful series, he did not appear in the majority of the Kojak TV movies. The only time that both Savalas & Dobson would later be reunited for one last time on-screen, was when they both appeared in the 1990 movie Kojak: It's Always Something, where Kevin's character was a lawyer (similar to the role he played on Knots Landing), instead of a police officer.
Telly had a lot of hobbies, those consisting of: golfing, swimming, spending time with his family, reading romantic books, watching football, traveling, horse racing and gambling. He even had the knack of collecting luxury cars, as those were his favorite. In fact, in several episodes of Kojak, he even had the distinct pleasure of driving them.
Savalas was married three times. In 1948, right after his father's death from bladder cancer, Savalas married his college sweetheart, Katherine Nicolaides. They had a daughter, Christina (named after his mother), (born 1950). In 1957, after Katherine filed for divorce after she found out from Telly that he was running away to flee from debtors. She also urged him to moved back to his parents' house during that same year. While Savalas was going broke, he founded the Garden City Theater Center in his native Garden City, New York, area. While Savalas was working with future actors, Marilyn Gardner, a theater teacher, met and fell in love with him. The couple was married in 1960. The following year after the wedding, the couple gave birth to a daughter, Candace (born 1961). A second daughter, Penelope, was born in 1963.
In 1969, while working on the movie On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Savalas met another woman (Sally Adams), and left his family behind. He met Adams in England while on vacation starring in that movie, and just several years later, after she gave birth to Nick (born 1973), Gardner filed for divorce from Savalas in 1974. His stepdaughter, (Adams' daughter, Nicollette Sheridan of Knots Landing and Desperate Housewives fame, born November 21, 1963) is an actress, and his goddaughter, (Jennifer Aniston of Friends fame, born February 11, 1969), is also an actress. His son Nick did voice acting and produced the voice of the character Stavros on an episode of Batman: The Animated Series.
In 1977 during his last working days of Kojak, he met Julie Hovland, a travel agent from Minnesota, and the two started dating. By then he was 60, they were married, and had two more kids: Christian & Ariana.
Telly Savalas was the best friend of fellow Greek-American actor, John Aniston, and he served as god father to his daughter, Friends actress, Jennifer Aniston.
Telly: "Who loves ya, baby?" (Source: tellysavalas.com)
Telly: "We're all born bald, baby!" (Source: tellysavalas.com)
Telly: “You feel as if you've been projected into the 21st Century ... Yes, it's my kinda town. So long, Birmingham. Here's looking at ya.” (Source: ThinkExist.com)
Telly on being offered the role of Kojak: "I'll do The Marcus Nelson Murders, but I don't want to do a series. How can I do the one role? I mean, I have to varify my life. My life is a variety, I can't be stuck with one character. It won't sell." (Source: A&EBiography.com)
Telly when he realized death and disaster followed: “There are those who firmly believe that it was in the cargo hold of the Titanic.” (Source: NewYorkTimes.com)
Telly in a way he played corruptive roles before the good guy role: "Even with the crazies I've played, I've always tried to give some dimension to their insanity. I hope to be flexible with 'Kojak.'” (Source: NewYorkTimes.com)
Telly who had been offered a series wasn’t getting used to all the police shows on TV that have been aired at the time: "Television doesn't need another cop show, that's for sure, But this is an interesting cop, a real cop from a New York City neighborhood. A basically honest character, tough but with feelings -- the kind of guy who might kick a hooker in the tail if he had to, but they'd understand each other because maybe they grew up on the same kind of block." (Source: NewYorkTimes.com)
Telly about diamonds being displayed in various places of the world: “Proof that diamonds are a girl's best friend, would be displayed only in the most select museums in the world.” (Source: NewYorkTimes.com)
Telly on Clint Eastwood: “Off-screen Clint is articulate and intelligent, not quiet or laconic like the cowboys and GI's he plays in films.” (Source: USIMDB.com)
Telly: “I don't play that far away from myself because then I think people would say I was acting.” (Source: USIMDB.com)
Telly: I was born with a romantic nature and I'll carry it to my grave. (Source: USIMDB.com)
Telly: I don't play that far away from myself because then I think people would say I was acting. (Source: USIMDB.com)
Telly in 1974: Kojak is the kind of guy who couldn't arrest a hooker, he'd send her home. He operates on instinct and decency, but if you give him any lip he'll throw you out a window. (Source: People.com)
Telly on taking the risk of starring in "Kojak" (1973): If they had told me about the series, I never would have done the movie, I got aboard this thing by accident. I wasn't emotionally ready for a series. I like to move around, but now at least 98 per cent of my personality is in abeyance. There is the applause; I love it! (Source: People.com)
Telly who said of his mother, Christina Savalas: Mama says to me, 'Being an actor is fine, but what are you going to do for a living?' I took my mother to the premiere of The Dirty Dozen and she said, 'It's disgraceful!' I asked her how she liked my role and she said, 'You were ridiculous!' (Source: People.com)
Telly who said in 1987: I made 60 movies before 'Kojak' with some of the biggest names in the business, and people would still say, 'There goes what's-his-name.' (Source: The LATimes.com)
Telly who said in 1973: The second show I did on TV, I was the lead. I made $900 and I was having fun saying some other guy's words. This is a dangerous profession for the ego. (Source: The LATimes.com)
Deaths of relatives and his own last days
After Savalas came back to reprise his role on Kojak in the 1980s, he started losing close relatives. George Savalas, his brother who played Detective Stavros on the original Kojak series, died in 1985 of leukemia; he was 60. And 4 years later, Christina, his mother who had always been his best friend, a supporter, and a devoted parent, died in 1989. Later that year, Savalas was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He refused to see a doctor until 1993, when he didn't 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 the morning of January 22, 1994, the day of his 72nd birthday. He died of complications of prostate cancer at the Sheraton-Universal Hotel in Universal City, California. He was interred at the George Washington section of Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles, California. Julie's and Telly's family were joined by the many mourners at a funeral in a Catholic Church, including those of, Angie Dickinson, Nicolette Sheridan, Jennifer Aniston, Sally Adams, Frank Sinatra, Don Rickles, and several other Telly's Kojak co-stars, Kevin Dobson, Dan Frazer & Vince Conti. His first two wives, Katharine and Marilyn, arrived with their own children, as did his third wife, Julie. Brother Gus attended the funeral, but longtime friend Burt Lancaster didn't attend the funeral because of his own frailing health. He died just 9 months after Savalas' death.
Telly Savalas as Ernst Stavro Blofeld and George Lazenby as James Bond in the James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service
His silver screen career usually involved him being cast as the quintessential villain in such films as:
- The Young Savages (1961),
- Mad Dog Coll (1961),
- Cape Fear (1962),
- Birdman of Alcatraz (1962),
- The Man from the Diner's Club (1963),
- The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965),
- Battle of the Bulge (1965),
- Genghis Khan (1965),
- Beau Geste (1966),
- The Dirty Dozen (1967),
- The Scalphunters (1968),
- The Assassination Bureau (1969),
- On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969),
- Land Raiders (1969),
- Crooks and Coronets (1969),
- MacKenna's Gold (1969),
- Violent City (1970),
- A Town Called Bastard (1971),
- Pancho Villa (1972),
- Scenes from a Murder (1972),
- Horror Express (1973),
- Lisa and the Devil (1973),
- A Reason to Live, A Reason to Die (1973),
- Inside Out (1975),
- Escape to Athena (1979),
- Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979).
Other movie roles that Savalas didn't play the quintessential villains were: