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Telly Savalas

Aristotelis "Telly" Savalas (Greek: Αριστοτέλης "Τέλλυ" Σαβάλας; January 21, 1922 – January 22, 1994) was a Greek 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 anAcademy 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).

Early life[]

The second of five children, Savalas was born as Aristotelis Savalas[1] in Garden CityNew York, in 1922, to Greek American parents Christina (néeKapsalis), a New York City artist who was a native of Sparti, and Nick Savalas, a Greek restaurant owner.[2] When he entered Sewanhaka High Schoolin Floral Park, New York,[3] he initially spoke only Greek, but 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.[4] When he enteredColumbia University School of General Studies Savalas took courses including English languageradio, 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 period (1943–1946) in the United States Army during World War II, working for the US 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.

Early television and movie career[]

Savalas began 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 in television.[citation needed]

Savalas was a character actor on television series during 1959 and the 1960s. His first acting role was on "And Bring Home a Baby", an episode ofArmstrong Circle Theater in January 1959. He appeared on two more episodes of this same series in 1959 and 1960.

Between 1959 and 1967, he made more than fifty guest appearances in such series as Naked CityEmpireArrest and TrialThe Eleventh HourKing of DiamondsThe AquanautsThe UntouchablesDiagnosis: UnknownBurke's LawCombat!The FugitiveBreaking PointBonanzaThe Man from U.N.C.L.E.The F.B.I. and the The Twilight Zone classic episode "Living Doll" in which he can be seen with hair. He had a recurring role as Brother Hendricksen on the popular crime drama series, 77 Sunset Strip and was a regular on the short-lived NBC television series Acapulco. In 1980, he starred in the TV film Alcatraz: The Whole Shocking Story.

While playing Lucky Luciano on the TV series The Witness, he was "discovered" by actor Burt Lancaster. 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 inBirdman of Alcatraz (1962). In the same year he appeared alongside Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear (1962) as private detective Charles Sievers.

Savalas shaved his head for his role as Pontius Pilate in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), and decided to remain shaved for the remainder of his life.

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) andThe Dirty Dozen: The Fatal Mission (1988). He co-starred with Burt Lancaster for the third time in The Scalphunters (1968), a comedy western that looked at 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) where he played the no-nonsense, hard-as-nails company sergeant "Big Joe".

His career was transformed with the lead role in the TV-movie The Marcus Nelson Murders (CBS, 1973), which was based on the real-life Career Girls Murder case,[5] and pop culture icon Theo Kojak was born. In that TV-movie, the pilot for the series, and only in that TV-movie, his name was spelled as "Kojack". That spelling was replaced with the more familiar 'Kojak" for the rest of the run.

In addition, Savalas, always known as the tough guy with a big heart, did a voice over for a 70s nature series on Yosemite National Park.


Savalas's best-known 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?" (He also liked to say "Everybody should have a little Greek in them.") Although the lollipop gimmick was added in order to indulge his sweet tooth, Savalas also smoked heavily onscreen – cigarettes, cigarillos and cigars – throughout the first season's 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.[6]

He was nominated for an 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 younger 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 went on to further fame in the popular prime-time 1980s soap opera Knots Landing. As a result, he did not appear in a majority of Kojak TV movies. 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 Dobson's character was a lawyer – similar to his role on Knots Landing – instead of a police officer.

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."

Dobson added: "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."[citation needed]

In 1978, after five seasons and 118 episodes, CBS canceled the show because of lowered ratings. Savalas was unhappy about the show's demise, but he got the chance to reprise the Kojak persona in several television films.

Savalas portrayed Kojak in the following shows:

  • The Marcus-Nelson Murders (1973) (TV pilot)
  • 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)

In some countries, like Chile, "lollipop" name has been replaced with "Kojak" due to the success of the series, even today.

Other career achievements[]

As a singer, Savalas had some chart success. His spoken word version of Bread's "If" produced by Snuff Garrett was #1 in Europe for 10 weeks in 1975 and his sung version of Don Williams' "Some Broken Hearts Never Mend" topped the charts in 1980.[7] He worked with composer and producer John Cacavas on many albums, including Telly (1974) and Who Loves Ya, Baby (1976).

Telly appeared in several episodes of the television series The Untouchables, which dealt with the era of Al Capone and Elliot Ness during the years of prohibition. In the late 1970s, Savalas narrated three United Kingdom travelogues titled Telly Savalas Looks at PortsmouthTelly 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 show a set percentage of British produced films.[8][9] He also hosted the 1989 video UFOs and Channeling. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Savalas appeared in commercials for the Players' Club Gold Card. In 1982, along with Bob Hope and Linda Evans, he participated in the "world premiere" television ad introducing Diet Coke to Americans.[10]

Savalas appeared on the Australian supernatural television show The Extraordinary, where he told a personal ghost story similar to The Vanishing Hitchhiker.[11]

In the late 1980s, Savalas guest starred on an episode of The Equalizer, which was produced by James McAdams, who had produced Kojak. He played a terrorist turned monk in the episode entitled, "Blood and Wine".

He has been honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1996 TV Guide ranked him number 33 on its 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time list.[12]

Personal life[]

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.[citation needed] 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. 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, but Savalas and Sally Adams apparently never legally married. In 1977 during the last season of Kojak, he met 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 an actor, singer and songwriter. Ariana Savalas is an actress and singer/songwriter. Julie Savalas is an inventor and artist.

Telly Savalas 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.[13][14]

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. Telly was also Jennifer Aniston's godfather.[4]

Savalas had a minor physical handicap in that his left index finger was deformed.[15] This deformed digit was often indicated on screen; Kojak episode "Conspiracy of Fear" in which a close-up of Savalas holding his chin in his hand clearly shows the permanently bent finger. As a philanthropist and phil-hellene, Telly Savalas supported many Hellenic causes and made friends in major cities around the world. In Chicago, Telly often met with Illinois State Senators Steven G. Nash and Samuel Maragos, also Greeks, as well as Greek millionaire Simeon Frangos, who owned the famous Athens North nightclub and the Flying Carpet Hotel near O'Hare airport.

Deaths of relatives and his own last days[]

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. George Savalas recorded a popular series of Greek folk songs which have since become highly collectible and valuable. His mother Christina, who had always been his best friend, supporter, and devoted parent, died in 1989. Later that year, Savalas wasdiagnosed with transitional cell cancer of the bladder. 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, at the age of 72, just one day after his birthday, of complications of cancer of the bladder and prostate[16] at the Sheraton-Universal Hotel in Universal City, California.[17] He had lived at the Sheraton in Universal City for twenty years, becoming such a fixture at the hotel bar that it was renamed Telly's.[18] Savalas was interred at the George Washington section of Forest Lawn - Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.[19] The funeral, held in the Saint Sophia 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. The mourners included Angie DickinsonNicollette SheridanJennifer AnistonKevin Sorbo, Sally Adams, Frank SinatraDon Rickles, and several of Telly's Kojak co-stars – Kevin Dobson, Dan Frazer, and Vince Conti.

Movie roles[]

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: