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Telly Savalas

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Subject: Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Television Series Drama, Kojak, Escape to Athena, Horror Express, The Scalphunters
Collection: 1922 Births, 1994 Deaths, 20Th-Century American Male Actors, 20Th-Century American Singers, American Christians, American Male Film Actors, American Male Singers, American Male Stage Actors, American Male Television Actors, American Military Personnel of World War II, American People of Greek Descent, American Poker Players, American Radio Personalities, American Television Directors, American Television Personalities, Best Drama Actor Golden Globe (Television) Winners, Burials at Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Hollywood Hills), California Democrats, Cancer Deaths in California, Columbia University School of General Studies Alumni, Deaths from Bladder Cancer, Deaths from Prostate Cancer, Eastern Orthodox Christians from the United States, Male Actors of Greek Descent, Male Spaghetti Western Actors, Outstanding Performance by a Lead Actor in a Drama Series Primetime Emmy Award Winners, People from Floral Park, New York, People from Garden City, New York, United States Army Soldiers
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Telly Savalas

Telly Savalas
Telly Savalas, 1973
Born Aristotelis Savalas
(1922-01-21)January 21, 1922
Garden City, New York, U.S.
Died January 22, 1994(1994-01-22) (aged 72)
Universal City, California, U.S.
Cause of death Prostate cancer
Bladder cancer
Resting place Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles
Alma mater Columbia University
Occupation Actor
Years active 1950–1994
Religion Greek Orthodox
Spouse(s) Katherine Nicolaides (1948–57, divorced)
Marilyn Gardner (1960–74; divorced)
Julie Hovland (1984–94; his death)
Partner(s) Sally Adams (1969–77)
Children 6
Military career
Service/branch U.S. Army

Aristotelis "Telly" Savalas (Greek: Αριστοτέλης "Τέλλυ" Σαβάλας; January 21, 1922 – January 22, 1994) was an American film and television actor and singer, whose career spanned four decades. Perhaps 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).


  • Early life 1
  • Early television and movie career 2
  • Kojak 3
  • Other career achievements 4
  • Titanic Controversy 5
  • Personal life 6
  • Deaths of relatives and later years 7
    • Death 7.1
  • Movie roles 8
  • Legacy 9
  • See also 10
  • References 11
  • External links 12

Early life

The second of five children, Telly Savalas was born as Aristotelis Savalas[1] on January 21, 1922, in Garden City, 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. He entered Sewanhaka High School in Floral Park, New York, and graduated in 1940.[2] He initially spoke only Greek when he entered grade school, but learned English. After graduation from high school 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.[3] When he entered Columbia University School of General Studies Savalas took courses including English language, 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 served three years (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 radio show called The Coffeehouse in New York City.

Early television and movie career

Telly Savalas and Sally Field, 1971

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.

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 of Armstrong Circle Theatre in January 1958. 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 City, Empire, Arrest and Trial, The Eleventh Hour, King of Diamonds, The Aquanauts, The Untouchables, Diagnosis: Unknown, Burke's Law, Combat!, The Fugitive, Breaking Point, Bonanza, The 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 four 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 recidivist prisoner Feto Gomez in Birdman 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 played 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 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 hard-as-nails company sergeant "Big Joe".

Savalas performed 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. The series originated with the TV movie pilot The Marcus-Nelson Murders (CBS, 1973), which was based on the real-life Career Girls Murder case.[4] Savalas' character was named Theo "Kojack" in his first appearance.

Lt. Theo Kojak was a bald New York City detective with a fondness for lollipops and whose tagline 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. The critic Clive James explained the lead actor's appeal as Kojak: "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."[5]

He was nominated for an 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 lollypop started in the 5th show. We were in Kojak's office and Telly said," Hey Kevin, I need somethin here." George handed Telly an apple and I said "NO" and a stagehand was standing off to the side(half asleep) with a lollypop was jammed into his shirt packet along with cigs, pens,toothbrush etc. and I said "Yo,the lollypop" as I motioned with my fingers (gimme the tootsie pop) and then said "Telly, here yah go!". Thus the beginning of the "lollypop cop" ." [6]

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)

Other career achievements

As a singer, Savalas had some chart success. His spoken word version of Bread's "If" produced by Snuff Garrett reached #1 in the UK 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). After the success of "If" in the UK, a parody version recorded by British voiceover artists Chris Sanford and Bill Mitchell performing as Yin and Yan,[8] reached number 25 in the UK charts.[9]

Telly appeared in several episodes of the television series The Untouchables, which dealt with the era of Al Capone and Eliot Ness during the years of prohibition. In the late 1970s, Savalas narrated three United Kingdom 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 show a set percentage of British produced films.[10][11] 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.[12]

Savalas appeared on the Australian supernatural television show The Extraordinary, where he told a personal ghost story similar to the vanishing hitchhiker.[13]

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.[14]

Titanic Controversy

Savalas presenting the much-criticized Return to Titanic Live show on 28 October 1987

The wreck of the RMS Titanic was found in 1985 by a joint French-American expedition led by Jean-Louis Michel of IFREMER and Robert Ballard of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Since its discovery, the wreck site has been visited by numerous expeditions, including salvage operations which have controversially recovered thousands of items. On 28 October 1987, Savalas hosted Return to the Titanic Live, broadcast from Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie in Paris. In front of a live TV audience, a valise recovered from the sea bed was opened, revealing a number of personal items apparently belonging to Richard L. Beckwith of New York, who survived the sinking. A safe was also opened, revealing a few items of memorabilia and some soggy banknotes. The tone of the event has been described by one commentator as "unsympathetic, lacking dignity and finesse, and with all the superficial qualities of a 'media event'."[15] The TV critic of The New York Times, John Corry, called the event "a combination of the sacred and profane and sometimes the downright silly."[16] Paul Heyer commented that it was "presented as a kind of deep sea striptease", and that Savalas "seemed haggard, missed several cues, and at one point almost tripped over a chair." Controversy persisted after the broadcast when claims were made that the safe had been opened beforehand and that the show had effectively been a fraud.[17]

Personal life

The Savalas brothers (l-r): Teddy, Telly, Gus & George

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. 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 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.[18][19]

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.[3]

Savalas had a minor physical handicap in that his left index finger was deformed.[20] 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 philhellene, 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 Athens North nightclub and the Flying Carpet Hotel near O'Hare airport.

Deaths of relatives and later years

After Savalas came back to reprise his role on 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, the day after his 72nd birthday, of Forest Lawn - Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.[24] 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 Dickinson, Nicollette Sheridan, Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Sorbo, Sally Adams, Frank Sinatra, Don 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 did not play the villain were:


See also


  1. ^ Richardson, Lisa (1994-01-23). "`Kojak' Star Telly Savalas Dies at 70". Retrieved 2009-12-10. 
  2. ^ Wende Hyland and Roberta Haynes (1975). How to make it in Hollywood. Nelson-Hall. p. 135.  
  3. ^ a b IMDB: Telly Savalas - Biography, accessed May 31, 2012
  4. ^ "Thomas J. Cavanagh Jr., 82, Who Inspired 'Kojak', Dies" published by The New York Times, Sunday, August 4, 1996
  5. ^ Clive James Visions Before Midnight ISBN 0-330-26464-8
  6. ^ Kevin Dobson's post to Kojak Fans Facebook page, June 17, 2011.
  7. ^ "Discography Telly Savalas". 
  8. ^ "About". Fly Tying With Chris Sandford. 
  9. ^
  10. ^ "Telly Savalas Looks At Birmingham | Birmingham: It's Not Shit". 2007-09-11. Retrieved 2009-12-10. 
  11. ^ Kojak's kinda town (2008-04-29). "Birmingham - Features - Kojak's kinda town". BBC. Retrieved 2009-12-10. 
  12. ^
  13. ^ The ExtraordinarySavalas appearance on on YouTube
  14. ^ TV Guide Guide to TV. Barnes and Noble. 2004. p. 596.  
  15. ^ Eaton & Haas 1994, p. 310.
  16. ^ Eaton & Haas 1999, p. 195.
  17. ^ Heyer 1995, p. 5.
  18. ^ "People, Feb. 23, 1976". TIME. Feb 23, 1976. Retrieved 2009-12-10. 
  19. ^ "Owner Koch dead at 84". Thoroughbred Times. 2001-02-17. Retrieved 2009-12-10. 
  20. ^ Who2: Celebs Missing Fingers, accessed January 15, 2010
  21. ^ Henkel, John (December 1994). "Prostate Cancer: New Tests Create Treatment Dilemmas".  
  22. ^ "Sheraton Universal Hotel". 
  23. ^ Telly's Favorite Hotel Knew Him as a Regular Guy Los Angeles Times Jan. 25, 1994
  24. ^ Telly Savalas at Find a Grave
  25. ^ Monush, Barry, ed. (2003). Encyclopedia of Hollywood Film Actors: From the silent era to 1965, Volume 1. Hal Leonard Corporation. p. 664.  
  26. ^ "New Releases - Albums". Billboard. June 8, 1985. 

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