Savalas, Aristoteles (“Telly”)
Savalas, Aristoteles (“Telly”)
(b. 21 January 1923 in Garden City, New York; d. 22 January 1994 in Universal City, California), actor best known for the title character in the television series Kojak (1973–1978), which earned him an Emmy Award in 1974.
Savalas was the second of five children born to the Greek immigrants Nicholas Savalas, a businessman and restaurant owner who lost his wealth in the stock market crash of 1929, and Christina Kapsallis, a noted painter whose work was exhibited around the world. The family was proud of their Greek heritage and imbued the sons with a strong sense of tradition and family loyalty. The Savalas family relied on each other in good times and bad. The young Savalas learned to be resourceful and creative, honing his acting skills at a young age in an effort to help his family. One family legend contends that the young boy learned to convince angry bill collectors that his parents were not home. Another anecdote claims that Savalas got a job as a bus driver when he was only twelve years old. He posed as a twenty-year-old at bus driver school but was eventually betrayed by his squeaky voice.
Savalas served in World War II for three years and was trained to be a medic, although he never left the country due to injuries from a car accident. After he was discharged in 1944 he enrolled at Columbia University, where he took classes in psychology. Although he was fascinated by the role of psychology in human behavior, it did not translate into an inspired academic career, and he never graduated. In 1950 he married Katharine Nicolaides; they had one child. In 1955 Savalas took a position with the U.S. Information Service producing and hosting the radio series Your Voice of America. Part of his job involved interviewing celebrities, providing his first interaction with professional actors. He also discovered a penchant for performance. Savalas then became involved in local theater, first producing and then directing at the Stamford Playhouse in suburban Connecticut. Success was not immediate, however, and Savalas and his young family struggled to make ends meet. He and his first wife divorced, and in 1960 Savalas married Marilyn Gardner. They had two children.
Savalas’s transition into acting occurred when he auditioned for the part of a Greek judge in a television show in 1958. Pretending he was an immigrant with broken English, he won the part. His first film role was in The Young Savages (1961), directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Burt Lancaster. Savalas’s gritty portrayal of a detective in Harlem impressed Lancaster, who insisted the relative newcomer be cast in his next project, The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). In that film Savalas played a sadistic convict so chillingly that he earned an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor in 1962. Savalas broke the mold in many ways. He was not classically handsome, he was untrained, and he did not even break into acting until he was in his mid-thirties. But his charisma was powerful. While he did not win the Academy Award, his film career thrived. For a decade he averaged three films a year, totaling thirty-two credits between 1961 and 1973. He continued to impress audiences and critics alike. Some of his principal appearances were in Cape Fear (1961), Genghis Khan (1965), Battle of the Bulge (1965), Beau Geste (1966), The Dirty Dozen (1967), The Scalphunters (1968), and Kelly’s Heroes (1970). He shaved his head for his role as Pontius Pilate in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1964). Savalas’s shiny bald head became his signature, lending even more visual intrigue to the burly man with the prominent nose and protruding ears.
While Savalas’s film career was notable, his television portrayal of Theo Kojak, the hard-boiled cop with heart, earned him his greatest recognition and fame. When he was approached about playing Kojak, a tough New York City cop, Savalas initially balked, fearing he would get bored playing one role. But the show’s producer Abby Mann was convinced that Savalas was the man for the job. “He’s exciting, enormously talented, one of the most sensitive performers around. He has brute power, which he releases with no seeming effort. Yet gentleness and compassion underscore his style. And Telly’s perfect for TV—he needs no preparation,” Mann commented in TV Guide. Savalas agreed to do the CBS pilot for Kojak “The Marcus-Nelson Murders” (1973), based on two real-life murders in New York City. He then played the title role in the series from 1973 to 1978 and won an Emmy Award for best actor in 1974. That same year he and Gardner divorced. Around this time he and the actress Sally Adams had a son together.
Savalas lent many personal touches to Kojak’s character. Kojak was a proud Greek, and in keeping with Savalas’s family loyalty, his brother George Savalas played Detective Stavros. In addition to his signature bald head, crowned by a black hat when shaking down criminals on the streets, Kojak demonstrated a weakness for lollipops and used the lyrical catch phrase “who loves ya, baby?” while solving tough crimes. Savalas described the Kojak character as “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.”
After Kojak completed its run in 1978, Savalas embarked on an ill-fated singing career and continued to act in film and on television. In 1984 he married Julie Howland, with whom he had two children. He briefly reprised the Kojak character in 1984, and he did his final television and film work in 1987. About that time he experienced symptoms of prostate (bladder by some accounts) cancer, and he spent the last few years of his life quietly, mostly surrounded by his family. He died in his suite at the Sheraton-Universal Hotel in Universal City, California, one day after his seventy-first birthday. He is buried in Hollywood Hills, California.
The lessons Savalas learned from his family, through the Great Depression, and on the streets of New York City bred a particular sensitivity that informed his acting. He once said, “Even with the crazies I’ve played, I’ve always tried to give some dimension to their insanity.”
Numerous sources have articles and entries on Savalas, including International Motion Picture Almanac (1992), Who’s Who in Entertainment (1992), David Ragan, Who’s Who in Hollywood (1992), and Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television (1994). Informative interviews with Savalas are in the New York Times (7 Oct. 1973), TV Guide (20 Oct. 1973), Playgirl (June 1974), and People (1 July 1974). An obituary is in the New York Times (23 Jan (1994).
Llann E. Tsoukas