Today I’m featuring this great actor and wise man, known as Kojak, also a philanthropist, a singer and a great poker player. Noted for his bald head and deep, resonant voice, this lollipop man warmed the hearts of many viewers for many years with his one liners and catchy phrases. ‘Who loves you baby’ 🍭
Aristotelis Savalas was born in Garden City, New York, on January 21, 1922, the second of five children born to ethnic Greek parents. Savalas and his brother, Gus, sold newspapers and polished shoes to help support the family. Savalas initially spoke only Greek when he entered grade school, but later learned English. He won a spelling bee there in 1934; due to an oversight, he did not receive his prize until 1991, when the school principal and Boston Herald awarded it to him.
Savalas graduated from Sewanhaka High School in Floral Park, New York in 1940.
A renowned swimmer, he worked as a beach lifeguard after graduation from high school. However, on one occasion, he was unsuccessful in saving a father from drowning; as he attempted resuscitation, the man’s two children stood nearby crying for their father to wake up. This affected Savalas so much that he spent the rest of his life constantly promoting water safety, and later made all six of his children take swimming lessons.
In 1941, Savalas was drafted into the United States Army. In 1943, he was discharged from the Army with the rank of corporal after being severely injured in a car accident. Savalas spent more than a year recuperating in hospital with a broken pelvis, sprained ankle and concussion. He then attended the Armed Forces Institute where he studied radio and television production.
He received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Columbia’s School of General Studies in 1946 and started working on a master’s degree while preparing for medical school.
Savalas did not consider acting as a career until asked if he could recommend an actor who could do a European accent. He did but as the friend in question could not go, Savalas himself went to cover for his friend and ended up being cast on “And Bring Home a Baby”, an episode of Armstrong Circle Theatre in January 1958. He appeared on two more episodes of the series in 1959 and 1960, one, acting alongside a young Sydney Pollack. He was also in a version of The Iceman Cometh.
Savalas quickly became in much demand as a guest star on TV shows.
Savalas made his film debut in Mad Dog Coll (1961), playing a cop. His work had impressed fellow actor Burt Lancaster, who arranged for Savalas to be cast in the John Frankenheimer directed The Young Savages (also 1961 and again playing a cop). Pollack worked on the film as an acting coach.
In one of his most acclaimed performances, Savalas reunited with Lancaster and Frankenheimer for Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), where he was nominated for the Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor. The same year, he appeared as a private detective in Cape Fear, and The Interns, reprising his role from the latter film in The New Interns (1964).
Savalas also guest starred in a number of TV series during the decade including The New Breed, The Detectives, Ben Casey, The Twilight Zone (the episode “Living Doll”), The Fugitive (1963 TV series) and Arrest and Trial among others.
He was part of an all-star cast in The Dirty Dozen (1967).
Savalas’ first leading role in film was in the British crime comedy Crooks and Coronets (1969). The same year he appeared in the James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, playing Ernst Stavro Blofeld. He continued to appear in films during the 1970s including Kelly’s Heroes (1970) (with Clint Eastwood).He reunited with Christopher Lee in the 1976 thriller Killer Force, and also appeared in Peter Hyams’ Capricorn One (1978).
“I had worked my way up to star billing”, he later said, “when the bottom dropped out of the movie business. I could have stayed in Europe and made Italian movies but I discovered the big difference between an Italian and American movie is that in the American movie you get paid.”
Savalas first played Lt. Theodopolus “Theo” Kojak in the TV movie The Marcus–Nelson Murders (CBS, 1973), which was based on the real-life Career Girls Murder case.
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 lollipops had apparently given him three cavities, and were part of an (unsuccessful) effort by Kojak (and Savalas himself) to curb his smoking. 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.”
David Shipman later wrote: “Kojak was sympathetic to outcasts and ruthless with social predators. The show maintained a high quality to the end, mixing tension with some laughs and always anxious to tackle civic issues, one of its raisons d’etre in the first place. It was required viewing in Britain every Saturday evening for eight years. To almost everyone everywhere Kojak means Savalas and vice versa, but to Savalas himself the series was merely an interval, albeit a long one, in a distinguished career.”
Kojak aired on CBS for five seasons from October 24, 1973, until March 18, 1978, with 118 episodes produced. The role won Savalas an Emmy and two Golden Globes for Best Actor in a Drama Series. Co-stars on the show included Savalas’ younger brother George as Detective Stavros – a sensitive, wild-haired, quiet, comedic foil to Kojak’s street-wise humor in an otherwise dark dramatic series – Kevin Dobson as Kojak’s trusted young partner, Det. Bobby Crocker, who’s on-screen chemistry with Savalas was a success story of 1970s television, and Dan Frazer as Captain Frank McNeil.
Due to a decline in ratings, the series was canceled by CBS in 1978. Savalas and Frazer were the only actors to appear in all 118 episodes. Savalas was unhappy about the show’s demise but got the chance to reprise the Kojak persona in several television movies, starting in 1985. The first film, subtitled The Belarus File and broadcast in February 1985, reunited Savalas with several of his co-stars from the series: younger brother George, Dan Frazer, Mark Russell (Det. Saperstein) and Vince Conti (Det. Rizzo); this marked those actors’ final appearances in the Kojak franchise. A further six Kojak TV movies were produced, titled The Price of Justice (1987), Ariana, Fatal Flaw (both 1989), Flowers for Matty, It’s Always Something – with Kevin Dobson reprising his role of Bobby Crocker, now an Assistant District Attorney – and None So Blind (all 1990).
In 1992, he appeared in three episodes of the TV series The Commish (his son-in-law was one of the producers). This was Savalas’ final television role. He would appear in two further feature films before his death, Mind Twister (1993) and the posthumous release Backfire! (1995).
As a singer, Savalas had some chart success. His spoken word version of Bread’s “If” produced by Snuff Garrett reached No. 1 in both the UK and Ireland in March 1975, but just No.88 in Canada, and his version of Don Williams’s “Some Broken Hearts Never Mend” topped the charts in Switzerland in February 1981. He worked with composer and producer John Cacavas on many albums, including Telly (1974) which peaked at number 49 in Australia and Who Loves Ya, Baby (1976).
He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1983. In 1999, TV Guide ranked him number 18 on its 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time list.
Savalas was married three times. In 1948 after his father’s death from bladder cancer, Savalas married his college sweetheart, Katherine Nicolaides. Their daughter Christina, named after his mother, was born in 1950. In 1957 Katherine filed for divorce. 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 their daughter, Penelope, in 1961. A second daughter, Candace, was born in 1963. They divorced in 1974, after a long separation.
In January 1969, while working on the movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Savalas met actress Sally Adams, an actress 25 years his junior whose daughter from a previous relationship is Nicollette Sheridan. Savalas later moved in with Sally, who gave birth to their son Nicholas Savalas on February 24, 1973. Although Savalas and Sally Adams never legally married, she went by the name Sally Savalas. They stopped living together in December 1978; she filed a palimony lawsuit against him in 1980, demanding support not only for herself and their son, but also for Nicollette.
In 1977, during the last season of Kojak, Savalas met Julie Hovland, a travel agent from Minnesota. The couple were married from 1984 until his death and had two children: Christian, an entrepreneur, singer and songwriter, and Ariana, an actress and singer/songwriter. Savalas was close friends with actor John Aniston, and was godfather to his daughter Jennifer, a successful TV and film actress.
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. He was also 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 had done 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, Ierakas, Greece.
As a philanthropist and philhellene, Savalas supported many Hellenic causes and made friends in major cities around the world.
In the 1980s, Savalas began to lose close relatives. His brother George Savalas, who played Stavros in the original 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 1988. On November 22, 1989, Savalas was diagnosed with transitional cell cancer of the bladder.
Savalas died on January 22, 1994, one day after his 72nd birthday, of complications of prostate cancer at the Sheraton-Universal Hotel in Universal City, California. He had lived at the Sheraton in Universal City for 20 years, becoming such a fixture at the hotel bar that it was renamed Telly’s. Savalas was interred at the George Washington section of Forest Lawn – Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles, California. 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 (his goddaughter), Kevin Sorbo, Sally Adams, Frank Sinatra, Don Rickles, and several of Savalas’s Kojak co-stars – Kevin Dobson, Dan Frazer, and Vince Conti.
For the people who are old enough (lol), I still watch Kojak on video occasionally and I still enjoy his acting, the stories and the scenery of New York in the seventies. It takes you back to the free days of the Big Apple. I always found him to be a witty, funny, apt and strong individual.
Check him out (or not):
Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube, interweb, poetpas