Monday, November 8, 2021

Who Loves Ya, Baby?


"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."
  --Telly Savalas

Telly Savalas was born Aristotelis Savalas in Garden City, New York on January 21, 1922.  He was of Greek heritage and was the second of five children.  His family owned and operated a successful restaurant throughout the 1920s, reaching millionaire status.  However, the Great Depression would put an end to all that.

By 1941, America was fully engaged in World War 2.  Having recently completed high school, Savalas was drafted into the Army and served with Company C, 12th Medical Training Battalion at Camp Pickett, Virginia. He served for two years, reaching the rank of Corporal before being honorably discharged following a car accident.  He'd spend more than a year recuperating from a broken pelvis and a sprained ankle.  He then enrolled in the Armed Forces Institute, studying radio and television production.  Like many service members, his military duty was deeply personal to Savalas and it was something he refused to discuss in interviews.

After the war, Savalas began his career at the U.S. State Department, hosting a radio program called Your Voice of America.  From there he landed his first network job, hosting an ABC radio show called The Coffeehouse in New York City.  He worked his way up at ABC, later serving as senior director for news special events.  In this position, he hired legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell, giving him his first job in television.

Savalas's segue into acting was something of an accident.  The television series Armstrong Circle Theatre was looking for someone who could pull off a European accent.  He was a last-minute substitution for the role, for which he received great acclaim.  With little experience in acting, he became very in demand, appearing on such series as Sunday Showcase and Naked City.  He was also a regular on the short-lived NBC series Acapulco, starring James Coburn.

Hollywood soon took notice, and Savalas made his big-screen debut in the 1961 film Mad Dog Coll, playing, what else, a police officer. Check out the original theatrical trailer.  His work in the film impressed fellow actor Burt Lancaster, who arranged for Savalas to be cast in his next feature film The Young Savages, once again playing a police officer.  Here's a preview of the film.

In 1962, Savalas appeared in three films, Bird Man of Alcatraz (see Trivia below), the original version of Cape Fear and The Interns.  He also made several guest appearances on television, including a memorable episode of The Twilight Zone.  Click here to see him match wits with Talky Tina.

In 1965, Savalas accepted the role of Pontius Pilate in The Greatest Story Ever Told.  At the request of the film's director, Savalas shaved his head, a look that he would continue for the rest of his career.  He'd follow it up with several memorable films from the 60s and 70s, including The Dirty DozenOn Her Majesty's Secret Service (above) and Capricorn One.

In 1973, Savalas was cast in the made-for-TV movie The Marcus-Nelson Murders, playing New York police detective Theodopolus Kojak (I bet you thought he didn't have a first name).  It was so successful that the character was given his own series, simply called Kojak (below), which ran for five seasons on CBS.  The role put Savalas on the map and it would ultimately define his career.  

Following the series cancellation, Savalas returned to the silver screen, with memorable roles in such films as Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979) and Cannonball Run 2 (1984).  Then in 1985, he reprised the role of Kojak in the first of six made-for-TV movies, which he continued making until 1990.  His final television role was in the CBS series The Commish, which was produced by his son-in-law.

In 1988, Savalas was diagnosed with cancer of the bladder.  It would plague him during the final years of his career and would ultimately take his life on January 22, 1994, one day after his 72nd birthday.

Savalas had spent the final twenty years of his life as a resident of the Sheraton Universal Hotel in Hollywood and it was there that he perished.  In honor of their famous resident, the Sheraton renamed the hotel bar "Telly's."

He was buried in a semi-private garden at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills. It's so well hidden that I didn't know he was there.  I stumbled across it completely by accident. 

The quote is from his namesake, Aristotle.

Location: Court of Liberty, Gardens of Heritage, Map #H11, Garden #288
Inscription: "The hour of departure has arrived and we go our ways -
I to die and you to live.  Which is better God only knows."

Rest in peace, baby.

  • Savalas never published his memoirs, but a biography was released at the height of his fame.  You can pick up a copy of the simply titled Telly Savalas by Marsha Daly from Amazon.

  • Savalas was good friends with actor John Aniston (Days of Our Lives) and was godfather to his daughter Jennifer Aniston.

  • Before making it big in Hollywood, Savalas held a number of odd jobs, including a stint as a lifeguard.  On one occasion, he failed to save a man from drowning, and the incident troubled him for the rest of his life.

  • Savalas was the original choice to play the lead in Cool Hand, Luke.  He was in Europe while the film was in pre-production, and due to his fear of flying, he opted to return to America by boat.  Unfortunately, this was a time-consuming process and the film's producers were unable to wait for his return.  The part was ultimately given to Paul Newman.

  • Savalas appeared in two different films about Alcatraz, playing two different inmates.  First, he appeared as Feto Gomez in 1962's Bird Man of Alcatraz.  Then in 1980, he appeared as Cretzer in the made-for-TV mini series Alcatraz: The Whole Shocking Story

  • Kojak was famous for sucking on lollipops. This was pure Savalas, as he was trying to give up cigarettes.

  • Savalas and a host of other A-list stars appeared in the very first commercial for Diet Coke, with Savalas himself delivering the signature line, "just for the taste of it."  How many stars can you spot?

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