Already one of Hollywood's more versatile character actors, equally believable as a stalwart hero or sadistic villain, Telly Savalas later achieved pop-culture immortality as the bald, lollipop-chomping cop "Kojak" (CBS, 1973-78). Savalas had already gained a lifetime of experience with a three-year stint in the Army during WWII, work for the U.S. Information Services and at ABC News by the time he began his acting career in his late-thirties. Spotted in a TV performance by Burt Lancaster, Savalas was cast in the movie star's next two feature films, "The Young Savages" (1961) and "The Birdman of Alcatraz" (1962). From there, it was on to a steady string of appearances, often as the bad guy, in notable films like "The Dirty Dozen" (1967), "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (1969) and "Kelly's Heroes" (1970). But it was his lengthy run on television as the eponymous police detective "Kojak" that made the actor a bona fide star of truly iconic status, with his tagline of "Who loves ya, baby!" entering the common vernacular, and his clean-shaven head serving as an inspiration to follicley-challenged men everywhere. Although he continued to work in various film projects during and after his series, the role of Kojak was one he would happily return to time and again over the years. Few actors could lay claim to a career as lengthy and diverse as the one enjoyed by Savalas for more than 30 years - fewer still, could bring to life a character as indelible as Lt. Theo Kojak.
Born Aristotle Savalas on Jan. 21, 1922 in Garden City NY, "Telly" was the second oldest of five children born to Greek immigrants Nicholas and Christina Savalas. After the family's restaurant business fell on hard times after the Great Depression, Savalas and his four siblings did what they could to help provide, including selling newspapers and shining shoes at NYC's Penn Station. By all accounts, Savalas was a precocious teenager but also a conscientious worker who spent summers as a life guard on the beaches of Long Island. After graduating from Sewanhaka High School in 1940, he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1941. For his service during World War II, Savalas earned a Purple Heart before being discharged after a serious car accident which occurred while on leave in 1943. He later attended classes at the Armed Forces Institute, where he studied radio and television production, then continued his studies at Columbia University School of General Studies, from which he graduated in 1946. Savalas went on to work as a producer at the U.S. Information Agency and later for WABC news in a similar capacity. His work at the station quickly grew in scope, eventually earning him a spot as executive producer and host of the popular "Telly's Coffee House," for which he earned a Peabody Award.
By the late-1950s, Savalas had begun his transition into acting, and before long accrued a number of guest-starring appearances on such acclaimed anthology series as "Sunday Showcase" (NBC, 1959-1960) and "Armstrong Circle Theater" (NBC, 1950-57; CBS, 1958-1963). It was, however, his performance as mob kingpin Lucky Luciano in the crime docudrama series "The Witness" (CBS, 1960-61) that truly changed his fortunes as an actor. Savalas' performance as the mob boss so impressed movie star Burt Lancaster, that he asked to have Savalas cast in a prominent role for his upcoming crime melodrama "The Young Savages" (1961). Apparently, the collaboration was a good one. So much so that Lancaster brought the neophyte actor back for his next feature, the prison biopic "The Birdman of Alcatraz" (1962). Savalas' venomous portrayal of the sadistic Feto Gomez proved convincing enough to earn him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor that year. That same year he appeared alongside two more Hollywood heavyweights when he played a private investigator enlisted by attorney Gregory Peck to scare off vengeful ex-con Robert Mitchum in the classic thriller "Cape Fear" (1962).
After an extended period of supporting roles in somewhat forgettable films like "The Interns" (1962) and guest spots on such series as "The Twilight Zone" (CBS, 1959-64), Savalas landed the weighty role of Pontius Pilate in director George Stevens' religious epic "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965). For his performance as the man who condemned Jesus to crucifixion, Stevens asked Savalas to shave his head completely bald. Although he disliked his role, the actor felt the clean scalp added character and helped him stand out from the crowd. Savalas had found the signature look he would maintain throughout the remainder of his career. That same year, he appeared opposite Omar Sharif in the historical action-adventure "Genghis Khan" (1965) and fought valiantly against all odds alongside Henry Fonda and Robert Shaw in the somewhat more factual WWII action drama "Battle of the Bulge" (1965). Tapping back into the sadism that informed his portrayal of Feto Gomez, Savalas next played a brutal sergeant tormenting the titular French Foreign Legionnaire in the underwhelming remake of the classic tale of adventure and sacrifice, "Beau Geste" (1966).
Savalas attracted far more attention for his unhinged portrayal of the bible-thumping psychopath Archie Maggott in director Robert Aldrich's WWII action-adventure "The Dirty Dozen" (1967), the seminal "men on a mission" film by which all others would later be judged. Busier than ever, he starred opposite Diana Rigg and Oliver Reed as a war-mongering aristocrat in the Edwardian-era black comedy-adventure "The Assassination Bureau" (1969), then reteamed with Rigg, along with George Lazenby - in his only turn as James Bond - to play super villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld in "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (1969). Having acquitted himself well in "The Dirty Dozen," Savalas was asked to join in a similar mission - this time as a hero - alongside Clint Eastwood, Donald Sutherland and Don Rickles in the hit WWII action-comedy "Kelly's Heroes" (1970). In one of his quirkier projects, he played a detective investigating a series of murders at a Santa Monica high school in the cult oddity "Pretty Maids All in a Row" (1971), a pitch-black sex comedy starring Rock Hudson and Angie Dickenson, directed by Roger Vadim and written by "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry.
Savalas' prolific career as a supporting character actor was transformed with the lead role in the celebrated Abby Mann-scripted TV-movie "The Marcus Nelson Murders" (CBS, 1973). Based on an actual murder case, the telefilm focused on the tough, no-nonsense police detective Lt. Theodopolous "Theo" Kojak (Savalas) and his efforts to exonerate an innocent man accused of brutally killing two women. "The Marcus Nelson Murders" served as the pilot for the influential police procedural series "Kojak" (CBS, 1973-78), and took Savalas from supporting player to cultural phenomenon. With his ubiquitous lollipop clenched firmly between his teeth and his constant refrain of "Who loves ya, baby!" Kojak was firmly established in the pop-culture iconography. During the show's immensely popular and lengthy run - during which he won an Emmy for Lead Actor - Savalas even brought his brother George on board to play one of Kojak's subordinates, Det. Stavros. Flush with success, Savalas, a devoted gambler, purchased a thoroughbred racehorse, which he named "Telly's Pop" - not in a nod to his TV character, but as a salute to his late father.
Throughout his tenure on "Kojak," Savalas managed to shoot several genre films in Europe while on break from the show, including such projects as the Mario Bava occult shocker "Lisa and the Devil" (1974), co-starring Elke Sommer. Seizing the opportunity that his popularity afforded him, Savalas indulged his singing aspirations when he recorded two music albums, Telly (1974) and Who Loves Ya, Baby (1976), then embarked on the requisite vanity film project when he wrote, directed and starred in the psychological thriller "Beyond Reason" (1977). As "Kojak" wound to a close - much to Savalas' disappointment - he refocused his efforts toward landing more roles in feature films, including the NASA conspiracy thriller "Capricorn One" (1978), the POW action-adventure "Escape to Athena" (1979) and the disastrous disaster sequel "Beyond the Poseidon Adventure" (1979). Much to his delight, Savalas was able to reprise his signature role as Theo Kojak in several made-for-TV movies, beginning with "Kojak: The Belarus File" (CBS, 1985). And, despite the fact that his original character had died in the first film, Savalas returned in the form of new team leader Maj. Wright for the made-for-TV sequels "Dirty Dozen: The Deadly Mission" (NBC, 1987) and "Dirty Dozen: The Fatal Mission" (NBC, 1988).
Now in the twilight of his career, Savalas continued to work, most often in television. He enjoyed a recurring role on the next generation of police procedural, "The Commish" (ABC, 1991-95), starring actor Michael Chiklis, who would adopt Savalas' clean-scalped look for his role in "The Shield" (FX, 2002-08) years later. He played one last villain, this time known simply as the "Most Evil Man," for his posthumous appearance in the low-budget firefighter spoof "Backfire" (1995), also featuring his old "Cape Fear" co-star, Robert Mitchum. Although he had continued to work, Savalas was a seriously ill man throughout the remaining years of his life. In 1989 he was diagnosed with cancer of the bladder, but according to those close to him, did little to combat the disease. For 20 years Savalas had maintained a suite at the Sheraton-Universal Hotel in Universal City, CA, and it was there that he died from complications due to prostate cancer on January 22, 1994, one day after his 72nd birthday.
By Bryce Coleman