Aristotelis "Telly" Savalas (January 21, 1922 – January 22, 1994) was an American actor and singer whose career spanned four decades of television, noted for his resonant voice and his bald head. He also released the one-hit wonder song, "If?," which he introduced in the UK in 1975.
Savalas's career began in films in 1961. His 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), Lisa and the Devil (1973), Inside Out (1975), and Escape to Athena (1979). He then starred as television's Kojak (1973–1978), co-starring his real-life brother George Savalas. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Birdman of Alcatraz (1962).
Telly Savalas, 1973
January 21, 1922
Garden City, New York, U.S.
|Died||January 22, 1994 (aged 72)|
Universal City, California, U.S.
|Resting place||Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles, California|
|Alma mater||Columbia University|
|Spouse(s)||Katherine Nicolaides (1948–57, divorced)|
Marilyn Gardner (1960–74; divorced)
Julie Hovland (1984–94; his death)
|Partner(s)||Sally Adams (1969–78)|
|Children||6 including Ariana Savalas|
The second of five children, Telly Savalas was born Aristotelis Savalas on January 21, 1922, in Garden City, New York, to Greek-American parents Christina (née Kapsalis; 1904–1988), a New York City artist who was a native of Sparta, and Nick Savalas [Tsavalas] (1904–1948), a Greek restaurant owner. One set of grandparents originated from Ierakas, Greece, in the Peloponnese. Savalas and his brother Gus sold newspapers and shined shoes to help support the family.
He initially spoke only Greek when he entered grade school, but learned English. He attended Cobbett Junior High School in Lynn, Massachusetts. He won a spelling bee there in 1934, though through an oversight he did not receive his prize until 1991, when the Boston Herald newspaper and local school principal decided to award it to him.
Savalas entered Sewanhaka High School in Floral Park, New York, and graduated in 1940. 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. When he entered Columbia University School of General Studies Savalas took courses including English language, radio, and psychology, graduating in 1948.
In 1950, Savalas hosted a radio show called The Coffeehouse in New York City.
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 did not consider acting as a career until asked if he could recommend an actor who could do a European accent. He did but the friend could not go. Savalas 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 this same 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, appearing in Sunday Showcase, Diagnosis: Unknown, Dow Hour of Great Mysteries (an adaptation of The Cat and the Canary), Naked City (alongside Claude Rains), The Witness (playing Lucky Luciano in one episode and Al Capone in another), The United States Steel Hour, and The Aquanauts.
Savalas made his film debut in Mad Dog Coll (1961), playing a cop.
Savalas returned to guesting on TV series like The New Breed, King of Diamonds, The Dick Powell Theatre, The Detectives, Ben Casey, The Untouchables and Cain's Hundred. He appeared in a short film, The Sin of Jesus (1961).
Savalas was a private detective in Cape Fear (1962), directed by J. Lee Thompson. He was reunited with Frankenheimer and Lancaster for Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), one of his most acclaimed performances. He followed it playing a doctor in The Interns (1962).
Savalas guest starred on 77 Sunset Strip, The Twilight Zone (the episode "Living Doll" ), Channing, Arrest and Trial, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Breaking Point,Kraft Suspense Theatre (several times, once directed by Pollack), The Rogues and Burke's Law.
He had a support role in the all star Battle of the Bulge (1965) and guest starred on The Virginian, Combat!, The Fugitive, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (episodes releasedas The Karate Killers), The F.B.I., and Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, and played the villainous sergeant in Beau Geste (1966).
He guest starred on the TV series Garrison's Gorillas and Cimarron Strip, then focused on features. He did an action film directed by Brian Hutton Sol Madrid (1968) then did a Western with Lancaster and Pollack, The Scalphunters (1968).
Savalas was in two comedies, Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (1968), one of his favourite roles, and The Assassination Bureau (1969), and did an all-star action film for Thompson, Mackenna's Gold (1969). He attribute his success to "his complete ability to be himself."
Savalas had his first lead role in a film in Crooks and Coronets (1969), a British crime comedy. More widely seen was the James Bond movie On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) where Savalas played Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
He did a production of Man and Boy for British TV in 1971, and had lead roles in Clay Pigeon (1971), A Town Called Bastard (1971), Steel Wreath (1971), a TV film with Sally Field, and the Italian actioner Crime Boss(1972).
He had the lead in a series of European films: L'assassino... è al telefono (1972), an Italian giallo, Pancho Villa (1972), playing the title role in a Spanish spaghetti Western, A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die (1972), another Western, this time with James Coburn, and Senza ragione (1973), an Italian thriller.
"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 Detective Kojak in the TV movie The Marcus-Nelson Murders (CBS, 1973), which was based on the real-life Career Girls Murder case. Savalas's character was named Theo "Kojak" in his first appearance.
Lt. Theodore "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 lollipops, which Savalas later admitted had given him three cavities, were also 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."
Savalas was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series two years in succession, winning the Emmy in 1974. He was also nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a TV Drama Series from 1975 to 1978, winning twice, in 1975 and 1976. His younger brother George played the regular role of Detective Stavros – a sensitive, wild-haired, quiet, comedic foil to Kojak's street-wise humor in an otherwise dark dramatic TV series.
During the series' run Savalas also starred in the films Inside Out (1975) and The Diamond Mercenaries (1976) and had a support part in Capricorn One (1977) for Lew Grade. He wrote, directed and appeared in a thriller Beyond Reason (1977 film) (1977, not released until 1985).
In 1978, after five seasons and 118 episodes, CBS canceled the show because of low ratings. Savalas was unhappy about the show's demise, but he got the chance to reprise the Kojak persona in several television films.
After the series' cancellation, Savalas did Escape to Athena (1978) and a cameo in The Muppet Movie (1979) for Grade. He had a support part in Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979) and The French Atlantic Affair (1980) and the lead in Border Cop (1980).
Savalas reprised his role of Kojak in a TV movie, Kojak: The Belarus File (1985). 
Savalas was one of many names in Alice in Wonderland (1985) then did Kojak: The Price of Justice (1987). He did a Dirty Dozen sequel, The Dirty Dozen: The Deadly Mission (1987), playing an entirely new character.
Savalas guest starred in The Equalizer and J.J. Starbuck and was in Faceless (1987), The Dirty Dozen: The Fatal Mission (1988), The Hollywood Detective (1989), Kojak: Fatal Flaw (1989), Kojak: Ariana (1989), Kojak: None So Blind (1990), Kojak: It's Always Something (1990), and Kojak: Flowers for Matty (1990).
He did an Australian mini series, Rose Against the Odds (1991).
As a singer, Savalas had some chart success. His spoken word version of Bread's "If" produced by Snuff Garrett reached #1 in both the UK and the Republic of Ireland in March 1975 and his sung version of Don Williams' "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) and Who Loves Ya, Baby (1976).
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. 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. On October 28, 1987, Savalas hosted Return to the Titanic Live, a two-hour television special broadcast from Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie in Paris.
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 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. 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 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 (billed as Dani Sheridan, one of Blofeld's "Angels of Death"), a small-time 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, 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 entrepreneur, 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.
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, Ierakas, Greece. Savalas was also Jennifer Aniston's godfather.
Savalas had a minor physical handicap in that his left index finger was deformed. 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, 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.
After Savalas came back to reprise his role on Kojak in the 1980s, he began to lose close relatives. His brother George Savalas, who played Detective Stavros on the original Kojak 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. Later that year, Savalas was diagnosed with transitional cell cancer of the bladder. While undergoing treatment, he continued to act, including a recurring role on The Commish.
Savalas died on January 22, 1994, just one day after his 72nd birthday, of complications of cancer of the bladder and prostate 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, Kevin Sorbo, Sally Adams, Frank Sinatra, Don Rickles, and several of Savalas' Kojak co-stars – Kevin Dobson, Dan Frazer, and Vince Conti.
His silver screen career usually had him cast as the villain in such films as:
Other movie roles where Savalas played the hero were:
In 1977, he directed, wrote, produced, and starred in Beyond Reason, playing a psychiatrist having an affair with a patient, but after sitting on the shelf for years, it ended up going directly to cable outlets and video shelves.