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), Inside Out (1975), and Escape to Athena (1979). He then continued achieving success in the television crime drama Kojak (1973–1978), co-starring his real-life brother George Savalas, in which Savalas played the title role. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Birdman of Alcatraz (1962).
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), a New York City artist who was a native of Sparta, and Nick Savalas [Tsavalas], 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 entered Sewanhaka High School in Floral Park, New York, and graduated in 1940. 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. 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. At that time he fell in love with radio and television, which led to his interest in acting.
Savalas also served three years (1943–1946) in the United States Army during World War II, working for the US State Department as host of the Your Voice of America series, then at ABC News, before beginning an acting career in his late thirties. 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. In the fall of 1959, Savalas directed Scott Vincent and Howard Cosell in "Report to New York," WABC-TV's first local TV news program.
Savalas was a character actor on television series during 1959 and the 1960s. His first acting role was 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.
Between 1959 and 1967, he made more than fifty guest appearances in such series as Naked City, Empire, Arrest and Trial, The Eleventh Hour, King of Diamonds, The Aquanauts, The Untouchables, Diagnosis: Unknown, Burke's Law, Combat!, The Fugitive, Breaking Point, Bonanza, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The F.B.I. and The Twilight Zone episode "Living Doll" in which he can be seen with hair. He had a recurring role as Brother Hendricksen on the popular crime drama series, 77 Sunset Strip and was a regular on the short-lived NBC television series Acapulco. In 1980, he starred in the TV film Alcatraz: The Whole Shocking Story.
While playing Lucky Luciano on the TV series The Witness, he was "discovered" by actor Burt Lancaster. He appeared with Lancaster in four movies – the first of these was the crime drama The Young Savages (1961). After playing a police officer in this movie, he moved on to play a string of heavies. Once again opposite Lancaster, he won acclaim and an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as the recidivist prisoner Feto Gomez in Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). In the same year he appeared alongside Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear (1962) as private detective Charles Sievers.
Savalas shaved his head for his role as Pontius Pilate in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), and decided to remain shaved for the remainder of his life.
Savalas played Archer Maggott in The Dirty Dozen (1967), the seminal ensemble action film by director Robert Aldrich. He later returned to play a different character in two of the movie's TV sequels – The Dirty Dozen: The Deadly Mission (1987) and The Dirty Dozen: The Fatal Mission (1988). He co-starred with Burt Lancaster for the third time in The Scalphunters (1968), a comedy western that looked at racism during the Civil Rights movement. Two more appearances in comedies for Savalas were as Herbie Haseler in Crooks and Coronets (1969) and opposite Clint Eastwood in Kelly's Heroes (1970) where he played the hard-as-nails company first sergeant "Big Joe".
Savalas performed a voice over for a 1970s nature series on Yosemite National Park.
Savalas and his brother also starred in an episode of Alice.
Savalas's best-known role was as the star of the television series Kojak. The series originated with the TV movie pilot The Marcus-Nelson Murders (CBS, 1973), which was based on the real-life Career Girls Murder case. Savalas's character was named Theo "Kojack" 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."
He 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.
Kevin Dobson played the role of Kojak's trusted young partner, Det. Bobby Crocker. The on-screen chemistry of Savalas and Dobson was a success story of 1970s television. After the show's cancellation, Dobson went on to further fame in the popular prime-time 1980s soap opera Knots Landing. As a result, he did not appear in a majority of Kojak TV movies. Savalas and Dobson were reunited on-screen for one last time when they appeared together in the 1990 TV movie Kojak: It's Always Something, where Dobson's character was a lawyer – similar to his role on Knots Landing – instead of a police officer. Crocker, specifically, was a prosecutor in the storyline; his police experience had evidently given him a rich background from which he could draw when he studied for his law degree.
Kevin Dobson said of his first meeting with Telly Savalas: "The moment I met Telly Savalas, we shook hands and our eyes met and locked and the chemistry was there." He also added: "The lollipop started in the 5th show. We were in Kojak's office and Telly said, 'Hey Kevin, I need somethin' here.' George handed Telly an apple and I said, 'no,' and a stagehand was standing off to the side (half asleep) with a lollipop jammed into his shirt pocket, along with cigs, pens, toothbrush, etc., and I said, 'Yo, the lollipop', as I motioned with my fingers (gimme the tootsie pop), and then said, 'Telly, here yah go!' Thus, the beginning of the 'lollipop cop.'" He also said about Telly Savalas's new determination off- the Kojak set: "He wanted to stop smoking. A friend of mine on the set had a lollipop in his shirt pocket, so I flipped it to him. ... That started the lollipop cop."
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.
Savalas portrayed Kojak in the following shows:The Marcus-Nelson Murders (1973) (TV pilot)
Kojak (1973–78) TV Series
Kojak: The Belarus File (1985) (TV)
Kojak: The Price of Justice (1987) (TV)
Kojak: Ariana (1989) (TV)
Kojak: Fatal Flaw (1989) (TV)
Kojak: None So Blind (1990) (TV)
Kojak: It's Always Something (1990) (TV)
Kojak: Flowers for Matty (1990) (TV)
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).
Savalas appeared in several episodes of the television series The Untouchables, which dealt with the era of Al Capone and Eliot Ness during the years of prohibition. 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.
Savalas appeared on the Australian supernatural television show The Extraordinary, where he told a personal ghost story similar to the vanishing hitchhiker.
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.
The wreck of the RMS Titanic was found in 1985 by a joint Franco-American expedition led by Jean-Louis Michel of IFREMER and Robert Ballard of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Since its discovery, the wreck site has been visited by numerous expeditions, including salvage operations which have controversially recovered thousands of items. On 28 October 1987, Savalas hosted Return to the Titanic Live, broadcast from Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie in Paris. In front of a live TV audience, a valise recovered from the sea bed was opened, revealing a number of personal items apparently belonging to Richard L. Beckwith of New York, who survived the sinking. A safe was also opened, revealing a few items of memorabilia and some soggy banknotes. The tone of the event has been described by one commentator as "unsympathetic, lacking dignity and finesse, and with all the superficial qualities of a 'media event'." The TV critic of The New York Times, John Corry, called the event "a combination of the sacred and profane and sometimes the downright silly." Paul Heyer commented that it was "presented as a kind of deep sea striptease", and that Savalas "seemed haggard, missed several cues, and at one point almost tripped over a chair." Controversy persisted after the broadcast when claims were made that the safe had been opened beforehand and that the show had effectively been a fraud.
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 and moved in with Sally Adams, a small-time actress 25 years his junior, whose daughter from a previous relationship is Nicollette Sheridan. Sally gave birth to their son Nicholas Savalas on February 24, 1973. Although Savalas and Sally Adams never legally married, she went by the aka 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 actor, 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.
In 1993, Savalas appeared on an Australian TV show, The Extraordinary with a paranormal tale where Savalas talked about an experience that he had that he could not explain.
Telly Savalas also was a friend of the German singer Freddy Breck.
After Savalas came back to reprise his role on Kojak in the 1980s, he began to lose close relatives. George Savalas, his brother who played Detective Stavros on the original Kojak series, died in 1985 of leukemia at age 60. George Savalas recorded a series of Greek folk songs. 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:Space Adventure Cobra has a supporting character with a surname of Savalas.
Lex Luthor in the DC Animated Universe had his appearance based on Telly Savalas' Ernst Stavro Blofeld in On Her Majesty's Secret Service.