Best known as the bald-headed, elegantly dressed, hard-as-nails yet lollipop-wielding NYC police Lieutenant "Kojak" (CBS, 1973-77), this talented veteran actor gained life experience with a three-year stint in the Army during WWII, working for the U.S. State Department hosting the "Your Voice of America" series and then at ABC News before beginning an acting career in his late 30s.
As first executive director and then senior director of news special events at ABC, Savalas became an executive producer for the "Gillette calvalcade of Sports", where he gave Howard Cosell his first job. Savalas first acted on the TV show "Armstrong Circle Theater" (1959) and then on the series "The Witness" as Lucky Luciano, where actor Burt Lancaster "discovered" him. Savalas was cast opposite Lancaster's idealistic D.A. in the melodrama "The Young Savages" (1961). He moved on to play a string of heavies, winning acclaim and an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as the sadistic Feto Gomez in "Birdman of Alcatraz" (1962). After portraying Pontius Pilate in "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965), he chose to remain completely bald and this signature look, somewhere between the comic and the ominous, stood him in good stead in the years that followed.
Savalas was memorable in "The Dirty Dozen" (1967), the seminal ensemble action film by director Robert Aldrich, and reappeared as a different character in two TV movie reprisals. He also appeared as star in two classics, "Kelly's Heroes", and "The Scalphunter", a western that revealed the absurdity of racism during the Civil Rights movement. His career was transformed with the lead role in the celebrated TV-movie "The Marcus Nelson Murders" (CBS, 1973) where the pop culture icon of Theo Kojak was born. Savalas polished his hard-boiled image to a brilliant sheen over the long run of "Kojak" (CBS, 1973-78). During those years, he co-bought racehorse Telly's Pop, recorded many albums, including "Telly" (1974) and "Who Loves Ya, Baby" (1976) and directed and wrote the film "Beyond Reason" (1977). After the very popular series ended, Savalas reprised the Kojak persona in several Kojak-based TV-movies, furthering his public canonization. One of Savalas' brothers, George Savalas (known professionally for a time simply as 'Demosthenes') played one of Detective Kojak's staff of police officers on "Kojak". Throughout his life, Telly Savalas was a charismatic leader, creative writer, director, and producer. He won the Emmy, the Peabody, and Golden Globe Awards. In 1990, the city of New York declared "The Marcus-Nelson Murders" as the official movie of New York City, and awarded Telly with the Key to the City. 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 '70's to his ancestral home, Yeraka, Greece. His mother, Christina, was a world recognized contemporary of Picasso, and he himself released several records, the most remembered was his version of "If", that was #1 in Europe for 10 weeks in 1975.
Many people do not know that Telly was a world-class poker player, degreed in psychology; a motorcycle racer, and lifeguard. He appeared in over 80 movies. 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 a generous, graceful, compassionate man, and will continue to be sorely missed. He is survived by 6 children, 4 grand-children, 2 brothers and a sister.