American actor Telly Savalas was born into a transplanted Greek family in Garden City, New York. After dropping out of Columbia University, Savalas served in World War II, from which he was discharged with a Purple Heart disability. Though not a performer himself, Savalas remained active in show business via the Information Services of the State Department, which led to a news director post at the ABC network. Savalas was often called upon to help producers locate foreign-speaking actors for the various live TV dramatic series of the era. In 1959, Savalas attended an audition for the CBS anthology series Armstrong Circle Theatre, intending to prompt an actor friend who was up for a role. Instead, the casting director took Savalas's sinister demeanor (and bald head) into account and cast him in a character part, which led to other TV assignments. The 1960-61 CBS television anthology Witness, though not a ratings success, brought the novice actor a great deal of acclaim for his portrayal of racketeer Lucky Luciano, gaining attention from audiences, producers, and even a few of Luciano's old associates (who liked the show). More TV and movie roles of a slimy-villain nature followed, and then Savalas was cast as Burt Lancaster's fellow Alcatraz inmate in The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) -- a performance that earned an Oscar nomination. Many in the industry felt that Savalas had what it took to be a leading man; Imogene Coca, with whom Savalas worked on an episode of Coca's TV series "Grindl," announced publicly that the actor was one of the funniest men she'd ever met (this from an actress who once costarred with Sid Caesar). Still, producers continued to use Savalas as a supporting bad guy. Even in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Savalas incurred audience hisses as Pontius Pilate. In 1973 Savalas starred as police lieutenant Theo Kojak in The Marcus-Nelson Murders, a TV movie based on a real-life homicide. The actor's fully rounded interpretation of the sarcastic, incorruptible, lollipop-sucking New York detective earned him a full time TV job as the star of the series Kojak (which ran from 1973-78 on CBS, and, in a brief revival, 1989-90 on ABC). Now a genuine, 14-carat celebrity, Savalas assumed a great deal of creative control on Kojak, which included full script approval, choice of directors, and the insistence upon casting Savalas's brother George (professionally named "Demosthenes") in the role of Detective Stavros. Kojak lasted until 1978, during which time Savalas became a fixture of TV variety shows, where he frequently demonstrated his questionable singing talents. After the series, the actor embarked on a globe-trotting existence involving numerous forgettable European films and a sumptuous bon vivant lifestyle (which included the squiring of several attractive and much-younger ladies). Savalas periodically revived the character of Kojak in a few 1980s TV movies and profited from the (brief) revival of the Kojak series itself, but for the most part he was seen on the tube as spokesman for a high-priced credit card company. In the early 1990s, Savalas developed prostate cancer, ultimately succumbing to the disease at the age of 72.
Biography by Hal Erickson
- Began his acting career in 1959 when an agent asked for an actor who could pull off a foreign accent. Savalas auditioned and got the part.
- Shaved his head for his portrayal of Pontius Pilate in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and decided to keep the look permanently.
- Recorded two albums, Telly and Who Loves Ya, Baby, during the height of Kojak's popularity in the '70s.
- His shirtless appearance on the cover of People in 1974 marked the first time the magazine sold over 1 million copies.
- Co-owned the racehorse Telly's Pop, which won several major events, including the Del Mar Stakes and Santa Anita Derby.
- Reprised his Kojak role for a series of ABC Saturday Mystery Movie specials in the '80s.