Yesterday & Today
Who Loves Ya, Baby?
Telly Savalas met his match in bladder cancer. Earlier diagnosis and more aggressive treatment might have made a difference.
By Jocelyn Selim
When Kojak first hit television screens in 1973, prime time was already flooded with police shows—Columbo, Adam-12 and Hawaii Five-0, to name a few. The new drama didn’t seem to have much to set it apart. Even Telly Savalas, who starred as Lt. Theo Kojak, never expected it to get past production.
By the end of the show’s first season, however, Savalas had won an Emmy, and Kojak was the most popular program on television. By the end of the second season, the lollipop-sucking, hard-nosed New York cop had reached icon status, and Savalas had one of the most recognized faces in the world. Before long, the show was on the air in 70 countries. It was so beloved in Japan that the actor dubbing Kojak’s dialogue shaved his head to resemble Savalas.
“[My father] was in awe that he lived a life where he could be … having lunch in the drugstore at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel with Warren Beatty and Omar Sharif,” says Savalas’ eldest daughter, Christina Kousakis, “and people would ignore them and ask for his autograph.”
Savalas was an unlikely TV star. Until Kojak
, he had been a well-paid and sought-after character actor, almost always playing unsympathetic roles: Pontius Pilate in The Greatest Story Ever Told
; the sadistic, psychotic Archer Maggot in The Dirty Dozen
; and Bond villain Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Still, Savalas attracted fans among both men and women. “My father was very much a man’s man. He was into poker, sports and that sort of thing, so men were attracted to him,” says Kousakis. “But there was also something really appealing about him for women. He wasn’t Brad Pitt or Cary Grant good-looking. He was just an ordinary guy with a crooked nose, bald head, and not so thin, but he had this gentleness lurking just under the surface.”
A Humble Start
Born in 1922 to Greek immigrants in New York, Savalas learned to treat life as a roller-coaster ride. His father made a fortune in the import-export business, only to lose it in the Great Depression, forcing his family to move from a comfortable Long Island home to Manhattan’s gritty Lower East Side. The elder Savalas peddled baked goods from a cart with the help of Telly and his older brother.
As a young adult, Savalas never stayed with one job for very long. By 1957, he was 35 years old, divorced and living with his mother. He was also broke after investing in a failed theatrical venture. So when, two years later, an old friend asked him to find an actor who could play a convincing Greek judge for a television show, and Savalas couldn’t get anyone to show up, he auditioned himself and got the part. Within four years, he had an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor in the 1962 movie Birdman of Alcatraz.
Savalas loved the fame his movie roles and Kojak
brought, but he never felt part of Hollywood’s glitterati. “He would go to events, but he preferred to spend time with his family,” says Kousakis. Savalas stayed close to his siblings and even got his younger brother George a role on Kojak
as the bumbling Detective Stavros. “He had six children with four different women, but everyone knew they had to get along, and it sounds improbable, but they did,” says Kousakis. Savalas’ youngest daughter, Ariana, concurs. “It’s hard for people to understand,” she says, “but there are no real divorces in Greek families. We all got together at Christmas.”
By the late 1970s, Savalas was living in Los Angeles in the Sheraton Universal Hotel, near the Kojak studio. Financially secure, he continued to work as an actor after Kojak went off the air in 1978, although none of his roles were as memorable. Part of the reason Kojak was so successful may have been that Savalas was a lot like the character. “Kojak is Telly Savalas and Telly Savalas is Kojak,” he told a People magazine reporter. In fact, Kojak’s “Who loves ya, baby?” catchphrase was the actor’s own—long before the television show had even started.