Prior to his movie career, Savalas was a character actor on TV shows during the late 1950s and the 1960s. His first acting role was on And Bring Home a Baby, an episode of Armstrong Circle Theater in January 1959. He appeared on two more episodes of this series, in 1959 and 1960. Between 1959 and 1967, he made over 50 guest appearances in various TV shows including Naked City, King of Diamonds, The Aquanauts, The Untouchables, Burke's Law, Combat!, The Fugitive, Bonanza, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The F.B.I. and the classic The Twilight Zone episode Living Doll. He also had a recurring role as Brother Hendricksen on the popular crime drama series, 77 Sunset Strip.
While playing Lucky Luciano on the TV series The Witness, actor Burt Lancaster "discovered" him. He appeared with Lancaster in three 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 sadistic Feto Gomez in Birdman of Alcatraz (1962).
Savalas shaved his head for his role as Pontius Pilate in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). After completing work on the movie, he chose to remain completely bald. This signature look, somewhere between the comic and the ominous, stood him in good stead in the years that followed.
Savalas was memorable as heavily religious and very sadistic convict 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 revealed the absurdity of 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).
His career was transformed with the lead role in the celebrated TV-movie The Marcus Nelson Murders (CBS, 1973) and pop culture icon Theo Kojak was born.
He was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series two years in a row, 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 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 & Dobson was a success story of 1970s television. After the show's cancellation, Dobson kept in touch with Savalas and they maintained a close, personal friendship until Savalas's death. The death of Savalas' mother Christina in 1989 drew Savalas & Dobson closer.
Dobson went on to gain greater fame in the popular prime-time 1980s soap opera, Knots Landing. As a result, he did not appear in the majority of the Kojak TV movies. However, 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 Kevin's character was a lawyer - similar to his role on Knots Landing - instead of a police officer.
While working on Knots Landing with Savalas' stepdaughter Nicollette Sheridan, Dobson said of his first meeting with Savalas: "The moment I met Telly Savalas, we shook hands and our eyes met and locked and the chemistry was there. It was just there and it proved, once we got him filmed."
On filming Savalas' lollipops, Kevin said: "The lollipops scene took place in the fifth show, when we're in the office and we're about to do the scene, he said, 'I need something, you know?' And here's a guy standing over there with the Tootsie Pop sticking out of his shirt. Give me a Tootsie Pop, huh? Telly, they flipped it to him, doing it like this, unwrapped it, stuck it to him and his head, his mouth and became a lollipop cop."
In 1978, after 5 seasons and 118 episodes, CBS cancelled the show due to low ratings. Savalas wasn't very happy about the show's demise, but he got the chance to reprise the Kojak persona in several TV-movies.
Savalas portrayed Kojak in the following shows:
In the late 1970s, Savalas narrated three 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 showed a set percentage of British produced films. He also hosted the 1989 video UFOs and Channeling.
Savalas wrote, directed and starred in the film Beyond Reason (1977).
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Savalas appeared in commercials for the Players' Club Gold Card. These commercials were parodied by Phil Hartman on Saturday Night Live as "The Player With Yourself Club". The line from the parody was "If you're a player, you need to be where the action is, and when there's no action you have to create it yourself. That's why I'm telling you about the Player With Yourself Club." Savalas' commercials also inspired a skit on In Living Color, where Jim Carrey played Savalas, who wields a literal "player's club" and knocks successful gamblers unconscious, taking their winnings, though tossing them a chip or two out of generosity.
In 1969, while working on the movie On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Savalas met Sally Adams. Sally gave birth to their son Nicholas Savalas on February 24, 1973. Gardner filed for divorce from Savalas in 1974. Although he and Sally never married, he was stepfather to Adams' daughter, actress Nicollette Sheridan of Knots Landing and Desperate Housewives fame.
In 1977 during the last season of Kojak, he met and fell in love with 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 legally changed his name to Christo Savalas in 2002 and is a singer and songwriter. Ariana Savalas is an actress and singer. Julie Savalas is an inventor and artist.
He held a degree in psychology and was a world-class poker player, 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, Yeraka, Greece.
George Savalas, his brother 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 1989. Later that year, Savalas was diagnosed with transitional cell cancer of the bladder. He refused to see a doctor until 1993, but by then he did not have much time to live. While fighting for his life, he continued to star in many roles, including a recurring role on The Commish.
Savalas died on January 22, 1994 of complications of bladder cancer at the Sheraton-Universal Hotel in Universal City, California. He was interred at the George Washington section of Forest Lawn - Hollywood Hills Cemetery. The funeral, held in a 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. Some of the many other mourners present included Angie Dickinson, Nicollette Sheridan, Jennifer Aniston, Sally Adams, Frank Sinatra, Don Rickles, and several of Telly's Kojak co-stars - Kevin Dobson, Dan Frazer and Vince Conti.
Other movie roles where Savalas didn't play the villain were:
VING RHAMES HAS HIS `KOJAK' MOMENT THE ACTOR TAKES ON TELLY SAVALAS'S ROLE IN A REMAKE OF THE '70S CRIME SERIES
Mar 27, 2005; We've seen Ving Rhames as an outrageous boxing promoter with big hair, a ruthless drug dealer, and a cool-headed computer hacker....