I’m writing this blog in the middle of the ‘Covid – 19 Lockdown.’ May you live in interesting times as a man once said…
Anyway, as a result of having a bit of spare time on my hands, I’ve been catching up on some classic TV series of my youth. Shows like ‘The Sweeney’ ‘Fox’ ‘Out’ and from the American perspective, ‘Kojak.’ I remembered the show fondly, so decided to record a few to dip in and out off on a quiet afternoon. Very quickly though, whilst watching my first episode, I couldn’t help but notice the quality of the writing shining through, and despite all the catchphrases and lollipop shtick from the shows leading man, namely Telly Savalas, the acting was up there also.
He also wore a smart range of clobber from the company ‘Botany 500’ as I was reliably informed from those around me on Twitter land when I mentioned to them my admiration for the schmutter on display in the show.
I also noted plenty of ‘yet to be’ famous faces pop up all the time, with this week alone, Richard Gere and Sharon Gless putting in an appearances.
Savalas of course became world famous on the back of the series, but as many will know, he had been a jobbing actor of some distinction for many years and he shows up with some fine performances in films such as ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’ ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ and ‘The Dirty Dozen’ to name but a few.
The man himself was born Aristoteles Savalas in Garden City, Long Island, 18 miles from Manhattan, in January 1922 to Greek restaurant owner Nick and his artist wife Christina. Nick was the wealthy owner of a few restaurants, that was until he lost them all during the depression of the 1930s, before slowly then rebuilding his business. The family spoke only Greek at home, so proud were they of their heritage.
A bright student, Telly graduated in 1940 and first worked as a lifeguard on nearby beaches. Drafted in 1941, he was invalided out of the service in 1943, after winning a Purple Heart, when ranked as a corporal due to a car accident.
Upon leaving, he then studied TV and radio production with the Armed Forces Institute. He was awarded a degree in psychology and then went on to study a Masters with a view of going to medical school. He also worked in radio for the US State Dept. and ABC news in 1950. He later became a director on special events at ABC, picking up a coveted Peabody Award along the way and worked there solidly until 1959.
Standing in for an actor friend at an audition, he found himself cast in episodes of the ‘Armstrong Circle Theatre’ in early 1958. His performances were noticed and became in demand in US TV shows as they entered the very early 1960s era.
Early film work included ‘The Young Savages’ with Burt Lancaster and then with Burt again in ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’ in 1962, where he picked up Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for his role as fellow inmate, ‘Gomez.’
He also appeared in ‘Cape Fear’ that year, as private detective Charles Sievers.
Losing his hair naturally, he shaved it off completely for his role as Pontius Pilate in the film ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ in 1965, and then liking the attention it gained him, famously kept the look for the rest of his career.
He also appeared as Sgt. Guffy in ‘The Battle of the Bulge’ that year.
1967 saw him play the nasty rapist and murderer ‘Maggot’ in ‘The Dirty Dozen’ and appear as arch criminal Ernst Stavro Blofeld, head of SPECTRE going against James Bond played by George Lazenby in ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ in 1969. Rounding off the decade came ‘Kelly’s Heroes’ in 1970, in which he played ‘Big Joe’, alongside Clint Eastwood and Donald Sutherland.
Then came ‘Kojak’ or Lieutenant Theodore Kojak, New York City detective to be accurate, in 1973. The TV series was a spin off from a TV movie called the ‘Marcus Nelson Murders.’
It is said, Kojak sucked on a lollipop in an effort to cut down on his smoking. It quickly became his trademark as did his various catchphrases, ‘Coochie Coo’ ‘Who Loves Ya Baby’ and my fave ‘An’ like that…’
‘That’s what makes the show interesting for me – and easy. I’m basically playing myself to a large extent – a street-smart fella with the soul of a pussycat’ was his verdict on the career changing role.
It became a ‘must see’ show on the BBC every Saturday evening and Telly quickly became a household name on the back of it. They made 118 episodes up until the series was cancelled in 1978 and it co starred Kevin Dobson as the aforementioned trusted sidekick ‘Bobby Crocker’, Dan Frazer as ‘Captain Frank O’Neill’ and Telly’s younger brother George as ‘Stavros.’ Telly would go on to win an Emmy and Golden Globes in the role. The show was later reprised in a few spin off ‘Kojak’ TV movies, but in truth, the magic really lay with the shorter TV episodic format.
On the back of the fame acquired as ‘Kojak’ Savalas developed a singing (well sort of singing) career and scored a number one in the UK with ‘If’ the old song by the group ‘Bread.’
Because of his fame playing ‘Kojak’, ironically he found it hard to then pick up decent movie parts once the show ended, but he struggled on to make some not so successful films and continue in TV.
He married three times and was the father to six children. He was also godfather to the actress Jennifer Aniston. Off set, he was a high-class poker player and loved horse racing. At one time he owned a horse called ‘Telly’s Pop’ which earned $350,000 in career winnings.
He was very proud of his Greek heritage, indeed he paid for his family’s home villages to be connected to the Greek electricity grid and he was a proud member of the St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church in Los Angeles and regularly took part in parades and fundraisers.
‘I came from a tough neighbourhood.’ he said in a 1981 interview. ‘I used to be a ‘dirty Greek,’ but my father used to say to me, ‘When you grow up and realise what your heritage means, then they’ll need a permit to speak to you.’ He was right. I’m a proud Greek. I carry my Hellenism like a badge of merit.’
In 1992 he opened ‘Telly’s Sporting Bar’ in the Sheraton Hotel – where he resided in Los Angeles – displaying mementoes from ‘Kojak’ on its walls.
Telly Savalas died in 1994 from a combination of prostate and bladder cancer. He was 72.
The Mumper of SE5