HAIRCUT 100: Day 99, No. 99. Aristotelis ‘Telly’ Savalas: actor and singer; as Lt. Theo Kojak, the patron saint of baldness. Obviously, I’ve been saving this one for a place of honour. Savalas was a first generation Greek-American, born in Garden City, New York in 1922; his mother was an artist originally from Sparta and his dad owned a Greek restaurant. He was the second of five children, and when he started school he spoke no English. He attended Columbia University and graduated with a degree in Psychology. He served in the US Army during World War II, going on to work for the State Department, hosting Your Voice of America on ABC News.
He remained with ABC through the fifties, producing TV sports programmes before getting into acting in 1958, first appearing in Armstrong Circle Theatre, a CBS drama showcase, and going on to guest star in single episodes of over fifty classic shows in the sixties, including The Untouchables, Combat!, The Fugitive, Bonanza, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and the The Twilight Zone story ‘Living Doll’; he was also a regular cast member in 77 Sunset Strip. Burt Lancaster was impressed by Savalas’ portrayal of gangster Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano in the TV show The Witness, and cast him in The Young Savages in 1961, giving him his film break. He went on to act opposite Lancaster in three more movies, including The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Savalas tended to get cast as either cops or bad guys, including the Bond villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). Other iconic roles from that period include Archer Maggott in The Dirty Dozen (1967) and ‘Big Joe’ in Kelley’s Heroes (1970). Savalas shaved his head to play Pontius Pilate in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), retaining the look thereafter.
But it is as the gravel-voiced, lollipop dangling New York detective Theo Kojak that Savalas will always be remembered. The series began on CBS in 1973 (I remember watching the pilot with my parents as a kid, utterly transfixed), and ran for five seasons until 1978. His younger brother, George, was a regular cast member, playing the affable Detective Stavros. Seven TV movies were made after cancellation, the last, Kojak: Flowers for Matty, in 1990. Kojak’s trademark lollipop was a prop suggested by co-star Kevin Dobson (‘Lt. Crocker’), and indicated both character and actor’s desire to quit smoking. Savalas won an Emmy and two Golden Globes for his portrayal of Kojak, and a revival seems imminent, with Universal recently announcing plans for a film with Vin Diesel taking the lead, which I think we can agree is the perfect choice.
In addition to acting, Savalas also bizarrely had a pop music career in the 70s, after his is spoken word version of Bread’s song ‘If’ reached the top of the charts in the UK and the Republic of Ireland. Weird, but then he did have a fantastic voice… Another Savalas curio well worth seeking out is his appearance on the Australian paranormal witness show The Extraordinary in 1993. In a short but atmospheric interview, he relates an experience he had while still working for the State Department, when he was given a lift to a gas station by a friendly but slightly odd man driving a Caddy who, if the name and number he gave having loaned Savalas a buck for fuel was real, had been dead for two years.
Telly was diagnosed with the same type of cancer that killed his father in 1989, but he continued to work pretty much to the end. He died the day after his 72nd birthday in 1994. He is buried in the famous Forest Lawn Memorial Park; Frank Sinatra attended the funeral. ‘Who loves ya, baby?’