Savalas became a pop-culture legend as the lollipop-sucking, baby-loving New York detective known simply as “Kojak.”
Before he became a pop-culture legend as the lollipop-sucking, baby-loving New York detective known simply as “Kojak,” actor Telly Savalas enjoyed a successful film career.
On the big screen Savalas, who died Jan. 22, 1994, at 70, appeared in such blockbusters as Cape Fear, The Dirty Dozen, and The Greatest Story Ever Told. He earned a best-supporting Oscar nod for his role in Birdman of Alcatraz. He shared the screen with stars including Burt Lancaster, Gregory Peck, and Clint Eastwood.
Still, Kojak — the lead character in the series of the same name that ran from 1973 to 1978 — was the role that made Savalas a household name, then and now.
“I made 60 movies before Kojak with some of the biggest names in the business, and people would still say, ‘There goes what’s-his-name,'” Savalas once said.
“Telly Savalas is Kojak, and Kojak is Telly Savalas,” he later acknowledged.
In Kojak, Savalas created a tough guy with a big heart. The charismatic cop beat down bad guys in suit jackets while sucking on lollipops. His distinctive deep voice, which had a career of its own as a narrator and spoken-word artist, could growl as well as purr.
Television critic Clive James described Savalas this way: “Telly Savalas can make bad slang sound like good slang and good slang sound like lyric poetry. It isn’t what he is, so much as the way he talks, that gets you tuning in.” Kojak’s catchphrase, “Who loves ya, baby?” became part of the American vernacular.
Even without conventional Hollywood looks — and a bald head before it was fashionable — both Savalas and Kojak projected a smooth, lady-killer vibe. (Savalas once said that women found him more attractive after he shaved his head in 1965.)
In real life, Savalas had four significant relationships and six children. People magazine described him this way in 1989: “Savalas had a reputation as more of a tomcat. Although Kojak’s relationships with women were one puzzle he never solved (“I can’t ever remember getting the girl,” says Savalas. “Never”), in real life the hawk-nosed bald man had become an unlikely sex symbol, an ever-changing array of young women at his side. He charmed women with a gruff manner that could melt with compassion; as he once put it, he was ‘Romeo inside a gorilla exterior.’ “
Savalas was of Greek heritage — his full first name was Aristotle while alter-ego Kojak’s first name was Theo — and donated to many Hellenic charities. The Chicago-based nonprofit Aristotle Foundation still carries on giving in his family’s name. And that’s not the only way he lives on — Telly Savalas Live! has been touring the country since 2011.
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she’s now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, “Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone’s world that we’re often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we’re alive.”