A retrospective on TV’s original bald, lollipop-loving private eye
Approximately one year after the demise of Mannix, a CBS crime-drama starring Mike Connors as one of the most popular TV detectives in history, the charismatic Telly Savalas surfaced on Kojak, one of that network’s other successful private-eye series.
From 1973 to 1978 Savalas portrayed the hairless and tough-but-lollipop-loving Lt. Theo Kojak (originally spelled “Kojack”).
Around the same time, fellow male icons Clint Walker and Darren McGavin starred in new TV shows with titles starting and ending with the letter k. Walker was Kodiak, which debuted on ABC in the fall of 1973, and McGavin was Kolchak: The Night Stalker, also on ABC, but debuting in the fall of 1974.
Decades later, in 2005, a short-lived TV reboot of Kojak, starring Ving Rhames, made it to the air. And apparently, there is a new Kojak feature film in development, starring another actor whose’s first name begins with a “v” and a “vin” — but without the “g”: Vin Diesel
But thus far, Savalas remains the best and the original in every sense of the term, while his first name, Telly, even says “television.” [Sorry, couldn’t help that.]
According to Wikipedia, Telly Savalas began his career as the host of ABC’s Your Voice of America for the U.S. State Department while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II (1943–1946). He also worked behind-the-scenes as an executive-turned-senior director for other ABC News special events, such as executive producing the network’s Gillette Cavalcade of Sports, where he subsequently gave Howard Cosell his first TV job.
In 1950 Savalas moderated the New York radio show, The Coffeehouse, and seven years later, on January 7, he made his TV acting debut on an episode of the Armstrong Circle Theatre anthology series, titled “And Bring Home a Baby.”
Savalas went on to make two additional Armstrong appearances, followed by countless TV guest-shots on shows like Naked City, The Untouchables, Burke’s Law, Combat!, The Fugitive, Bonanza, and The F.B.I.
Beyond Kojak, Savalas’ most famous small-screen performance was for a segment of The Twilight Zone called “Talking Doll,” in which he appeared with hair. Other than that, he had a recurring role as Brother Hendricksen on the popular crime drama series 77 Sunset Strip and was a regular on the short-lived NBC series Acapulco. Post-Kojak, he starred in the 1980 TV-film Alcatraz: The Whole Shocking Story.
His Big Bald Greek History
Of Greek heritage, Telly Savalas was born Aristotelis Savalas on January 21, 1922, in Garden City, New York, to father Nick, a restaurateur, and his mother, Christina, a New York City artist and native of Sparta.
Savalas and Gus, one of four brothers, sold newspapers and shined shoes to help support the family while attending Sewanhaka High School in Floral Park, New York, from which he received his diploma in 1940. (George, a younger brother, would later co-star on Kojak as Detective Stavros.)
Savalas was then employed briefly as a lifeguard but was soon devastated after a man drowned on his watch, a tragic incident from which he never fully recovered. He eventually enrolled at Columbia University School of General Studies, where he became versed in the English language and studied psychology and radio, which led to his interest in television and dramatic arts.
From Al Capone to Pontius Pilate
In 1960 Savalas portrayed real-life gangster Al Capone on the short-lived TV series, The Witness, which caught the eye of cinema icon Burt Lancaster, who went on to cast him in several of his films, such as The Young Savages (1961) and Birdman of Alcatraz (1962; which earned him an Academy Award nomination). He played private Detective Charles Sievers in Cape Fear (also released in 1962), and three years later he shaved his head for Pontius Pilate in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).
Savalas’ other movies include The Dirty Dozen (1967), and two sequels (1987 and 1988), The Scalphunters (1968), Crooks and Coronets (1969), and Kelly’s Heroes (in which he portrayed the tough company sergeant named Big Joe) — all of which led up to his role on Kojak, which began as a 1973 CBS-TV-movie called The Marcus-Nelson Murders (adapted from the true story of police detective Thomas J. Cavanagh Jr. and the Career Girls Murder Case).
Kojak inspired several favorite catchphrases (“Everybody should have a little Greek in them”). As critic Clive James expressed in his 1977 book, Visions Before Midnight:
“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.”
Dobson Tells All
As explained on www.TellySavalas.com, the official website, actor Kevin Dobson portrayed Kojak’s dedicated young partner, Det. Bobby Crocker. After the series ended its run, Dobson starred in the successful CBS prime-time soap Knots Landing. Consequently, Dobson did not appear in any of the Kojak TV-reunion-movies, except for Kojak: It’s Always Something, which aired in 1990. But this time, Dobson’s Crocker was now an attorney — similar to his character on Knots Landing — specifically, a prosecutor. [His police background had apparently granted him experience that contributed to his degree in law].
Dobson said of his initial meeting with Savalas:
“The moment I met Telly Savalas, we shook hands and our eyes met and locked and the chemistry was there.”
“The lollipop started in the 5th show. We were in Kojak’s office and Telly said, ‘Hey Kevin, I need somethin’ here.’ George handed Telly an apple and I said, ‘no,’ and a stagehand was standing off to the side (half asleep) with a lollipop jammed into his shirt pocket, along with cigs, pens, toothbrush, etc., and I said, ‘Yo, the lollipop’, as I motioned with my fingers (gimme the tootsie pop), and then said, ‘Telly, here ya’ go!’ Thus, the beginning of the ‘lollipop cop.’”
Dobson also noted Savalas’s new determination off-the Kojak set:
“He wanted to stop smoking. A friend of mine on the set had a lollipop in his shirt pocket, so I flipped it to him…That started the lollipop cop.”
Nobody Did It Better
Today, entertainment historian/archivist Robert S. Ray believes Theo Kojak, as played by Savalas, took his police work very seriously, but also “seemed to have a more playful attitude” than most TV detectives of the era, including Mike Connors as Mannix.
And while both Connors and Telly Savalas came to define the ultra-cool originals of all TV detectives and policemen, no one played it sexier than Savalas.
“Who loves ya’, Baby?”
[This material is an edited excerpt from the book, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR: TV’S TOP MALE ICONS FROM THE ’50s, ’60s, AND ’70s. For more information, visit ww.HerbieJPilato.com.