TV's Favorite Superdome
Kojak at the paddock? Tsk, tsk. Horse racing is the Sport of Kings, and shouldn’t the clubhouse, just like the track, be restricted to Thoroughbreds? Eliza Doolittle felt out of place at Ascot, and as recently as 1973, the most visible owner in America’s TV picture was named, not inappropriately, Penny Tweedy.
Well, so much for outdated undemocratic tradition. This season’s most conspicuous horseman (Rod Steiger, another nouveau owner, gave him a genial finger after a recent race) is a first-generation Greek-American named Savalas, and his demeanor, like his cranium, is glitter rock. Like him or not, declares Telly, “if the glamor is needed, they have the right guy.”
So, with four fractious kids (by three marriages), Savalas crashes through the stuffy hacking-jacket decorum of the director’s rooms of California tracks. And lest he be mistaken, Telly’s the chap in the Pierre Cardin suit, flashing equine-choking rolls of C-notes and Elton John-esque shades which tout the name of his nag in gilt letters. His official silks, which would cause a Vanderbilt, not to mention Premier Caramanlis, to cringe, are a blue-and-white motif that includes the Greek flag. If breeding truly told and the Good Lord were a snob, then the steed called Telly’s Pop would today be mucilage. Yet in fact, the Vegas advance book has established the unlikely beast as fourth favorite to cop the Kentucky Derby (just ahead of a Maryland colt named, ironically, Cojak).
In lineage and conformation, Telly’s Pop has been likened to the swayback mount Lee Marvin rode in Cat Ballou. Indeed, his wayward hooves are shod in four different sizes, and Savalas acquired his half interest (his co-owner is producer Howard W. Koch) for an ignominious $3,000. But, in less than a year, Telly’s Pop has emerged as California’s juvenile champ and collected purses of $343,870. “The horse has dwarfed us all,” exults Savalas, adding, crypto-classicist that he is: “To compare what has happened to anything less than Homer’s Odyssey is a sacrilege.” Kojak has always had that knack for self-dramatization. Though a lifelong gambler, Savalas reports, “I was never interested in horses. I’m only interested in blowing bubbles and in fairy tales. The way I became involved with this horse is like the story of my life, a total accident.”
It was Koch (whose credits include The Manchurian Candidate and the latest Oscar show) who originally bought the horse. At first Howard tried to lay off half on another problem plunger and sometime stable partner, Walter Matthau. “I don’t want any more horses,” snarled the junior Sunshine Boy. Koch grins, “I should have known that any horse would be a big winner when Walter said he didn’t want any part of it. That’s his gambling luck.”
“When I first saw the horse and we were all discussing a name,” Savalas recalls, “I said ‘Telly’s Pop,’ for my father—at that moment the horse became regal.” Telly’s immigrant dad was twice a millionaire—in tobacco and then construction—but blew it both times. Of course, a swinger like Savalas could not totally identify with his charger. As co-owner Koch explains it: “We had to geld him—he was mean, he wouldn’t train.”
Professionally, anyway, Savalas himself has become resigned to the bit. He’s committed to Kojak for two more seasons, and, unlike other tube superstars, he won’t even threaten to pull out: “I feel an obligation to all the people on the show,” he says, “but we’re all going to keep on growing, and after those two years, who knows?” In Telly’s own case, he’s been dabbling with a cabaret act as a singer—out of which came an LP, Who Loves Ya, Baby? The tentative answer is: damn near nobody. So his next resort is behind the camera. Savalas hopes to direct next season’s two-hour premiere of Kojak, tentatively guest-starring Frank Sinatra as, of all things, a reporter. Telly also counts on producing, as well as directing, writing and starring in, Theo Matti, a supernatural film about psychiatry. Though an uncle was a shrink and Telly did postgrad work in psychology at Columbia, his attitude is antagonistic. He calls Freud “a gangster” and his philosophy “all crap—a language put together for unemployed actors to amuse each other with.”
Savalas can now afford such bravado. For perhaps the first time in his career, he’s overemployed. Snuck between his movie part as a South African security officer in Killer Force and his forthcoming title role in Nick the Greek, the legendary high roller of the World War II era, Telly will host an ABC-TV preview of the Summer Olympics April 17. None of which is to suggest that Telly has overnight become all business and no play. Pressed for a reading on his relationship with third wife Sally Adams, 32, Savalas, 54, takes the Fifth. We’re still married, he says, but don’t exactly live together. “I don’t go home for dinner every night at 6,” he says. “Let’s put it that way.” Putting it that way is the sort of chauvinism that leaves some of Telly’s old co-stars like Lynda Day George unamused if not vengeful. (They geld horses, don’t they?)
One place the carousing Savalas can be counted on appearing, as of now, is Louisville for the Kentucky Derby May 1. That, of course, assumes that Telly’s Pop performs creditably in the Hollywood Derby this upcoming weekend. Co-owner Koch, the pragmatist, points out the obvious: that there’s no enhanced stud value in “having a gelding go to Kentucky. All you get out of it is some money and a heart-warming afternoon.” That is another way of saying ego trip, which Savalas is not above. Telly is turned on by the fact that no gelding has won the Run for the Roses since 1929, and that a showbiz entrant has never even been in the money. Jack Benny’s sidekick Eddie (“Rochester”) Anderson saddled the last contender, Burnt Cork, which sagged home last in 1943.
The Derby competition is killing, especially from superhorse Honest Pleasure. But, crows Telly, with no evidence: “They’ll call him ‘Honest Pain’ after we’re through.” When asked if he’s really Kentucky-bound, Savalas snaps: “Absolutely—I have a 747 scheduled to make two trips as of now. So far, 750 people have asked themselves along. I’ve got to keep the fairy tale alive, baby.”