With his icebreaker nose, insatiable eye, buccaneer grin and a gleaming skull that invites the stroke of a pool cue, actor Telly—for Aristotle—Savalas sees no point in denying the obvious. When asked why his CBS series Kojak has now clambered over All in the Family to become the top-rated show on television, Telly is matter-of-fact and fast with an answer: “It’s me. I’m the kind of gorilla people can identify with.”
So, too, is Telly’s Kojak, the tough-talking, sentimental, ingratiatingly implausible detective lieutenant who is Universal Studio’s concept of a cop. “Kojak is the kind of guy who couldn’t arrest a hooker,” explains Savalas. “He’d send her home. He operates on instinct and decency, but if you give him any lip he’ll throw you out a window.” In the bandwagon business of television, Savalas’ overnight Nielsen success chucked pretty much everything else but derivative cop-show ideas out the window. CBS’s Kojak, which was begat by NBC’s Banacek, will be spawning such other ethnic detectives on ABC this fall as Nakia, Kodiak and Kolchak.
For Savalas, now 52, the glint of violence in his eye and the spit shine of his cranium comprise his career’s sum and substance. A high-priced character actor ever since he won an Oscar nomination for his supporting role in the 1962 film Birdman of Alcatraz, he has played a succession of loutish brutes and bullies. Somehow, weighing his success with the same smirking side-of-the-mouth irony that distinguishes Kojak from TV’s more cardboard cops, Savalas can be facetious about the facade that not even a mother could love. “Mama says to me, ‘Being an actor is fine, but what are you going to do for a living?’ I took my mother to the premiere of The Dirty Dozen and she said, ‘It’s disgraceful!’ I asked her how she liked my role and she said, ‘You were ridiculous!’ ”
Savalas grew up in the New York suburb of Garden City with a sister and three brothers—Socrates, Praxiteles and Demosthenes (George), who now plays his bumbling underling Stavros on Kojak. It was a tumultuous youth. His father was a Greek immigrant, an on-again off-again millionaire who twice made and squandered fortunes. “Our happiest times were at the bottom of the ladder,” Savalas reflects. “One day he dragged us out of private schools, and the next day we started peddling cakes out of the back of a truck.” Telly served three years in the army during World War II before being honorably discharged as disabled (perhaps as a result of the gimpy left index finger he refuses to explain). Later, planning to follow in the footsteps of a psychiatrist uncle, he got a B.A. and went on to graduate school in psychology at Columbia. Then he became disenchanted. “This bastard!” he sneers. “This gangster Freud! It’s all crap—just a language for unemployed actors to amuse themselves with!”
Strangely, it wasn’t until age 37, after tours as an executive in the State Department Information Service in the Eisenhower administration and with ABC News (where he won a Peabody Award) that Telly first became an actor himself. Mired in debt after a theatrical venture he’d invested in bombed out, Savalas whimsically answered a TV casting call, and wound up with the part. Totally without professional training, he served a crash apprenticeship on television’s old Armstrong Circle Theater. Then it was on to Hollywood, where he played in forgotten-film roles until he found his trademark. Featured as Pontius Pilate in The Greatest Story Ever Told, he deepened his villainy by skinning his scalp.
Only two years ago, Savalas was a restless expatriate, making films on Europe’s spaghetti-western circuit, and living in London with his second wife Marilynn. Offered the lead in a made-for-TV movie, The Marcus-Nelson Murders, that would eventually spin off into Kojak, he professes to have accepted without knowing the consequences. “If they had told me about the series, I never would have done the movie,” he says. “I got aboard this thing by accident. I wasn’t emotionally ready for a series. I like to move around, but now at least 98 per cent of my personality is in abeyance.”
At the same time, he concedes, “There is the applause; I love it”—not to mention the artistic indulgences a No. 1 series allows, as in Savalas’ new career lark as a crooner. At this spring’s Academy Awards he worried his way through an embarrassing rendition of You’re So Nice to Be Around. He unleashed an album in Europe and another this month in the States. Next fall Telly plans to produce and star in a film he wrote about a middle-aged psychiatrist’s fling with the devil. “It’ll blow your mind,” he promises.
Nonprofessionally, Savalas’ interests are, in no special order, xenophobic patriotism (a typical scheme is to ban tourism to the Continent—”in one year, we could bring Europe to its knees”); golf; gambling; and girls. Though divorced again and the father of daughters 23, 12 and 11, Telly has become the parody of the superstar womanizer. At this year’s Emmy Awards, Telly, seated next to his latest pubescent chick, was singled out as best actor in a dramatic series. A camera homed in and host Don Rick-les, acknowledging Savalas’ reputation in front of millions of viewers, leered: “Telly, is that the new girl friend?” Actress Linda Day George, who worked with him in a TV film, observes: “When he finally relaxes and finds it isn’t necessary to conquer every woman that he meets, he’ll begin to enjoy life a lot more.”
The man bombing around Hollywood in his silver Rolls-Royce, with TELLY S plates, laughs that one off. “I’ve been pursuing people most of my life,” he says. “Now it’s their turn to chase me.”