It’s elementary: The best way to revive a flagging acting career is to start solving crimes. The evidence? Take a look at this season’s lineup of sleuths: Peter Falk returning as Columbo, Burt Reynolds gumshoeing as B.L. Stryker and Jaclyn Smith sniffing clues as Christine Cromwell. As Johnny Carson once jested, “The wonderful thing about this business—you never die. You just come back as a detective.”
Or, if you’re Telly Savalas, you never stop being one.
The familiar, gleaming dome has grown a touch soft around the edges, but the stylish swagger and cynical patter are as good as old. Savalas, 65, reprises his alter ego in a new series of at least four Kojak episodes, rotating with the Falk, Reynolds and Smith vehicles in The ABC Saturday Mystery. Although Savalas initially turned down the project (“I like any way to get away from Kojak,” he says), when told it would be a two-hour show, he changed his mind because, “in a two-hour movie, you can do some sobering and intelligent things.” Slipping easily into the role that launched his star in 1973, the actor proves the truth of his own declaration that “Telly Savalas is Kojak, and Kojak is Telly Savalas.”
But like other stars so indelibly identified with a single character, Savalas’s career was handcuffed after Kojak ended in 1978. Although he revived the cop for two specials, Telly tried to forget him by appearing in such features as Escape to Athena and Cannonball Run II. The movies, unfortunately, proved more forgettable than Theo Kojak’s powerful persona. In one turn, Savalas performed in a 1985 TV version of Alice in Wonderland, grinning sardonically as a bald Cheshire cat. He says he took the part as a favor to the producer, Irwin Allen, and because “I wanted to prove to the world that I’m a pussycat.”
Actually, 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.” Even before the show, Savalas had fathered four children by three different women (Christina, now 38, by first wife Katherine; Penelope, 27, and Candace, 26, by second wife Marilynn; and Nicholas, 16, by girlfriend Sally Adams).
Today, however, Savalas is no longer on the prowl, having been tamed by his present wife, Julie, 32, a former travel agent from Minnesota. Hanging out one evening in the bar of L.A.’s Sheraton Universal hotel, where he has lived on and off for 18 years (and has recently opened his own bar), Telly spotted Julie, then 20, and quickly dispatched his older brother, Gus, with a message. As Julie recalls, “Gus said to me, ‘I’m the brother of Telly Savalas. He would like to know if you’d have a drink with him.’ I thought, ‘Who is Telly Savalas?’ But when I saw him, I recognized him immediately.” Despite the three-decade age difference, she was instantly attracted. “He had such an aura of power about him, such charisma.”
Savalas is equally captivated by Julie, whom he married in 1984. “My glue is you, baby, and I’m not a poet,” he tells her. Also binding the couple are their two children, Christian, 5, and Ariana, almost 3. When the restless Savalas needs a change of scenery, the whole family takes off for their stone ranch house in Rancho Mirage, Calif., or a luxurious four-bedroom apartment in London. In their functional L.A. hotel suite, which is strewn with toys, Savalas coos to his daughter, “Give Papa a kiss,” and helps her unwrap a piece of candy. “Every day he brings home a surprise—a book, gum, balloons,” says Julie. “He taught Christian to fly a kite. He tends to be lenient. When I say no, he says yes.” Savalas, however, doesn’t worry about spoiling his children. “I love just looking at them,” says the proud father, who brings Julie and the kids along when filming Kojak in New York. “The challenge now more that ever is to live long enough to raise them.”
The son of Greek immigrants, Savalas has always kept his family close by. His mother, Christina, also lived in the Sheraton, until she passed away last year. His younger brother, George, who died of leukemia in 1985, added comic relief to the original Kojak as the pudgy, shambling Detective Stavros. In the new series Telly’s daughter Candace has a supporting role as a secretary. Brother Gus also has a small part and helps Telly brush up on his Greek, which sometimes pops up in the script.
Sixteen years after Kojak cracked his first case, the new shows only occasionally reflect the passage of time. Now, says Savalas, “I let someone else do all the running.” And in the second episode, airing Dec. 2, Kojak finally gets romantic—with ex-Police Woman Angie Dickinson, as a lover from his past. “Telly has such a sensuality to him, that quiet brewing,” muses Dickinson. “He looks like he’s thinking of you in bed. Damn, the director cut before we could kiss.” Savalas’s new sidekick is the intense young actor Andre Braugher, playing a privileged former Princeton student who joins the force.
On location at a New York City street corner, where fans have clustered all day waving lollipops and shouting, “Who loves ya, baby,” Savalas has just finished the evening’s final scene, in which he pulls a gun on a pursuer. “I hate these things,” he says, tossing the pistol to a prop handler. “I tried to use the lollipop in this scene instead of the gun. But he wouldn’t let me,” he says, pointing to supervising producer Stuart Cohen.
“Now, Telly,” chides Cohen, “remember those early meetings where you told us, ‘No lollipop, no who loves ya, baby’?”
Savalas sighs, nodding. Like old detectives, it seems, old habits never die.
—Jeannie Park, Jacqueline Savaiano in Los Angeles and New York