Telly Savalas, TV’s bald-pated, lollipop-chewing private detective “Kojak,” died in his sleep Saturday in his suite at the Sheraton-Universal Hotel in Universal City the day after his 70th birthday.
Savalas died of prostatecancer and had recently been released from Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena to spend his remaining days at home, according to Mike Mamakos, a spokesman and longtime friend. He was surrounded by his family at the time of his death.
The man who introduced the phrase “who loves ya baby?” into the vernacular became an actor by accident. But winning an Emmy in 1974 for “Kojak,” and an Oscar nomination for “Birdman of Alcatraz,” were anything but accidental.
Raised in Garden City, New York, Aristotle Savalas was born on Jan. 21, 1924, the second eldest of four sons born to Greek immigrants Nicholas and Christine Savalas.
One of his younger brothers, George, had a recurring role on “Kojak.” But it was his eldest brother Constantine in whose footsteps Savalas wanted to follow. Constantine, a career diplomat, helped his younger brother get a job with the State Dept. after graduation from Columbia U. where he had studied psychology. For the next five years, Savalas worked at the U.S. Dept. of State Information Service.
He departed government service in 1955 to become senior director of news and special events for ABC.
After leaving the web in a policy dispute in 1958, Savalas tried his hand at directing at the Stamford Playhouse in Connecticut.
Later, he turned to teaching in his native Garden City, but not for long. Asked by an agent friend to recommend an actor who could tackle a European accent, Savalas auditioned and won the role himself. In “Bring Home a Baby” he played an elderly judge, which led to other roles, including mobster Lucky Luciano in the series “The Witness.”
Actor Burt Lancaster gave Savalas with his first feature film role in “The Young Savages.” He briefly appeared in the original “Cape Fear,” then joined Lancaster again in “Birdman of Alcatraz.”
What followed was role after role as a “heavy.”
Highlights were his role in Robert Aldrich’s “The Dirty Dozen” and his portrayal of Pontius Pilate in George Stevens’ “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” for which he first shaved his head. Other movie roles include “The New Interns, “”Battle of the Bulge,””The Slender Thread,””The Scalphunters” and “Kelly’s Heroes.”
After similar luck in TV, including adventure series “Cimarron Strip” and “Garrison’s Gorillas,” writer Abby Mann suggested him for “The Marcus Nelson Murders.” Savalas played Theo Kojak, the police lieutenant who solved the case.
Savalas was married four times and is survived by his wife, six children, two brothers, a sister and four grandchildren.
Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church, 1324 S. Normandie Ave., L.A. A prayer service will be held at 4 p.m. today in the Old North Church at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Hollywood Hills.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Earthquake Fund, St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, 9501 Balboa Blvd., Northridge, CA, 91325.