Part II of Mr. Telly Savalas, Back to the Limelight…., Please!
Kojak hoisted the 49 year-old Savalas to superstardom, bestowing on the Greek the status of a sex-symbol, whose trademark quip in his Graeco-Yiddish-Brooklyn accent: “Who loves ya, baby?” engaged wide attention. The title role also brought the actor with a mole on his left cheek an Emmy and two Golden Globes. (Telly revived Kojak in some TV episodes during 1985-1990.)
As film after film came his way, his commitment to his career not only remained progressive, but Telly had also acquired a taste for wealth and the lifestyle that went with it – savouring the attention his fans bestowed on him. They fed his ego, reaffirming the appeal of Savalas the Star. Like in all aspects of his life, his self-indulgent lifestyle reflected on his stylish images, airbrushed to perfection, on the cover of glossy magazines to the licence plate of his car which flashed “Telly S”.
He met friendly receptions wherever he went for shooting movies or not. He had a great time in southwest Africa in 1975 shooting Killer Force (aka. The Diamond Mercenaries, D: Val Guest, 1976). Likewise, the German fans were happy to see him in West Berlin for the location work of Inside Out (aka. Hitler’s Gold/The Golden Heist, D: Peter Duffell, 1975). In Berlin, the children rolled up their sleeves to have their arm autographed by him while the girls greeted him with fresh red roses and handful of lollies which he often gave away.
Keeping up with the then trend in Hollywood for racehorses, Telly ventured into horse racing when actor Walter Matthau turned down an offer to invest in a racehorse. With producer/director Howard W. Koch taking half interest, Telly acquired the other half at $3000 in an American thoroughbred racehorse whom he named Telly’s Pop (either after the lollipops he devours or his late-father who took him to his first horse race as a boy in New York).
Although Telly later admitted on his CBS-TV show that he does not know anything about horses, audiences who had seen The Scalphunters, Mackenna’s Gold, etc, know that he could handle a horse.
Telly dipped his toes into championship gambling and promotion of brand products. Lifting himself into the line-up of singing stars of stage and screen such as Mae West, Ethel Merman, Noel Coward, Robert Mitchum, Jayne Mansfield, Harry Belafonte, Christopher Lee, he forayed into the music industry and had some chart success – tunes that would make Duke Ellington tap his shoes seven-feet under.
By the age of 54, Telly had won over audiences with his nightclub act in Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas where one of the highlights was a bouzouki dance he performed with his brother Constantine. In November 1975, at the wish of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Telly sang at her Royal Command Palladium concert where celebrities like Count Basie, Charles Aznavour, etc performed in spite of the bomb scare that autumn. During that time, the media reported him playing golf with world’s top golfer Tom Weiskopf on the Ailsa golf course at Turnberry in Scotland.
Often things in life simply don’t go according to set decisions. Telly never forgot the break he got from Burt Lancaster into movies which he reciprocated to the career of others. A 1975 newspaper reported actor Gene Hackman talking on the Douglas show about how Telly, while preparing to move from New York to start out his acting career in Hollywood, suggested to Hackman to “get his skates on” and head for the West Coast where the real action is – which resulted in Hackman’s entry into films on the Coast. Like Telly, the film Mad Dog Coll also marked the debut of Gene Hackman. Telly also played an active part in philanthropy and philhellenism. However, as always, there are different perspectives about Telly bordering on arrogance and rudeness I have also come across during my research.
For the Greek-American icon who once said that he carried his Hellenism like a badge of merit, the opportunity to play a real Greek on Greek soil came in 1978 in the WW2 POW adventure film, Escape to Athena (D: George Pan Cosmatos, 1979) which had an all-star cast including Roger Moore, David Niven, and Claudia Cardinale.
In his autobiography, actor Roger Moore wrote about his location days for Escape to Athena on the isle of Rhodes when he brushed up on his gambling at the tables of the local casino which were also frequented by Telly. Stuntman Vic Armstrong’s autobiography also contains interesting pieces about the location shooting of this movie – about how, in the early hours, a bored Telly would phone him to play a game of poker.
Telly visited Greece again in early 1982 for location shoot in Laconia for My Palikari (American Playhouse, D: Charles Dubin). He turned this into a family affair and had his young son Nicholas from Los Angeles christened at the church in the village of Anogia, the birthplace of Telly’s mother.
Meanwhile, his career progressed with movies including Capricorn One (D: Peter Hyams, 1977), Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (D: Irwin Allen, 1979), Border Cop (aka. Blood Barrier, D: Christopher Leitch, 1979), Hellinger’s Law (D: Leo Penn, 1981), Fake-Out (aka. Nevada Heat, 1982), Alice in Wonderland (D: Harry Harris, 1985), The Dirty Dozen: The Deadly Mission (D: Lee H. Katzin, 1987), The Dirty Dozen: The Fatal Mission (D: Lee H. Katzin, 1988), Mind Twister (D: Fred Olen Ray, 1994), Backfire! (D: Dean Bell, 1995), etc.
Augmenting his taste for the international high life, he was regularly featured in forgettable European movies shot across the Atlantic. Some of them were as dull as a wet Good Friday but made pots of money. Having worked with European moviemakers earlier, Telly was at ease with the European way of shooting schedules and locations all over Europe. In the movie business, one gets to work closely with a lot of people. His further outings into Continental productions also gained him good rapport with more moviemakers as well as with industry professionals and eminent personalities.
A Town Called Hell (D: Robert Parrish, 1971) and A Reason to Live, A Reason to Die (D: Tonino Valerii, 1972) were shot in spaghetti film locations in Almeria and Madrid. His repertoire of European productions also included the Charles Bronson-Jill Ireland vehicle Città violenta (aka: Final Shot/The Family/Violent City, D: Sergio Sollima, 1970), Crime Boss (D: Alberto De Martino, 1972), Senza Ragione (aka Redneck, D: Silvio Narizzano, 1973), Faceless (aka. Les prédateurs de la nuit, D: Jesús Franco, 1987).
Besides Telly’s appearance in Horror Express (1972), Italian director Mario Bava and producer Alfred Leone cast him in Lisa and the Devil (Lisa e il Diavolo, 1973 – re-edited into The House of Exorcism (1975)) as the devious butler Leandro, the Devil who lured Lisa (Elke Sommer) into the Spanish villa of a blind Contessa and her deranged son. It is in this masterpiece of Mario Bava, mainly shot during the latter half of 1972 in Toledo, outside Madrid and Barcelona that Bava showed the lollipop sucking Telly to great effect, and the sucker became Telly’s trademark in Kojak by late 1973.
While his continuous interest in Continental filmmaking extended to the 1991-93 TV series Ein Schloß am Wörthersee shot in Austria and Italy, Telly had also appeared in faraway locations like Australia where he shot Rose Against the Odds (D: John Dixon, 1991).
Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame awarded him his Star in 1983. The following year, Telly and his third wife Julie Hovland were married. Having promised to be together for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, they remained married until his death.
On Saturday July 23, 1988, the tragedy struck. Christina Savalas, Telly’s mother and a leading American artist whose “Picassolike” work received local and international exhibitions, died of heart failure at age 84 at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center, Burbank, California.
On Saturday, January 22, 1994, one day after his 72 birthday, surrounded by wife Julie Hovland and family, Telly died of Prostate cancer at the suite he kept at the Sheraton Universal Hotel, Universal City. According to the death certificate, the cause is stated as Renal Failure/Metastatic Disease/Transitional Cell Cancer of Bladder.
After services at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Los Angeles, Telly was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Hollywood Hills, Los Angeles, on January 25, 1994. The large marker on the lawn of his grave contains the header “Telly Aristotle Savalas” (a) followed by the quote from Aristotle:
The hour of departure has arrived,
and we go our ways –
I to die and you to live.
Which is better God only knows.
Telly has gone. Has he fulfilled his aims and ambitions? The question brings to mind a letter the French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac, when quite a young man, wrote to his sister about his aims and ambitions: “….. I have two and only two passionate desires – to be famous and to be loved. Will they ever be satisfied?” As for Telly, maybe none may dispute that he had fulfilled both the desires Balzac was referring to.
Until next time, Jo
- The spelling of the middle name on the marker and the Certificate of Death: 39419004248 dt. 22-1-1994 shown in a website differs.
- This article owes its source to various newspapers, books, magazines, visual media, etc.
- Films forming part of the collection of Manningtree Archive are marked in bold.
- Most of the movies and books referred to in this article are available with amazon.com, amazon.co.uk and other leading dealers.
- DVD sleeves credits: amazon.com, en.wikipedia, imdb and from my private collection.
- This illustrated article is an affectionate nosegay to the movies and performers of the past. Please refer to “About” of my webpage for more details.
(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)