Tag Archive | Genghis Khan

Staying Power of “The Horsemen”

Concluding installment of the two-part serial: “Catch-as-Catch Can”

In my mind’s eye, artist Said Atabekov’s solo show reminded me of “The Horsemen” (Les Cavaliers), the 1967 best-selling novel written by the French writer Joseph Kessel (1898-1979). Enriched by the extraordinary gifts of characterisation and narrative of Kessel, it was the kind of book that cast a spell over the reader, and when you finished it, the experience preys on your mind to think back over the whole plot and rediscover the many priceless pearls from a bygone era which are littered in it.

The Horsemen told the gutsy saga, in contemporary setting, of family conflict between Uraz, a proud and ambitious Afghan horse rider and Tursen, his father, the Master of the Horse at the stables of the regal Osman Bey and the bravest Buzkashi chapandaz of the time, renowned for his highest degree of horsemanship, physical strength, courage and competitive spirit.

By the time producer/writer Edward Lewis and his constant film collaborator, director John Frankenheimer decided to turn The Horsemen into a movie (the films rights of which they had purchased jointly), two of Kessel’s novels were already lauded as popular films: The Lion (1962, D: Jack Cardiff) which is a marital drama of an American lawyer who goes to Africa to deal with his child and animal interest; and Belle de Jour (1967, D: Luis Buñuel), a fascinating fact and fantasy tale of a surgeon’s wife who took a liking to afternoon work in a brothel.Lewis and Frankenheimer contracted with Colorado born screenwriter (James) Dalton Trumbo’s (1905-1976, Spartacus, Exodus, Papillon), to adapt Kessel’s book. Joseph Kessel, who considered Trumbo in the first rank of screenwriters, was delighted by the news. According to a book on Dalton Trumbo, they agreed to pay him $125,000 for the completed script and another $125,000 in ten equal instalments.

Although Lewis questioned Trumbo’s depiction of the lead character’s motivations, Frankenheimer found the finished script “perceptive” and “damned good.” However, when made into an old-fashioned action-adventure movie of the same title, the studio executives demanded that the rough cut be reduced from slightly over three hours to two hours.

A co-production of John Frankenheimer Productions and Edward Lewis Productions, Inc. with the cooperation of Afghan Films, Colombia Pictures released The Horsemen in mid-1971, the year the studio turned to look back rather than forward – releasing movies such as Nicholas and Alexandrea (D: Franklin Schaffner), The Last Picture Show (D: Peter Bogdanovich), 10 Rillington Place (D: Richard Fleischer), The Anderson Tapes (D: Sidney Lumet), etc.

Similar to film directors such as Arthur Penn, Delbert Mann, Marty Ritt, Franklin Schaffner, Sidney Lumet and George Roy Hill, director John Frankenheimer (1930-2002), took the road out from television to Hollywood, where, retaining only the most useful elements of his earlier style, he became one of the most versatile directors in the American cinema.

He made dramatic hits such as Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), Seven Days in May (1964), Seconds (1966), although the movie that catapulted his name to fame was the satirically angled political thriller, The Manchurian Candidate (1962). A demanding director, whose hallmark was working well with most actors, Frankenheimer’s work projected a fascination with the mechanics of visual story telling.

A reporter once noted in a newspaper: “You won’t find much romance or many complex leading ladies in a Frankenheimer film: For the most part his characters are men, real men, fighting each other or some outside force trying to destroy a way of life. His films are known for their biting look at this country’s political and social times.”

Director Frankenheimer’s flair in games and sports were evident in his Grand Prix (1966) and The Gypsy Moths (1969). The Horsemen (Cavalieri Selvaggi), made just before Frankenheimer’s career went into sharp decline in the 1970s, was the first film ever made in Afghanistan during a period when it was a popular destination all the year round for Western tourists to enjoy its rugged mountains and valued relics of ancient civilisation.

The production received plentiful cooperation from the government – and according to a magazine article, the authorities even allowed Frankenheimer to bring in a helicopter to shoot aerial scenes.

The film featured a spectacular tale of human drama giving emphasis to the skill, violence, and great courage of man-and-horse rivalries played out in the ancient equestrian tradition of buzkashi, an amalgamation of dirty polo and open rioting which brings to one’s mind the legends of the Golden Horde of the times of Mongol king Genghis Khan, whose warriors slipped into enemy camps and without dismounting from their horses, swooped up goats, sheep, etc., and rode away undetected with their pillage.

Having realised that he could no longer play in buzkashi, the valiant chapandaz (specialist buzkashi rider) Tursen’s (Jack Palance) mind was clouded over by his son Uraz’s (Omar Sharif) youth and prowess. For Uraz, like his father before him, is reputedly the greatest chapandaz in the three provinces of Meymaneh, Mazar-e Sharif and Qataghan.

To prove his machismo and to challenge the code of behaviour by which he had been raised, as well as to please his imperious father who refused to give up the values and beliefs of his native land and had chosen Uraz to ride on the newest and finest purebred stallion, Jahil, Uraz had decided to compete in the king’s Royal Buzkashi tournament on the field of Bagrami in Kabul. Winning the game would ensure that Tursen would deed Jahil to Uraz – which was Tursen’s challenge to secure Uraz’s victory in the Buzkashi competition (1).

The game featured in the movie, where the horseman with the carcass is fair game for an all-out assault, was played at its roughest when the leather whips were applied with devastating effect on challenging riders.

Although Uraz’s boldness and fierce competitive spirit was evident throughout the game, in an unfortunate incident during the game after he had grabbed the carcass off the ground, Uraz fell and broke a leg. But then, in the last moment, his colleague Salih had leapt onto Jahil to win the tournament for their Meymaneh clan.

Later, escaping from the hospital where he was admitted, Uraz was forced to journey back home to the province of Meymaneh to face his father. Disgraced and humiliated in failing to measure up to his father, Uraz imposed severe ordeals on himself – eventually suffering terrible tribulations from the amputation of one of his legs infected with gangrene. Accompanying him through the treacherous old Bamian Road across the mountains were his faithful syce Mukhi (David de Keyser, uncredited) and a crafty nomad woman called Zareh/Zereh (Leigh Taylor-Young sporting a new gold nose ring) with her greedy eyes set on to acquire Jahil.

Having allowed to join Uraz in his journey  as Mukhi’s woman and having seen Uraz sick and weak, Zareh’s mind was devious to realise how a good buzkashi horse like Jahil would play for as long as twenty years and would bring glory and wealth to her. Encouraged by the knowledge that the prize-horse Jahil’s ownership would pass on to Mukhi upon Uraz’s death, Zareh took upon herself to convince Mukhi that they could go to the land of Hazarajat and make a fortune by racing the swiftest Jahil in the great annual fair.

As Uraz progressed on his passage home with his animal powers of endurance and survival, it didn’t take long before Zareh found out that, although Uraz liked women, he liked horses even better.

The great old film stars are everlasting. They live on in the hearts of all who have adored their looks and performances, and anytime is a good time to view their films repeatedly.

Star of Doctor Zhivago (1965, D: David Lean) and Funny Girl (1968, D: William Wyler), the dark-eyed Omar Sharif (1932-2015, born: Maechel Shalhoud in Alexandria of Syrian-Lebanese descent) whom actor Peter O’Toole irreverently dubbed “Cairo Fred”, needs no introduction. Following his dramatic entrance from the sands of the Sahara into screen stardom in the opening scene of Lawrence of Arabia (1962, D: David Lean), the flamboyant American actor became a whirlwind which brought him adulation, riches and hearts of millions of female movie lovers in particular. He frequently appeared in dashing leading man roles, relishing the honour of being a social idol, a superstar and a worthy successor to Rudolph Valentino.

The Memoirs of Roger Vadim quotes Omar Sharif as “a charming man and exciting friend, but he had a very particular style with women. In spite of the passionate lover that he played on the screen, he was rarely romantic.”  Sharif had remarked during the filming of The Horsemen that he welcomed the opportunity to play a straight role. It  is a provocative film role in which he shared something in common with the character of Uraz – the ambitious chapandaz dressed in a thick caftan and high-heeled boots, leather whip gripped between his teeth, his head adorned with a hat lined with astrakhan fur and the emblem of a chapandaz fixed on it.

As a racehorse owner and breeder himself who, during that time, paid US$50,000 to send his mares to America to mate with wonder horse, Canadian-bred Nijinsky, (about which he was asked to narrate a French documentary in 1970,) Sharif did not shirk some tough riding in The Horsemen – at times holding the reins in one hand and the sand-stuffed, 120lb. carcass of a goat in the other, sequences which were added in Spain.

During production, he spoke of his understanding of horses. At the age of four he had begun by riding on tourist horses trotting around the pyramids: “It’s not all that difficult, really… I have ridden horses since I was a child in Cairo and I can hang on to a horse.” Then again, Sharif who had brought along an American masseur to Afghanistan to ease his muscle strains from the game, was, on tricky bits, obliged to indorse assistance of a double for some of his buzkashi riding scenes.

According to an article, the required footage for the film was canned by Frankenheimer by making the teams play every day for 30 straight days. Just like artist Said Atabekov, director Frankenheimer with his Polaroid would, at times, shoot interesting pictures of the men and horses in action. To complement the game scenes shot at Aranjuez in Spain, about ten chapandaz (including leading buzkashi riders, Jalal and Habib, who had tremendous riding and game-time experience in buzkashi) were flown from Afghanistan for filming a third of the movie over a parched Spanish playing-field. A Spanish army helicopter was also engaged for this.For the role of Tursen, the filmmakers wanted a star with enough physical presence and regional look to match Sharif. Movie audiences have seen Omar Sharif and Jack Palance together in Che! (1969, D: Richard Fleischer) although they were criticised as miscast in the roles of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Maybe the filmmakers had hoped to derive a better result from this combination from their roles as Uraz and Tursen.

The hard, villainous skull-faced one-time boxer Palance was the heaviest Heavy Hollywood knew in the old days before he deserted Hollywood for Europe. The lantern-faced Palance chews the scenery as a “mean as dirt” gunslinger imported by cattle interests to confront former gunfighter Alan Ladd in Shane (1953, D: George Stevens), Paramount’s splendid outdoor drama of the Old West.Moviegoers may also remember him as a disillusioned film star in The Big Knife (1955, D: Robert Aldrich) and in a good number of films made in Europe such as: The Mongols (1961, D: Andre de Toth/Riccardo Freda), Barabbas (1962, D: Richard Fleischer), The Professionals (1966, D: Richard Brooks), Justine: Le Disavventure della Virtu (1968, D: Jess Franco), Vamos a Matar, Companeros! (1970, D: Sergio Corbucci), Chato’s Land (1971, D: Michael Winner), etc.According to a biography of actress Joan Crawford, during filming of the solid suspense thriller, Sudden Fear (1952, D: David Miller), Crawford was disturbed by Palance’s “moodiness and particular techniques, such as racing around the studio stage to incite his emotion.” Quite possibly, Palance, in his first starring role and an actor whom Crawford once fired, was nervous and apprehensive about acting as the new husband of Crawford, the legendary star who had shared screen space with biggest film icons such as Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, Robert Taylor, etc. In The Horsemen, one will find Palance mellowed, put on weight and smiles as if he meant it.Beautifully filmed in Eastmancolor and Panavision (2) in Afghanistan and Spain, Cinematographer Claude Renoir brilliantly succeeds in recapturing the look and feel of the period. The original cinematographer James Wong Howe (nicknamed Low Key Hoe) who had worked on many Frankenheimer movies was replaced.According to the book The Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Howe admits having worked two or three weeks on his last picture, The Horsemen, but left over a disagreement with director Frankenheimer for refusing to use a particular lens rented for the movie. (3)

The 23-year old, fresh-faced, Leigh Taylor-Young, when contracted to play the leading lady role in The Horsemen, which took about two and a half years to make, had a repertoire of film appearances credited to her career.

Debuting in the Broadway play Three Bags Full (1966)  under the name Leigh Taylor-Young, she progressed with appearance in the TV soap opera Peyton Place, following which she went on to make five major motion pictures in a row.The Horsemen also features: British general purpose actor Peter Jeffrey (Hayatal), George Murcell (Mizrah), bald-headed Viennese character actor Eric Pohlmann (Merchant of Kandahar), Vernon Dobtcheff (Zam Hajji), Saeed Jaffrey (District Chief), John Ruddock (Scribe), Mark Colleano (Rahim), Salmaan Peer (Salih), Aziz Resh, Leon Lissek, and Vida St. Romaine as the Gypsy woman. Some websites identify actor Srinanda De in the role of Mukhi.

The crew also consists of: Costume designer: Jacqueline Moreau; Production Designer: Pierre Louis Thevenet; Music composed and conducted by: Georges Delerue.

Following the filming, director John Frankenheimer had joined Harold F. Kress to edit the film in Paris and also devoted part of the nights attending cooking classes for three months at Le Cordon Bleu which was followed by a tour of Europe studying the great chefs. Undeniably, the film’s production had occasioned a learning experience for Frankenheimer in the traditional game of buzkashi which inspired in him the thought of holding buzkashi tournaments in the USA.

As for Sharif, whose interests thrived on bridge games, globe-trotting, dating girls and owning horses, among others, his movie days in Afghanistan acquired him a new buddy to share his Rolls-Royce and his new Penthouse overlooking the Bois de Boulogne in Paris: a majestic Afghan hound named Baz (Bazo), a gift from the King of Afghanistan (4).

Until next time, Jo

PS: This here Second installment of the two-part serial “Catch-as-Catch Can” would have appeared earlier, had I been able to go ahead with my scheduled visit to Dubai in April-May for research work for that post. Unfortunately, I had to forego that trip and sustain subsequent delay due to urgent engagements.

Notes:

  • Please refer to the first part: “Catch-as-Catch Can” for more details on Buzkashi.
  • The film’s Trailer states “Super Panavision
  • For the benefit of minimal content in this post, many finer details re. the production of this film, readily available in numerous websites, books, etc, is not incorporated.
  • A chapter in “No Better Friend: Celebrities and the Dogs They Love,” by Elke Gazzara features an interesting narration about how the last king of Afghanistan, Muhammad Zahir Shah (1914-2007; Reign: 1933-1973) presented one-year old Bazo to Sharif, through his emissary, while Sharif was already inside the aircraft waiting to take off to Paris after having spent more than five months location shoot there for The Horsemen.
  • Books, DVD/Blu-ray of the movies referred to in this article are available with amazon.com, amazon.co.uk and other leading dealers.
  • DVD sleeves/posters credits: Wikipedia, amazon, imdb and from my private collection.
  • This illustrated article is an affectionate nosegay to the movie reviewed above. Please refer to “About” of my webpage for more details.
  • In memory of John Frankenheimer who died on July 06, 15 years ago.

(© Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

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Catch – as – Catch Can

Excitement is soaring for high-class racing action in Dubai where horses are a passion. This excitement is hardly surprising in the Arabian Peninsula – the region from where the pure-bred Arab stock had emerged to become lauded as the oldest of the world’s recognised breeds – their influence in creation of the Thoroughbred generally acknowledged all over the world.

A land of startling contrasts, Dubai of United Arab Emirates, has, years on, offered a sparkling calendar of interesting equestrian pursuits and leisure activities such as courses for riding skills, show-jumping, dressage, polo, horse riding trips, etc, through its various clubs and stables. The Dubai World Cup (DWC) 2017 will take place on Saturday, March 25 at Meydan Racecourse where the 2017 DWC Carnival is underway.

As for me, UAE is the region in which I had flown in the most number of times, for short visits and transit – like drive traffic, all stop and go, since I very often flew with regional Airlines from the early-nineties – a silent witness to the city’s astonishing growth to today’s modern metropolis, Dubai (which I was told is a mixed Farsi and Arabic word meaning literally, two sides of the water. I have also heard its meaning being referred to the Hindi words “Do – bhaee” (Two – Brothers)! Few documents may exist before 1799 when the local inhabitants were primarily engaged in fishing and harvesting pearls. But at the creek of Dubai, one can still see the big wooden dhows and smaller, short-keeled sambuqs.

Of the many activities complementing the Dubai World Cup is a Solo Show by Said Atabekov, the internationally renowned Uzbekistan born contemporary artist, who now lives and works in Kazakhstan.

Titled “66 Lbs”, Atabekov’s show featuring photo, video and site installation, can be viewed at Andakulova Gallery (Unit 18, P4 Level, Damac Park Towers DIFC) in Dubai during March 06th – May 12th, 2017. What attracted me to this show is not simply because it featured horses.

With a good number of original “sporting art” also bolstering our love of arts, paintings of sedate hunting or race horses are not alien to our house. From the horse’s first appearance in a convincing anatomical form in an Assyrian bas-relief of the seventh century BC, at length, it has been an inspiration in all forms of arts and later in literature for the majesty and grace of this spirited animal “par excellence”. Over time, many terms sprang out of its name: horse-radish, horse-parsley, horse mushroom, iron horse, pale horse, white horse, brazen horse, wooden horse, Trojan horse, horse bridge, horse-power, horse trading, …..

The largest physiques of horses I have come across, to name but a few, are the set of four horses (Triumphal Quadriga) at Basilica di San Marco in Venice; the wooden horse inside il Salone of the Palazzo della Ragione; Donatello’s equestrian statue of Gattamelata on Piazza del Santo (both in Padua); and such other statues in many piazzas and squares in Europe.

According to classical mythology, Poseidon created the horse. Indeed, from the domestication of the horse, possibly by the tribes of the steppes flanking the Caspian Sea thousands of years ago, the horse has been the friend and companion of man, prized for his beauty, loved for his docility. Eaten, sacrificed, worshipped, it gradually became a means of transport, communication and of horseback conquest in the heroic age. As a story goes, in the early centuries before Jesus Christ, when the Greeks colonised Southern Italy and brought in thousands of horses, the luxurious people of Sybaris trained all their horses to dance to the sound of music – of flutes in particular. Then again, there was also a time when some were addicted to the atrocious practice of sacrificing live horses to their gods or bury them with their masters.

The show’s distinctiveness is the bridge the artist has built between the past and the present with strong images that resonate with tradition – with emphasis on the ancient nomadic game of Kokpar of Kazakhstan. A primitive version of polo, played in two considerably different forms: tudabarai and qarajai, the game Kokpar  has two (or more) teams on horseback competing to pick a headless goat carcass off the ground (zamin-gir) without dismounting or snatch it from someone else at full gallop (chakka-gir) and carry it over the goal line. Usually, the credit for best horsemanship, strength and courage goes to the winning team.

Being aware of this as I am – it is gross the way it sounds. But the element of my main interest in this equestrian sport, part of the cultural backbone of some countries, is merely the nomadic tradition and the strict set of rules it accentuates. According to this solo show, the mandatory weight of the animal carcass used for the game which is fixed as 66 Lbs – hence, the title of this Show.

The Kazakh horses are traditionally an ancient breed originally bred in that region and are exceptionally hardy and competent to withstand extreme climatic conditions. Kokpar (known in a variety of names or simply as “catch-as-catch can”) of the Central Asian countries is one of the games fostered not only out of necessity – but also for recreation as well. The game, which probably owes it origins to the period of reign of the Macedonian king Alexander the Great (B: 356 BC – D: 323 BC) or Genghis Khan (B: 1162 – D: 1227) of the Mongol Empire, or to the Turkic-Mongol people, is part of the contests devised to provide, in times of peace, excitement as well as to retain fitness, readiness and skill of horse and horsemen for sudden deployment in unexpected wars. Such activities also aided to counter their boredom resulting from specific exercise in one place.

Specialization in such games enabled the noblest horse and its valiant rider to attain mutual equilibrium as one unit – as can be visualised in the artistic depiction of half-man and half-horse – the fabulous centaur of Greek mythology – the fusion where man dominates mentally and dictates the strategies taking advantage of the obedience, physical strength and exceptional memory of the horse – a feat attained from the animal owing to kind and patient training.

Whereas, in the mounted folk game of Kokpar, known in Afghanistan as Buzkashi (buz, a goat and kashidan, to pull) (Mongolian baz-kiri), the goat (or calf) carcass is the objective for the contesting buzkashi riders (chapandazan) who to carry it off to a “goal”.

The 51-year old artist Atabekov has captured the vibes and thrill of Kokpar by actually riding amidst the two teams of powerful masculine participants on powerful horses – his camera mopping up their emotions, vanity, endurance and the intensity of their action in all its complexity.

The mayhem of lurching, rearing, bumping, kicking, biting, leering, cursing in the midst of dust, noise and sweat as it happens when they engage in grapple from each other in fierce competitive spirit, sometimes (unintentionally!) hitting out at the opponents (not at their horses) with their camchin (buzkashi whip with wooden handle). In his relentless effort, the artist has endeavoured to draw attention of the viewer to the game and spirit of Kokpar and the national sport of Kazakhstan.

Back to you…soon. Jo

The concluding instalment of this two-part serial will follow.

Notes:

  1. The horse in the title header is one of those stationed by the Colosseum of Roma, Italy
  2. My thanks are particularly due to Karen Fernandez, Andakulova Gallery, Dubai for her interest and the pictures and in-put on the artist.

(© Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

Mr. Telly Savalas, Back to the Limelight…, Please!

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Part I

Life with many beginnings and endings is a progression of cycles. Just like the years before, the New Year arrived in the cyclical order – ushering in the divisions of days, weeks, months, various seasons, in conjunction with personal social relationship events such as the dates of birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, etc. Within the past three weeks of January in the present calendar, there were few birthdays (including mine on 18th) and anniversaries of people I have had the privilege of knowing – and also a reminder of more to come as the year progresses – a good number of which must be reinforced by remembrance.

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Those with nostalgic longing for movies of the second half of the 20th century would not have to jog their memory much to remember the late Telly Savalas, the Film/Television actor, TV show host and Singer. Telly shared his birth and death in January – on consecutive days of 21st and 22nd. In many of us, the image of Telly Savalas was moulded not only from the characters he portrayed in a string of movies or from his presentations in Television, or the music albums but also from the wide attention he generated to himself by display of his images in a wide range of American-International magazines.

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Of those movies featuring him in a succession of devious characters, one could easily think of the box-office hit, The Dirty Dozen (D: Robert Aldrich, 1967) which presented Telly as a convict and brutal rapist; he was an earthy renegade killer whose frumpy mistress (Shelley Winters) described him as having “as much feelin’s as a bald-headed hog” in The Scalphunters (D: Sydney Pollack, 1968); a black marketer in Battle of the Bulge (D: Ken Annakin, 1965); a no-good army sergeant in Mackenna’s Gold (D: J. Lee Thompson, 1969), a sadistic bandit leader in A Town Called Hell (D: Robert Parrish, 1971); a crooked narcotics agent in Clay Pigeon (D: Tom Stern, 1971); the cold-blooded assassin in L’assassino… è al telefono (D: Alberto De Martino, 1972)….. and so the list goes on until he came across his alter ago Kojak.

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Like the bald headed Hollywood actor Yul Brynner, it is difficult to fully fathom the real story of Telly Savalas since he told a different story in every other interview – a phenomenon I had noticed while researching for this article.

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Aristoteles Savalas (a) was born in Garden City, New York, on January 21, 1922 (b). He was the second son of artist Christina Kapsalis (a former Miss Greece beauty queen from the Greek village of Anogia) and to Nicholas Constantine Savalas (originally spelled Tsavalas – hailing from the village of Gerakas), who made a fortune in tobacco, lost the lot and made another fortune in the bakery business. As teenagers, both his parents had emigrated to America in the early 1900s.

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The second of five children (three brothers: Constantine Socrates, George Demosthenes, Theodore Praxiteles and sister: Katherine), in his earlier days, Aristoteles who spoke fluent Greek, had to sell newspapers, shine shoes and work as a lifeguard to help support the family. Somewhere along the way, he became regularly known as Telly. Having enrolled in the army in 1941 and following four years of service during the World War II he was discharged duly decorated with a Purple Heart for injuries sustained. How he was wounded in the war is unclear – quite similar to the ambiguity about how his left index finger got slightly mangled.

7With the intention to pursue a career in the diplomatic service, Telly graduated in psychology from Columbia University where he had met Katherine Nicolaides. After his father’s death, Telly married Katherine in 1948 and together they had Christina. Following few years work with the Near East Information Services branch of the U. S State Department as host of the Your Voice of America series, ABC (American Broadcasting Company) News hired him as a producer. Having left ABC in January 1959, he had his first TV acting role in And Bring Home a Baby, of Sunday Armstrong Circle Theatre (1950–1963). Burt Lancaster saw his work and drew him to California to appear in episodes of the CBS TV series The Witness (1960-61).

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About the age of 39, Telly had forayed into acting in feature films, debuting with Mad Dog Coll (D: Burt Balaban, 1961) which chronicled the career of the Irish American gangster, Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll. Telly portrayed the role of another Lieutenant in the crime drama film The Young Savages (D: John Frankenheimer, 1961), the first of Burt Lancaster’s four picture deal with United Artists (the other three being Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), The Train (1964) and The Hallelujah Trail (1965)).

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Luck played into his hands when, impressed by his performance in the roles of Al Capone and “Lucky” Luciano in The Witness in which the life and crimes of America’s notorious rogues are investigated at a committee of inquiry; and also in The Young Savages shot in New York, Lancaster provided him the important role of the solitary row prisoner Feto Gomez of Leavenworth Prison in the prison biography, Birdman of Alcatraz. This breakthrough role earned Telly an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor.

Following his divorce from Katherine, in early 1960s when his film roles were mainly villainous, he got married for the second time to Marilyn (Lynn) Gardner.

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When director George Stevens’ cameo-packed dramatization of the life of Jesus Christ, The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) was announced, many eyebrows were raised at the parade of famous actors in unexpected roles. The casting of Telly as Pontius Pilate drew smiles from those who thought that a Brooklyn accent has no place in a Biblical epic.

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Stevens thought that the 6’1” Telly would look more virile and powerful in the role of the Roman prefect (governor) of Judaea if he shaved his head. Telly found the proposition extremely attractive and decided to go on with life as it was before retaining his signature bald look he took for his role in this Bible epic. Whyever not?

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He simply chose to shave his head for the look. By the way, men generally don’t grow beards because they dislike shaving – but because they think their whiskers make them look better and give them a distinctive image.

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He is on record in an interview as saying about the time Telly told his mother Christina vis-à-vis his casting in The Greatest Story Ever Told. She had rounded things off with the remark: “You are joking!” and she continued, “You’ll make a Marvellous Jesus!” She must hold the world record for being the world’s most optimistic mother.

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Telly had a memorable role as James Bond’s notorious arch-rival Ernest Stavro Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (D: Peter Hunt, 1969) in which stuntman Joe Powell nearly got killed doubling him in the bobsleigh in Switzerland. Two of his co-stars of The Greatest Story Ever Told, Donald Pleasance and Max von Sydow also played Blofeld in You Only Live Twice (D: Lewis Gilbert, 1967) and in Never Say Never Again (D: Irvin Kershner, 1983).

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Of his bald head, he once said that “everyone’s born bald.” In spite that Telly was typecast as a villain for being entirely bald, audiences took him to their hearts – believing that in the baddie they saw onscreen rested a sweet nature. His strong features and ethnic look came handy for the role of Shan in Genghis Khan (D: Henry Levin, 1965).

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The success of that film gave his career further fillip earning him roles in Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (D: Melvin Frank, 1968), The Assassination Bureau (D: Basil Dearden, 1969), Kelly’s Heroes (D: Brian G. Hutton, 1970); Pretty Maids All in a Row (D: Roger Vadim, 1971), etc.  For the title role of Pancho Villa (1972), the bald look was vindicated by the shaving of his head in prison during the opening sequence.

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Since 1974, after a long separation Telly and Marilyn were divorced. According to the mini documentary “Telly Savalas: The Golden Greek”, he had met the beautiful Sally Adams while working on the movie, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service  (c). In 1973, Cojack with ‘c” hit the TV screens and his luck seems to improve.

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Although the bald-headed, deep, gravel-voiced Telly had been acting since the late 1950s, real popularity came looking for him in the title role of the famous CBS TV series Kojak (October, 1973-April, 1978) which was a spun-off from the made-for-TV pilot, The Marcus-Nelson Murders (D: Joseph Sargent, First American Broadcast: March 8, 1973).

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Few initial instalments showed him wade through a stereo-typed routine of law-and-order claptrap. But soon Kojak became a prime program as the series turned tough and reasonably true – taking on the look, sound, feel, taste, and smell of the New York crime investigations.

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Working out of a Precinct of Manhattan, Telly’s Lieutenant Theo Kojak, in fabulous three-piece suit, displayed a more credible human being. Much of the vicious power and toughness Telly had displayed in his earlier villainous roles were there. But the exception was that, in his new persona as the stubborn and tenacious good guy Kojak with a deep concern for people and justice, his wrath was targeted against the crooks, spooks and killers. Audiences related to Kojak’s passionate belief in equality and fairness and his vehement opposition to police bureaucracy. Well, you know the rest.

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While Telly reigned supreme in the role of the chrome-domed streetwise cop’s cop with a sweet tooth for sucking lollipops and a penchant to wisecrack snazzy lines, Telly soon became indelibly identified with the character of Kojak. “Telly and Kojak are one and the same,” Telly said in a TV interview, drawing a parallel between him and Kojak.

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His love for the suckers, I mean, his serious attitude towards the lollipops, reportedly to replace Telly’s addiction for long thin cigars, was initially featured in Episode eight “Dark Sunday” of Kojak in December 1973. This addiction for suckers could have its origins in Toledo, Spain and to Italian director Mario Bava, the father of Italian horror films.

This concludes Part I.  Part II will follow. Jo

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Notes:

  1. The spelling of first name is based on Certificate of Death: 39419004248 dt.22-1-1994 shown in a website although the name on his tombstone differs;
  2. The date is based on his death Certificate;
  3. Some sources maintain that Telly met Sally while working on the movie, The Dirty Dozen.
  4. This article owes its source to various newspapers, books, magazines, visual media, etc.
  5. Films forming part of the collection of Manningtree Archive are highlighted in bold.
  6. Most of the movies and books referred to in this article are available with amazon.com, amazon.co.uk and other leading dealers.
  7. DVD sleeves credits: amazon.com, en.wikipedia, imdb and from my private collection.
  8. 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.

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(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)