“Who loves ya, baby?” Could anyone but Telly Savalas have made that line so iconic? We don’t think so! The guy was amazing in everything from The Dirty Dozen and Kelly’s Heroes to On His Majesty’s Secret Service and Kojak. But it’s Savalas’ life away from the cameras that really has our heads spinning. And you’ll also be stunned when you discover the truth about the actor’s extended family – as well as his surprising connection to one of the world’s most beautiful women.
For most of us, of course, Savalas will always be the tough cop who loved a lollipop in Kojak. The show ran for five years in the ’70s and was enjoyed – probably still is – by people all over the world. But behind the scenes, Savalas was so much more than just Kojak. His life story would even make a good TV show itself!
All in a name
First of all, we have to talk about the actor’s name. And, no, you won’t see “Telly” on his birth certificate! It’s actually a slight tweak of his real first name: Aristotelis. “Because you can’t see ‘Aristotle Savalas’ on a marquee now, can you?” the star told The New York Times in 1973. This could also give you a clue to his behind-the-scenes life.
“Aristotle” is a pretty famous Greek name, after all. And Savalas’ parents constantly told him – and his four siblings – to be proud of his Greek heritage. So even though Savalas was born in Long Island, he learned to speak both Greek and English. It was this upbringing, too, that thrust the young man onto his unusual path to success.
You see, Savalas’ father lost his wealth in the Wall Street Crash of 1929. That meant the family were severely strapped for cash. Years later, Savalas even joked with The New York Times, saying that his acting career began when he had to lie to the gas man! But another global event kept Savalas from fulfilling that potential – for a while, anyway.
World at war
When he was still only in his teens, Savalas answered the call of his country. Yes, he was a World War II veteran, signing up to the U.S. Army in 1941. But even though Savalas spent two years as a soldier, there are no surviving records of his service. All we know is that he very nearly didn’t make it out alive.
In 1943 Savalas took approved time away from camp with eight of his buddies. While on leave, though, the group suffered a devastating car crash. Savalas reportedly came away with a concussion, a fractured pelvis, and a sprained ankle. He was later given a Purple Heart and released from the armed forces. And he didn’t waste a moment of his recovery time.
Savalas didn’t publicly talk about his time in the army – but we know he put his experience to good use. He went to the Armed Forces Institute, for one thing, and learned how to produce radio and TV shows. He then used the GI Bill to see him through a psychology major at Columbia University. But, of course, his future wouldn’t lie in medicine.
Voice of America
What did the star do? Well, his TV and radio experience certainly came in handy! Savalas took a job at the State Department. There, he worked on scripts for Voice of America and rose to an executive director position at the United States Information Agency. His personal life was flourishing, too.
Big fat Greek wedding
Shortly after WWII, Savalas wed Katherine Nicolaides. The pair were married from 1948 to 1957, and they had one daughter together. Mind you, she was only the first of Savalas’ large brood. Considering the actor was himself one of five children, that’s hardly surprising.
Second chance saloon
Savalas didn’t stay single for long, either, as in 1960 he married second wife Marilyn Gardner. Their union lasted an impressive 14 years and resulted in two more children. Again, though, the relationship eventually ended in divorce. Yet while Savalas didn’t rush into marriage after this, that doesn’t mean he was alone.
In 1980, you see, Sally Adams filed a palimony suit that claimed she had lived with Savalas from 1969 to 1978. Those dates do, unfortunately, cross over with the marriage to Gardner. Adams and Savalas had a son together, too. But their split seems to have been a bad one, and perhaps that’s why Savalas waited before marrying for the third time.
Third time’s the charm
Um, well, Savalas didn’t wait too long. He walked down the aisle with Julie Hovland in 1984 – six years after his break-up from Adams. And speaking of six, the new couple had two more kids. Savalas was well on his way to creating his own baseball team! But, of course, there was much more going on in his life than getting married and having children.
Who loves ya, baby?
Savalas’ leap from government work to Kojak wasn’t straightforward. First of all, he joined the network ABC as the director of news and special events. Then, well, he basically fell into his first acting role. It all started when he couldn’t find an actor for one of ABC’s shows.
Instead of leaving the program high and dry, Savalas took it upon himself to audition for the part. “The rest is history,” he said to The New York Times. “I haven’t looked back since.” And truer words have rarely been spoken. The only problem was that Savalas seemed to be getting typecast as a bad guy.
If that sounds unbelievable – Kojak is no bad guy! – just think about Savalas’ early roles. Before the Kojak series, he played his fair share of hoodlums and criminals. He even brought famous villains such as Al Capone and Pontius Pilate to life. Oh, and what about his celebrated role in The Dirty Dozen?
The 1967 movie was a huge box-office success, and people still hold it close to their hearts. But Savalas’ character Archer Maggott was… well, not very pleasant, to say the least. And while it was no doubt a thrill to get good notices, Savalas soon grew tired of playing scoundrels.
Savalas was so successful, though, that it was probably hard to make a change. “This is a dangerous profession for the ego,” he told The New York Times. “The first time you get $100,000 to play a part, you ask yourself, ‘What kind of a boat ride is this?’” And besides, he was having fun. What was the harm?
“The excitement started to wane only when they kept handing me guns and knives,” Savalas said. Eventually, then, he went looking for a role that would change his public image. But at first, the go-to movie villain was reluctant to make the jump to TV. “It doesn’t fit my lifestyle,” he complained to The New York Times.
Lt. Theo Kojak
“When life is predictable – even over a period of 20 weeks or so – I find it very unattractive,” Savalas elaborated. So, there had to be something very special to tempt the actor away from the silver screen. And luckily there was, in the form of Lieutenant Theo Kojak. Savalas was drawn to the character – and soon a new chapter of his life began.
We don’t need to tell you how popular Kojak was, do we? The series was a success all around the world – and Savalas was a big part of that. He took home an Emmy and two Golden Globes for his performances, which spanned 118 episodes and seven TV movies. And the actor made his success count behind the scenes.
All in the family
Although Savalas was a big star, he still made the time to raise up the folks around him. Even George Lazenby credited Savalas for giving him a boost on the set of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service! So, when Kojak needed guest stars, the leading man got promising young actors involved – as well as a now-famous friend.
You probably know who John Aniston is, right? The guy has played Victor Kiriakis on Days of Our Lives since 1985. According to IMDb, that means he’s been involved in a staggering 3,537 episodes and counting! Back in the day, though, Aniston was called Yannis Anastassakis. And perhaps it’s no surprise that he was friends with Savalas – another actor of Greek heritage.
Aniston tried to break into Hollywood before he got his Days gig, of course. But he didn’t really have much luck. In fact, in 2008, Jennifer Aniston – his daughter – told The New York Times that her father once “[sold] vacuum cleaners door to door because he wasn’t making any money as an actor.” Then Savalas stepped in.
Be our guest
Savalas and Aniston must have been pretty tight, too. Jennifer confessed that Savalas would “give [her] father a job here and there, like on Kojak.” Sure enough, Aniston did indeed guest star in two episodes of Kojak. But the bond between the two families went even deeper than that.
Before Aniston’s spell in Kojak, Savalas had already become a very special part of the Aniston family. That’s because he was picked to be godfather to two-year-old Jennifer. And while that sounds lovely, the future Friends star apparently marked the occasion in an unusual way.
The story goes that after the baptism, the two families took a drive in Savalas’ Rolls-Royce. They were en route to a party to celebrate the big day. On the way, though, the young Jennifer was apparently car sick… right on her freshly minted godfather. And that’s not even the grossest part of the story.
Save the vomit
After little Jennifer had vomited, her grandma – as legend has it – decided she wanted to keep the stuff safe. Yes, she supposedly scooped up the vomit – all because it may have had some holy water in it. Ew! But even after this unfortunate incident, Savalas kept on helping folks get their breaks in showbiz.
Lawyer on the loose
One famous name certainly owed some of his success to Savalas. And if you think back to the Kojak star being a higher-up at ABC, perhaps you’ll be able to guess who we’re talking about. This guy had been a lawyer, but then a few people whispered in Savalas’ ear. Apparently, he was a natural-born sportscaster…
Cosell in the chair
Guessed it yet? Well, Savalas gave Howard Cosell his break in television. So without the Kojak actor, you’d have never heard Cosell during those memorable moments in sporting history. Strange, eh? And that’s not even the weirdest fact about Savalas. Have you ever given any thought to the actor’s hair?
Yes, we said “hair” and not “head,” as Savalas wasn’t naturally bald. “[God] did leave a little something up there,” he said on a U.K. TV show in 1971. How on Earth, then, did he become one of the world’s best-known bald men?
The greatest story
Well, the Kojak star shaved his head before portraying Pontius Pilate in The Greatest Story Ever Told. He’d had some reservations about doing it, though, and he’d made them clear to the director George Stevens. In a 1989 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Savalas revealed that he’d said, “I’ve got little children at home, and I don’t want to frighten them.”
Hair today, gone tomorrow
As it turned out, Savalas hadn’t needed to worry about his kids. “They didn’t even notice,” he told the newspaper. And from that point onward, the actor kept his head smooth and shiny. It certainly helped to give him – and Kojak – a distinctive look! Speaking of Kojak, Savalas did have mixed feelings about his most famous role.
The power of TV
If you remember, the actor initially looked at Kojak as a way of resetting his Hollywood bad-guy image. But Savalas found the lollipop-loving detective even harder to shake off. “I had made over 60 major motion pictures with some of the biggest stars in the world,” he lamented to the Chicago Tribune. “People seem to forget about that.”
“It shows you the power of television,” Savalas continued. “Breaking the mold of a television character you play so successfully for five years is kind of a tough job.” Not that Savalas would have complained too much. He was, after all, a different person behind the scenes – nothing like those baddies he used to portray.
“I’ve been a pussycat all along,” Savalas told the Chicago Tribune. And that certainly seems to have been the case. We’ve heard how he helped out John Aniston and gave Howard Cosell his big break. We also know that he had a big family. But how do his kids really feel about him?
Well, Ariana Savalas – the Kojak actor’s youngest daughter – is now a singer and cabaret star, and she has only good things to say about her dad. “I don’t have a memory of growing up as the daughter of a celebrity,” she told The Washington Times in 2015. “I have memories of growing up with my ‘Papa.’” And that’s not all.
Ariana also said that Savalas “was just him” and that she had no idea about the level of his fame. That’s despite the fact she lived in a hotel as a little girl! Sadly, though, Ariana was only seven years old when Savalas passed away in 1994.
Kojak no more
In the end, the actor succumbed to prostate cancer. But we doubt Savalas would have complained about his life being cut short. The man hardly seemed to have had a bad word to say about anything! When speaking to the Chicago Tribune about what he’d been up to, he said, “Doin’ movies, makin’ babies, just livin’ life.”
And, fortunately, we still have a wealth of TV shows and movies to remember the iconic actor by. Seriously, the man was so popular and prolific that he even got a namecheck in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood. So if you ever want to reminisce about Savalas, why not rewatch Kojak?
- 1 Lollipop lover
- 2 All in a name
- 3 Greek American
- 4 Streetwise
- 5 World at war
- 6 Purple Heart
- 7 R&R
- 8 Voice of America
- 9 Big fat Greek wedding
- 10 Second chance saloon
- 11 It’s complicated
- 12 Third time’s the charm
- 13 Who loves ya, baby?
- 14 Audition ready
- 15 Screen monsters
- 16 Sadistic soldier
- 17 Heavy heart
- 18 Bad times
- 19 Lt. Theo Kojak
- 20 Superstardom
- 21 All in the family
- 22 Yannis Anastassakis
- 23 Salesman
- 24 Be our guest
- 25 The godfather
- 26 Travel sick
- 27 Save the vomit
- 28 Lawyer on the loose
- 29 Cosell in the chair
- 30 Bald approach
- 31 The greatest story
- 32 Hair today, gone tomorrow
- 33 The power of TV
- 34 Tough break
- 35 Happy life
- 36 Papa’s girl
- 37 Daughter’s love
- 38 Kojak no more
- 39 Movie memories
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