Telly Savalas was a Greek-American actor made a legacy for himself as Lt. Theo Kojak in ‘Kojak’, a role that continues to be idolised in modern television.
He was born on January 21, 1922 in Garden City, New York as a son of Greek immigrants. Savalas and his brother Gus sold newspapers and shined shoes to help support the family, and in 1941, he joined the army and served in World War II. He was later discharged with a Purple Heart disability.
After his release, Savalas attended the Armed Forces Institute where he studied radio and television production. During the early 1950s, Telly worked for ABC radio, the Voice of America, and eventually became the executive producer of his own popular talk show, Telly’s Coffee House.
In 1959, Savalas attended an audition for the CBS anthology series Armstrong Circle Theatre, intending to prompt an actor friend who was up for a role. Instead, the casting director took Savalas’ sinister demeanor into account and cast him in a character part.
A performance in Matter of Conviction impressed actor Burt Lancaster, who cast him in Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). Savalas earned a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for his role as solitary row prisoner Feto Gomez.
In 1973, he landed the part of tough-talking New York City detective Theo Kojak in the TV movie The Marcus-Nelson Murders. Known for his sinister demeanour in television roles, his incredible acting launched a spin-off series, which ran from 1973-’78 on CBS. The show catapulted Savalas into icon status as the very image of the hedonistic ’70s. Savalas won an Emmy and two Golden Globes for his role on the series.
After Kojak ended, Savalas embarked on a globe-trotting existence involving several forgettable European films and a decadent, self-indulgent lifestyle.
Savalas periodically revived the character of Kojak in a few 1980s TV movies, yet never found a role that brought him back into the Hollywood spotlight.
He died on January 22, 1994, in Universal City, California.
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