Telly Savalas, the bald-headed actor who played movie villains but gained his most fame as a hard-boiled, lollipop-loving New York City detective in the 1970s television series “Kojak,” died Saturday of prostate cancer.
Savalas was surrounded by his family when he died in his sleep at the suite he kept at the Sheraton-Universal Hotel in Universal City, said Mike Mamakos, his spokesman and longtime friend. It was the day after his 70th birthday.
“He was a wonderful, kind, benevolent and generous man,” Mamakos said.
Savalas had checked out of Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena recently to spend his last days at the hotel. Most of Savalas’ friends did not learn that the actor was seriously ill until shortly before he died, and his death Saturday left them reeling.
“I’ve been his publicist for 25 years and a friend for 30, and he only told me three weeks ago that he was sick,” Mamakos said. “He didn’t want to burden his friends.
Friends remembered Savalas Saturday with anecdotes that illustrated the actor’s humor, courtesy and larger-than-life bonhomie:
They remembered Savalas’ good humor when a little old lady wanted an autograph from “Kojak” during a critical moment in a blackjack game in Las Vegas; the lady got her autograph and Savalas lost hundreds.
And they remembered Savalas donning the only available garment while filming on a cold day in New York and unembarrassingly sporting a lady’s mink coat while waiting to shoot.
“I’m just destroyed,” film producer Howard W. Koch said. “He was an outgoing, sweet, wonderful guy, and he was loved.
“Telly was great in everything,” Koch said, “But he was born for ‘Kojak'--those snappy remarks, they were really him.”
“Kojak” broke into the top 10-rated shows in its first season, 1972-73. Savalas won an Emmy as best actor in a dramatic series in the 1973-74 season. The police drama lasted until 1978, setting the standard for later gritty, realistic cop shows such as “Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue.”
Playing Kojak was the highlight of Savalas’ lengthy career, Mamakos said. The actor became indelibly identified as Lt. Theo Kojak, and he remained grateful for the recognition.
“He always said, ‘How could it get any better? I’m just a guy from New York playing a guy from New York.’ ”
Kojak’s habitual greeting, “Who loves ya, baby?” was lobbed at women, fellow cops and hoodlums and grew into the detective’s signature and a national catch phrase. He was easily recognized by his clean-shaven head, a screen identity established when he was cast as Pontius Pilate in the 1965 film “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and ordered by director George Stevens to shave off his hair.
He reveled in the public’s identification with Kojak, Mamakos said. “I made 60 movies before ‘Kojak’ with some of the biggest names in the business, and people would still say, ‘There goes what’s-his-name,”’ Savalas once said.
He was born Aristoteles Savalas on Jan. 21, 1924, in Garden City, N.Y. He grew up with four brothers and one sister in a large, volatile Greek family in which “it wasn’t so much strong discipline as strong love that kept us in line,” he once said.
Savalas fought in World War II, although he left the details hazy in interviews. He later earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Columbia University and went through a series of jobs: writing for the U.S. State Department Information Service, directing news broadcasts at ABC, directing at a Stamford, Conn., playhouse, teaching adult education in his hometown.
His television career was built mainly on roles as hoodlums and villains. Burt Lancaster provided Savalas’s first important film role in 1961 as a police detective in “The Young Savages,” about New York crime. The following year he appeared in Lancaster’s “Birdman of Alcatraz” as a sadistic convict. The role won him an Academy Award nomination as supporting actor.
He soon became one of Hollywood’s busiest character actors, working in the films: “Johnny Cool,” “The New Interns,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” “Genghis Khan,” “Battle of the Bulge,” “The Slender Thread,” “Beau Geste,” “The Dirty Dozen,” “The Scalphunters,” “McKenna’s Gold” and “Kelly’s Heroes.”
After “Kojak’s” run ended, Savalas remained active in films and television, including returns to his Kojak role. In 1983 he got a star in Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame.
Savalas is survived by his wife, Julie, ex-wives Katharine Nicolaides, Marilyn Gardner and Sally Adams, six children, two brothers, a sister and four grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements were pending.