Question: I thought I read that Telly Savalas had never done any acting before Kojak, but my brother says he remembers him from The King and I. Who's right? Eric S., Cork, Ky.
Televisionary: Uh... neither, but I can come up with a silver lining and declare you both a little right, if you like. Let's get your brother out of the way first: Wrong bald guy. That was Yul Brynner in The King and I, and he won an Academy Award for his effort.
The late Aristoteles "Telly" Savalas, for his part, won an Emmy after just one season of starring as Lt. Theo Kojak in the CBS series, which ran from October 1973 to April 1978. And you're not that far off in your recollection fans (and the actor himself) trumpeted the fact that Savalas never had any formal acting training before taking his first gigs at the age of 35 on Armstrong Circle Theater and The Witness. His natural talent got him noticed, his work in 1962's Birdman of Alcatraz got him a Best Supporting Actor nomination, and his successful career as a "character actor" (a Hollywood euphemism for everyone who's less than pretty -boy or -girl material) was well underway.
The globe-trotting Savalas was entertaining at a brisk enough pace and was entertained by doing so that he almost didn't entertain the idea of a regular series, Universal Studio executive Tom Tannenbaum, who decided to pursue the actor for the Kojak role, told TV Guide in 1973. "I chased him from Madrid to Rome to Paris to London," he said. "He wasn't indifferent to the idea that became Kojak, but he wouldn't sign anything except the dinner check." (Savalas was famous for his generosity, his love of a good time and his willingness to spend and gamble in order to have one.)
Why so much effort going after a guy not known for his marquee looks? As I said, he was a natural. "Telly's perfect for TV he needs no preparation," series creator Abby Mann said of Kojak's leading man. "He can spend 15 minutes phoning in horse bets, then walk on and instantly do the most delicate type of acting."
Of course, "delicate" was probably the reason Savalas managed to appeal to both men he had tough-cop fans all over the country and women nationwide. Savalas had an intimidating look about him (again, the character-actor thing), but gals saw a big, shiny-headed teddy bear, which he was for the most part. "Outside of some Golden Gloves fights when he was a kid, Telly's never hurt anyone," brother George Savalas, who played Det. Stavros on the show, said in an interview. "He abhors violence. When he's very angry, he gets quiet. He'll tell the other party, 'Walk away from me for 15 minutes, then let's talk and settle this.'" (Of course, that may not have applied to the women in his life. He was on his third wife when he told TV Guide: "I adore women. I am their total slave, up to a certain point. I pamper them, cater to them, but when it is necessary, you have to bop 'em.")
Marital spats aside, Savalas was so opposed to violence that he often caught heat from South Bronx homicide detective Burt Armus, who served as a technical advisor to the show for not being brutal enough (that coming at a time when TV was under fire, as it still is, for too much mayhem). "Telly hates guns," Armus said in 1974. "I remember a scene where he's in his office and he's got no gun on. I said, 'Where the &%$# is your gun?' He said, 'I don't like guns. It's in the drawer. I'll put it on when I leave.' I said, 'A cop without a gun is like a &%$# streaker. [This was the '70s, remember; you kids, ask your parents.] You feel naked.' Telly just shrugged."
Of course he shrugged. This was a guy who, proudly sporting a shinier head than Charlie Brown's, obviously had no problem with the naked state. His comfort with the Silver Surfer look dated back to his work as Pontius Pilate in 1965's The Greatest Story Ever Told, when director George Stevens asked him to part with his hair for the part. "I was afraid it'd scare my children if I suddenly came home bald," he recalled. "We brought them onto the set and they watched it happen. I liked the effect it makes me look more Greek, or something... Certainly it's my identification."
Well, that and the famous Kojak lollipop. And that's the bald truth.