Telly Savalas: The Actor Behind The Renowned Detective Kojak

Kojak became an icon
Kojak became an icon

In the 1970s, viewers found themselves gripped by the Kojak TV series. Playing the titular character of Detective Kojak was none other than Telly Savalas. His work on that series earned him a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor. He also earned a Golden Globe for Best Lead Actor. To look back on where Savalas started, one would not anticipate he would become an actor. But like any remarkable story, his was full of exciting twists and tales of hard work paying off in full.

The action crime drama Kojak follows Detective Lieutenant Theo Kojak of the New York City Police Department. From 1973 to 1978 it aired on CBS. In 1999, it ranked #18 among the top 50 Greatest TV Characters of All Time by TV Guide. For five years, viewers followed Kojak as an unshakable beacon of justice – and an avid fan of Tootsie Roll Pops. Who loves ya, Tootsie Pop? Turns out Kojak does.


Telly Savalas displayed the same grit his character did

Telly Savalas in The Twilight Zone / imdb

Aristotelis “Telly” Savalas and his family hailed from humble beginnings. His parents, Nick and Christina Savalas, were immigrants from Greece. Savalas and his brother Gus helped financially by selling newspapers and shining shoes in their youth. In his spare time, Savalas worked to conquer a language barrier, as originally Greek was his family’s household language. Soon, Savalas added English to his list.

His life reflected his eventual job of portraying Kojak in two distinct ways. First was the determination Savalas exhibited throughout his life, including in the face of danger. Savalas served in the U.S. army for three years during World War II. Second, on his return home, Savalas focused on studying topics related to his future career. At Columbia University he studied radio and television production, setting the stage for life in the entertainment industry. His pursuits landed on a job with Voice of America, and there he displayed an aptitude for acting in an unexpected way.


He showed skill in a surprising manner

Telly Salavas
Telly Salavas / BBC

A Hollywood agent called Voice of America looking for an actor with a French accent. Salavas answered and showed his nature as a thespian by faking the accent. The role was his. From there, he continued impressing all who viewed his work. After his movie debut in Mad Dog Coll (1961), he caught Burt Lancaster’s attention. Lancester got him a role in The Young Savages. There, others saw Salavas’ talent as a character actor and wanted him solidifying their vision as well.

Telly Savalas did not disappoint. He put his all into each character he played, even shaving his head to play Pontius Pilate in The Greatest Story Ever Told. This change ended up being permanent and became a signature part of Savalas and all subsequent roles. His distinguished characterization made him a perfect James Bond villain as Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969).

The birth of an icon came in 1973

Kojak / IMDb

Savalas first played Kojak in the spring 1973 TV movie The Marcus-Nelson Murders. However, the role was so popular that CBS turned it into a series later that year. Immediately, the first season ranked in the top 10 as a Nielsen rating success. Savalas worked on other projects throughout filming of Kojak. After the show ended, everyone demanded his return for the TV movie followups.

Though the show earned him many awards, it also ended up being a career highlight. All his other roles were cameos and secondary characters. But the character became an icon. At the end of the day, that only comes from a truly memorable performance. Nods to Savalas as Kojak appear throughout various other shows and movies. Some people call a police officer a Kojak. Other movies reference how universally recognized Kojak is. In Foul Play, though some tourists don’t speak English, they recognize Kojak as being a police officer. Eventually, books, shows, and movies all became touched by the memorable performance Savalas put on for everyone.

Telly Salavas was eventually diagnosed with bladder cancer
Telly Savalas was eventually diagnosed with bladder cancer / Cancer Today

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