Telly Savalas

Telly Savalas in Twilight Zone

Many actors guest starred in Twilight Zone episodes, but perhaps none is so closely linked to his or her role as Telly Savalas is to his part in “Living Doll.” As Erich Streator, Savalas is a bully–mean, selfish and petty. He’s jealous of a little girl who only wants to love him as her new daddy. He’s even angry when his wife, Annabelle, brings home a doll named Talking Tina for the little girl, Christie. Of course, Erich is angry about it and does everything he can to get rid of Christie’s new favorite companion.

Very quickly, Talking Tina becomes Erich’s worst nightmare. He tries to saw her head off, squeezes her head in a vice, ties her up in a bag, and throws her in a garbage can topped with a stack of bricks. But Tina is one resilient doll. She calls him on the phone and lets him know that she’s out to get him. Eventually, somehow, some way, Tina is lying on the stairs when Erich comes down in the middle of the night. They both tumble down the steps and as Erich breathes his last breath, Tina lies sweetly beside him. Annabelle dashes to Erich’s side, only to see Talking Tina, who now turns her evil intents to her.

Early Life

Born into a Greek-American family in New York, Savalas spoke only Greek until he entered grade school. Following high school graduation, Savalas attended Columbia University where he studied English, radio and psychology, eventually earning a degree in psychology. After a three-year stint in the U.S. Army during World War II, Savalas developed a love for radio and television. He initially worked as an executive director before moving to the front of the camera. He was a character actor, predominantly a heavy or villain, and appeared in over 50 guest star roles throughout the 1950s and 1960s, most notably his role in Twilight Zone.

Airing on November 1, 1963, “Living Doll” came in the middle of Savalas’ string of guest star roles and no doubt created a serious dent in the Chatty Cathy sales that Christmas season. Savalas was seen in everything from “Combat!” to “The Fugitive” to “The Untouchables.” His “discovery” by Hollywood legend Burt Lancaster led to an equally long string of movies, including “The Greatest Story Ever Told” in which he played Pontius Pilate. It was at that point that Savalas decided to keep the shaved head he appeared with in the movie, removing what was left of his hair. It became his trademark look–along with Yul Brynner.

Kojak

Finally, at age 51, Savalas’ TV alter ego, Kojak, appeared on the small screen, which he played for five seasons from 1973 to 1978. He starred in seven TV movies following the cancellation of the TV series. He won an Emmy for “Kojak” in 1974. Ironically, the part was first offered to Marlon Brandon, who turned it down, and Savalas originally didn’t want to do a TV series, saying that he couldn’t play just one character and needed variety. However, when the network canceled the series for low ratings, he was devastated.

The gritty New York City Police lieutenant was famous for sucking on lollipops and his catch phrase “who loves ya baby.” The reason for the lollipop? Either to satisfy his sweet tooth or to help him kick his heavy smoking habit. Maybe both. Savalas’ brother, George, also was a member of the cast of “Kojak.”

Other Work

Outside of acting, Savalas was a singer and did voiceover work, rode motorcycles and was a world-class poker player, winning many tournaments in Las Vegas.

Personal Life

In his personal life, he had a hard time finding lasting love, marrying three times and having a long-term relationship with yet another woman. He had a total of six children, three of whom became actors.

Despite his tough image and multiple roles as a villain, psychotic or criminal, Savalas was the complete opposite in his real life.

  • He was kind and generous, helping many stars get their first big break in the business.
  • Immensely proud of his Greek heritage, he was a strong supporter of Greek Orthodox cathedrals in Los Angeles and other Greek charitable causes.
  • His sensitive nature was scarred for life when as a young lifeguard, Savalas had been unable to save a drowning victim.
  • He had a fear of flying and traveled by boat when he went to Europe, costing him the role of Luke in “Cool Hand Luke.” The part went instead to Paul Newman.
  • Savalas would never speak about his service during World War II.
  • His mother, Christina, an artist and contemporary of Pablo Picasso, was his best friend.
  • He loved Jeopardy and romance novels.
  • He was known as a social butterfly.
  • He was awarded the Key to the City by the City of New York.

Always a unique and colorful character, Savalas was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and lived the last 20 years of his life at the Sheraton-Universal Hotel in Universal City, California. He was such a fixture there that they renamed the hotel bar after him–“Telly’s.” He faced financial ruin early in his career, but owned a fleet of Cadillacs, Lincolns, Fords, Pontiacs, Mercedes and DeLoreans later in his life.

Death

Telly Savalas died in 1994, one day after he turned 72, succumbing to bladder and prostate cancer, although he had never formally retired from acting. He was mourned at his funeral by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Angie Dickinson and Don Rickles. Rickles had also appeared in an episode of Twilight Zone (“Mr. Dingle The Strong”), although sadly, Sinatra and Dickinson did not. Their loss.