Aristotelis “Telly” Savalas was a film and television actor and singer whose career spanned four decades. Noted for his resonant, deep voice and bald head, Savalas is perhaps best known for his role as Lt. Theo Kojak in the police-drama series, Kojak (1973–1978). He also released the one-hit wonder song “If”, which became a UK number-one single in 1975.

Savalas’ movie roles include Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) — where he was nominated for the Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor — The Greatest Story Ever Told, Battle of the Bulge (both 1965), The Dirty Dozen (1967), as supervillain Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), Kelly’s Heroes (1970) and Escape to Athena (1979).

Savalas was born in Garden City, New York to Greek parents, Nicholas and Christina Savalas. He served in World War II after he dropped out of Columbia University, where he was studying psychology. He was honourably discharged with a Purple Heart disability. During the early 1950s, Savalas worked for ABC radio and eventually became the executive producer of his own popular talk show, “Telly’s Coffee House”. It was not until he was in his thirties that he decided to turn to acting.

In the early 1990s, Savalas contracted bladder cancer, ultimately succumbing to the disease in 1994, only a day after he turned 70, in Universal City, California.

He was also the godfather of Jennifer Aniston, with whom he shared Greek roots.

“I’m a proud Greek.

I carry my Hellenism like a badge of merit.”

Was Telly Savalas Greek?

Yes, he was Greek on both sides of his family.

Telly Savalas was born Aristotelis Savalas on January 21, 1922, in Garden City, New York, to Greek-American parents Christina (née Kapsalis), a New York City artist who was a native of Sparta, and Nick Savalas [Tsavalas], a Greek restaurant owner. One set of grandparents originated from Ierakas, Greece, in the Peloponnese. Savalas and his brother Gus sold newspapers and shined shoes to help support the family.

Savalas initially only spoke Greek when he entered grade school but learned English.

In his capacity as producer for Kojak, he gave many stars their first break. He was considered by those who knew him to be a generous, graceful, compassionate man. He was also a strong contributor to his Greek Orthodox roots through the Saint Sophia and Saint Nicholas cathedrals in Los Angeles and was the sponsor of bringing electricity in the 1970s to his ancestral home, Ierakas, Greece.

As a philanthropist and philhellene, Savalas supported many Hellenic causes and made friends in major cities around the world. In Chicago, he often met with Illinois state senators Steven G. Nash and Samuel Maragos, also Greeks, as well as Greek millionaire Simeon Frangos, who owned the Athens North nightclub and the Flying Carpet Hotel near O’Hare Airport.

Telly Savalas speaks about his Greek heritage, in Greek: