Telly Savalas as Kojak, The Bald 'Who Loves Ya, Baby?' Sex Symbol
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Telly Savalas played Kojak, a lollipop-sucking New York City cop who punctuated his tough-guy talk with the surprising phrase "Who loves ya, baby?" That takes some swagger, a quality the late Savalas, who died in 1994, had in abundance. On TV, he wore three-piece suits and delivered Lieutenant Kojak's dialogue with a sinister smile -- Kojak was a good guy who made it clear he'd play hardball. Off screen, this son of Greek immigrants was a quintessential '70s macho man, sporting bling, big sunglasses, and shirts with oversize floppy lapels unbuttoned down to his navel. He was a character, with a mojo that made him the sexiest bald star since Yul Brynner.
“The most interesting man in the world” may have given his father “the talk” and went to a psychic to warn her but he’s got nothing on the one and only Telly Savalas. The man who made Kojak’s “who loves ya baby?” iconic, also owned a no. 1 hit in the UK, and was even Jennifer Aniston’s godfather. Not to mention, Savalas gave Howard Cosell his start in television, just missed the top 20 at the ‘92 World Series of Poker, and made bald cool. Many Hollywood stars have accomplished a litany of feats but making bald beautiful has to rank as the most inconceivable triumph of any famous person.
Setting The Template For The Cool Cop
As Savalas himself put it, “How could it get any better? I’m just a guy from New York playing a guy from New York.” His natural charisma and wit were a perfect fit for the New York cop lobbing, “Who loves ya, baby?” at everyone from hookers to hoodlums. Unlike many actors who became disillusioned with becoming solely known for a single role, Savalas reveled in it. “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.”’
The ’70s were a decade for cop shows and Kojak helped pave the way. Along with Starsky and Hutch, CHiPS, and The Rockford Files, Kojak opened the door for shows like NYPD Blue and The Wire. As Savalas saw him, “Kojak is the kind of guy who couldn’t arrest a hooker, he’d send her home. He operates on instinct and decency, but if you give him any lip he’ll throw you out a window.” And who else could make a lollipop look cool?
More Than An Actor
Obviously, Savalas enjoyed an amazing acting career that earned him multiple Emmys and Golden Globes, all notably for Kojak. However, Savalas was a true polymath with a diverse and unusual road to Hollywood. Like many men of his age, Savalas was drafted into WWII. Then he attended Columbia University, earning a degree in psychology. He wrote for the U.S. State Department Information Service, produced broadcasts at ABC, (where he hired Cosell), and even taught adult education.
In films and on TV, Savalas started out playing antagonists. Eventually his portrayal of a sadist convict in Birdman of Alcatraz earned him an Academy Award Nomination. Despite playing some psychos, Savalas always tried to give them depth. “Even with the crazies I’ve played I’ve tried to give some dimension to their insanity.”
It also probably got him on the call list for one of the most infamous Bond villains of all time, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Savalas is one of a handful of actors to play Blofeld (he followed Donald Pleasence), doing his worst to thwart 007 in 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
Kojak's charm was that he was a heroic cop who talked like a wiseguy. In The Dirty Dozen (1968), Savalas portrayed a Bible-quoting psychopath in the character of Archer Maggott.
You wouldn't want to hang out with Blofeld or Maggot, nor would you care to spend time with Savalas' characters in the 1968 films The Scalphunters or Sol Madrid. But he escaped villain typecasting hell with Kelly's Heroes (1970), in which he played good guy Big Joe alongside Clint Eastwood, Donald Sutherland and Don Rickles.
The Patron Saint of Bald
Yes, Golden Globes, Emmys, and iconic television characters are all nice and well. But Savalas’ most awe-inspiring act had to be making bald sexy. Savalas found his niche by accident. When he was cast as Pontius Pilate in the 1965 film The Greatest Story Ever Told, director George Stevens ordered him to shave his head. Apparently the Judean governor who ordered Jesus to be crucified needed that extra evil edge -- so say goodbye to the hair. He liked the look so much, he kept it until the day he passed away. As he said, “We’re all born bald, baby.”
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