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Who Loves Ya, Baby?

Telly Savalas, 5’11’’, was a most fascinating and unique personality. His real name, Aristotelis Tsavalas, was born January 21, 1922 in Garden City, New York. He spoke Greek fluently, was the second of six children and his parents were immigrants from Sparta. He went to high school in Garden City, New York and as a soldier in WWII, he received the Purple Heart. But unfortunately, many army records were destroyed in a fire in the district where he had signed up. So, there is no way of learning the details on how he won his Purple Heart. When he returned to civilian life, he attended Columbia University where he studied Psychology on the GI Bill.

His father, George, was very wealthy before the Depression but as a kid, Telly and his brother, Gus, had to sell newspapers and shine shoes to help out his family. Later, his father sold restaurant supplies and then, slowly, managed to own a chain of restaurants. His mother, Christina, nee, Kapsalis, was an artist, as was Telly’s grandfather, Kosta, who was a famous artist and died at 100. Telly was very devoted to his mother, who was his best friend, too.

He married three times. With his first wife, Katherine Nicolaides (1948 -1957), he had a daughter, Christina. His second wife, Marilyn Gardner, (1960 -1974) gave him Candace and Penelope; and with his third wife, Julie Hovland, (1984 -1994), he had Christian and Arianna. In his earlier years, he had lived with an actress named Sally Adams and while they never legally married, she went by the name Sally Savalas.

Sally was twenty years his junior and they had a son, but little is known of him. 

Telly began his career as radio host of a program called, ‘Telly’s Coffeehouse’ in the early 1950s. But, his energies led him away from it and in other directions. Moving from New York to California, he was a faithful attendee and contributor to the Greek Orthodox churches of Saint Sophia and Saint Nicholas in Los Angeles.

Being best friends with John Aniston, who was of Greek heritage, he became Godfather to John’s daughter, actress, Jennifer Aniston. At first, he was given roles in the movies as tough, sadistic, dangerous, or psychotic characters. Then, he shaved his head for the role of Pontius Pilate, liked it and kept it, saying, ‘bald is beautiful’. He would never know that his shaved head began a tradition later on. All in all, he played in 56 movies. In 21 of them he was the villain. He played in three films of note; Genghis Khan, (1965), The Slender Thread (1965), and Kelly’s Heroes (1970). He was tireless, working hard and long in his chosen career as actor and was easy to work with despite the competitiveness of the field. Often, he’d be seen sucking on a lollypop, on or off screen. That was because he was trying, desperately, to quit smoking. But, it became his trade mark.

He was an accomplished poker player, but had many other hobbies like swimming, golfing, horseback riding, riding motorcycles, and collecting luxury cars. Hard to believe, Telly had a soft heart. He loved romantic books. As a lifeguard, he failed to rescue a man and that memory haunted him all his life. When Marlon Brando refused the part of Kojak, the tough, smart police inspector, Telly was given a screen test and was accepted. His full name in the series was Theophilos Kojak. That long, very popular series won him an Emmy Award in 1974. He also received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor for his part in Birdman of Alcatraz.

His younger brother, George, played in numerous episodes in the Kojak series (1973). Like most artistic personalities, Telly was a staunch liberal Democrat. Being a sincere, sympathetic person with a good sense of humor, it isn’t a surprise that he had many friends; among the most known were Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin, Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, Bob Hope, and Anthony Quinn. He became known among friends and family as the ‘Golden Greek’. Being very social and outgoing, he loved the notoriety that title brought him. He died a day after his 72nd birthday of bladder and prostate cancer. In his inimitable way, though not being of a demonstrative nature, he showed his affection when he coined the phrase, ‘who loves Ya’, baby?’  Wanna know who loves ya’, Telly? We do!

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In less than two weeks, the 47th Clergy-Laity Congress of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America will convene in the city of San Diego, CA, an event that has the opportunity to be characterized as a significant milestone for the life and progress of our Church and Community – but we are not holding our breath.

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