Aristotelis “Telly” Savalas (Greek: Αριστοτέλης “Τέλλυ” Σαβάλας; January 21, 1922 – January 22, 1994) was an American singer and film, television, and character actor whose career spanned four decades of television. He was noted for his deep, gravelly voice and his bald head. He had also appeared as a guest on several talk and variety shows.
Savalas’ career began in films in 1961. His movie credits include The Young Savages (1961), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Battle of the Bulge (1965), The Dirty Dozen (1967), The Scalphunters (1968), super villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), Kelly’s Heroes (1970), Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971), Inside Out (1975), and Escape to Athena (1979). He then continued achieving success in the television crime drama Kojak (1973–1978), co-starring his real-life brother George Savalas, in which Savalas played the title role.
Lt. Theodore “Theo” Kojak was a bald New York City detective with a fondness for lollipops and whose tagline was “Who loves ya, baby?” (He also liked to say, “Everybody should have a little Greek in them.”) Although the lollipop gimmick was added to indulge his sweet tooth, Savalas also smoked heavily on screen – cigarettes, cigarillos, and cigars – throughout the first season’s episodes. The lollipops, which Savalas later admitted had given him three cavities, were also part of an (unsuccessful) effort by Kojak (and Savalas himself) to curb his smoking. The critic Clive James explained the lead actor’s appeal as Kojak: “Telly Savalas can make bad slang sound like good slang and good slang sound like lyric poetry. It isn’t what he is, so much as the way he talks, that gets you tuning in.”
He was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series two years in succession, winning the Emmy in 1974. He was also nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a TV Drama Series from 1975 to 1978, winning twice, in 1975 and 1976. His younger brother George played the regular role of Detective Stavros – a sensitive, wild-haired, quiet, comedic foil to Kojak’s street-wise humor in an otherwise dark dramatic TV series.
At the height of his popularity, Telly came on February 24, 1976, to… where else? Cherry Hill! He performed for the overwhelmingly Greek crowd at the Latin Casino. As a Courier Post article states, “not a Greek diner was open for 25 miles around”. After the show was over, the AHEPA presented him with a plaque to commemorate the evening and a bronze bust of the hairless Savalas.
Speaking of the Latin Casino, before Casino gambling a few years later, it was one of the top entertainment facilities on the East Coast… right down the street from Saint Thomas on Route 70 in Cherry Hill.
Capable of seating some 2,000 for dinner and a show featuring top headliners, the Latin Casino was, perhaps after New York’s Copacabana, one of the classiest venues on the East Coast.
Having moved here in 1960 from Philadelphia, the Latin Casino soon became known as South Jersey’s “Showcase of the Stars.” All of the top entertainers, from Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bob Hope to Sammy Davis Jr. played the Latin Casino. So, for the community to have almost 2,000 Greeks there to see our Telly, it was an evening to remember. For a time, and for the Greek community for an evening, Cherry Hill was the entertainment capital of the world.