When Greek-Americans watch television or a movie, we all like to see if there are any Greek-American actors in them and today there are so many. Jennifer Aniston, Rita Wilson, Billy Zane, Olympia Dukakis, Zach Galifianakis, John Stamos, Maria Menounos, and the list goes on and on. And we all do the same thing… check the credits for anybody else with a Greek sounding name that had something to do with the show. There is one! The art designer. There’s another one! The key grip (whatever that is). Here comes another name… the guy that brought the donuts to the set. We don’t care. We just want to see a Greek sounding name. Makes us feel that our ethnic group made it!
It’s almost impossible to watch a modern made film or TV show without seeing a Greek name somewhere. We have certainly come a long way.
But boys and girls, this was not always the case. Back in my day (when the dinosaurs roamed the earth, as my daughters like to remind me), and even further than that, the time known as B.C. (before computers), there were only a few Greek-American actors, including George Maharis, John Cassavetes, Irene Pappas, and the biggest one… the Who Loves Ya Baby, man, Telly Savalas!!
Whatever film any of them were in was a must for a Greek-American to see. If you didn’t see it, or worse, refused to go to see it, it was like telling your mother that she burned the koulourakia! There would be hell to pay! The Greek-Mother-Grapevine went into action and all of the relatives and friends knew about it before you even had a chance to eat that koulouraki. You don’t like Telly Savalas? Krima! They would say.
My favorite movie with Telly Savalas and John Cassavetes was “The Dirty Dozen.” My Dad and I went to see that movie and we sat proud because, not one, but two, Greek-American actors were in the movie. This was unbelievable. This was rarer than a Greek refusing to accept a second pension! That’s real rare.
Telly went on to star in Kojak. The name was not Greek but the inference was that he was Greek. His real-life brother, George Savalas, played his TV brother, Stavro, on the show. Telly’s famous line was, “Who loves ya baby?”
I met Telly Savalas on two occasions. Once in 1975 when he performed a one-man show at the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. The Latin Casino was a dinner-theater (no gambling – go figure). The local AHEPA Chapter #26 of Philadelphia sponsored one of the nights and my old band, Orpheus, played at the after-show party. I was 17 at the time. Telly walked on stage, tripped, and fell right on me… it was great, at least for me!!! His one-man show was, well… he should have stuck to movies. But, he was a big star and Greek, so we all loved it.
Another time was in 1981 in Norfolk, Virginia. My band, Orpheus, was playing Telly’s niece’s wedding. He was a real gentleman. Before the bride and groom came in, he had us announce that he would not sign any autographs during the time of the reception. It was the bride and groom’s day, but he would stay after the reception to sign autographs and he did. He stayed for more than an hour to sign an autograph for everyone. That was class.
Irene Pappas was in another one of my favorite movies, the Guns of Navarone, which brings us to a dilemma – Anthony Quinn. He played the Greek commando in the Guns of Navarone together with Pappas. We all know that Anthony Quinn was not Greek but when you think of a stereotypical Greek, who do you think of… that’s right, Zorba the Greek. Quinn was so convincing in that role that a lot of people thought he was Greek. And we didn’t care… we agreed. What could it hurt? We didn’t have too many actors to call our own so we adopted Quinn. Like Zorba said, “Damn it boss, I like you too much not to say it. You’ve got everything except one thing: madness! A man needs a little madness.” Zorba had madness. So do Greeks.
So when you watch those modern day movies and see all the Greek-American actors, don’t forget, it was actors like Telly Savalas who paved the way… Who Loves Ya baby!
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