AS A POTENTIAL BLIND DATE, HE would have been an exceedingly tough sell, lacking as he was in hair, muscle tone and classically handsome features. A lollipop seemed lodged permanently in one corner of his mouth. A welter of ex-wives and children always knew where they could reach him. And, oh, yeah, he greeted everyone with a husky "Who loves ya, baby?"

But some inexplicable combination of telegenics and testosterone made Telly Savalas, who died last week at the age of 72, a star and an improbable sex symbol. He was already 51 in 1973 when he took on the role of dapper, street-smart police detective Theo Kojak—and metamorphosed from character actor to pop-cultural icon. Nine months after Kojak premiered on CBS, Savalas II appeared on the cover of PEOPLE, naked from the waist up except for three of his trademark gold chains, and for the first lime sales of the magazine soared past the million mark. "He was like Sinatra," Angle Dickinson said last week at his funeral. "Fie was totally in charge, totally charismatic, and when you walked into a room with him, you knew everybody was looking at him." Savalas had another explanation for his appeal. "I'm the kind of gorilla," he said, "that people can identify with."

He remained Kojak to the end: a smart, gruff man who inspired loyalty and love. "No One Can Enter Without Permission from the King" said a sign on his sickbed door at the Sheraton-Universal Hotel in Universal City, where he and his third wife, Julie, 36, and their children, Christian, 9, and Ariana, 7, lived much of the time. (The couple also had two other homes in California as well as an apartment in London.) By the time he died, of bladder cancer, in the two-bedroom suite on Jan. 22, one day after his birthday, word of his illness had spread. But only a few family members knew that Savalas had been dealing with the disease, in his fashion, since 1987. "He kept assuring me nothing was wrong," says his widow. His brother Gus, 73, who himself was successfully treated for bladder cancer in 1989 says, "He just never took care of it—I used to cuss him out."

At the very end, though, there were no family tensions. Surrounded by Julie, his daughters Christina, 42, Penelope, 32, Candace, 30, and his sister Katherine, 57, Savalas looked silently at his loved ones through a medicine-induced haze. "Boy, is Mama going to be mad at you," said Katherine, trying with a joke to control her grief. " 'What are you doing here, already?' she'll say.' " Telly smiled at her comment then quietly drew his last breath.

That he would exit grinning was, in one sense, predictable. "Life was so great, everything was positive with him," recalls producer Howard W. Koch, with whom Savalas co-owned the racehorse Telly's Pop, which won about $350,000 in purse money in the mid-'70s. Savalas's idea of a balanced life was to mix a moderate amount of wine, quite a few women (he left behind six children, ages 7 to 42, by-three wives and a long-term lover), and a little song (his album Telly was released in 1974, followed by Who Loves Ya, Baby? in 1976). He was also a gambler. In 1985, playing in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, Telly lost 810,000 in 30 minutes—but never his composure. During breaks in Kojak's shooting schedule, he would hire buses, outfit them with musical combos and take the cast and crew from L.A. to Vegas. Once, when an associate scolded him for lipping a maitre d' at Caesars Palace a few hundred dollars, Savalas's retort summed up his philosophy: "When I have it, everybody has it."

Aristotle "Telly" Savalas learned to treat life like a roller coaster ride while growing up in Garden City, N.Y., as the second of five children. (His younger brother George, who died of leukemia in 1985, would go on to play Detective Stavros on Kojak.) His parents were Greek immigrants: Christina was a painter and former Miss Greece; Nicholas, an entrepreneur who, said Telly, made and lost fortunes five limes. After serving three years in the Army during World War II, Savalas earned a degree in psychology at Columbia University, then worked in the early '50s as an announcer for the Voice of America's Greek Service. Next, he became a producer at ABC News, winning a Peabody Award for the TV documentary Your Voice of America. He left ABC in 1958, following a policy disagreement, and was teaching adult-education classes in Garden City in 1959 when an agent asked if he knew an actor who could speak with a European accent. He tried out himself—and landed a part on TV's Armstrong Circle Theater. Soon after, Burt Lancaster saw Savalas on the CBS series The Witness and gave him a role in his 1961 movie The Young Savages. The next year, he again played opposite Lancaster in Birdman of Alcatraz. winning an Oscar nomination for his role as a convict who comes to share the Birdman's obsession. Savalas would go on to appear in numerous other films, including The Dirty Dozen. Still, Kojak notwithstanding, the pivotal role of his career may have been Pontius Pilate in 1965's The Greatest Story Ever Told. Director George Stevens ordered Savalas to shave his head, thus changing the actor's destiny. "Once I became bald," Savalas said, "women seemed to find me more attractive."

Not that he had ever had difficulty attracting women. In addition to his marriages, Savalas, starting in 1969, also had a long-term relationship with British actress Sally Adams, mother of Nicollette Sheridan. Although Savalas would call Adams his wife, and the two had a son together (Nicholas, now 20 and the boyfriend of actress Tori Spelling), the lovers never wed. In 1980, Adams filed a $5 million palimony suit against Savalas, eventually settling for a reported SI million. Four years later, Savalas wed his third and last wife, Julie Hovland, a former Minnesota travel agent. Though he declared himself the "total slave" of women, not everyone was impressed by his devotions. Said Lynda Day George, who appeared with Savalas in a 1973 TV movie, "When he finally finds it isn't necessary to conquer every woman he meets, he'll begin to enjoy life."

Still, he gave every appearance of a man living life to the hilt. "Telly brought humanity and humor to the screen," says Chris Noth, who plays Detective Mike Logan on NBC's Law and Order. "Even if a scumball look the bullet, he showed a rueful compassion." Savalas balked at carrying a gun, not wanting to glamorize violence. "In the five years we did the show," says Kojak costar Kevin Dobson, "Telly only fired a gun three times." But the Emmy-winning actor became so closely identified with his Kojak character that his work in recent years consisted largely of reprising the role in TV movies.

As his career wound down, Savalas became even more attentive to his large, extended family. For 10 years until her death in 1988, his mother lived in a suite a few floors above his own at the Sheraton-Universal, with the actor paying all the expenses. Her Modigliani-like paintings hung in Telly's rooms, which increasingly became a place where he could get lost in his world of children, friends and televised sporting events—on which he was known to make an occasional wager. Savalas had first moved into the Sheraton-Universal, which is located on the Universal lot where Kojak was shot, when the series began and grew to love the conviviality of hotel living.

"He was a real Damon Runyon character," says his brother Teddy, 61, a retired schoolteacher from Hicksvillc, N.Y. A couple of years ago, when daughter Christina and her four children paid a visit just before Christmas, Savalas, realizing he didn't have a tree, proceeded to snatch one from a nearby lot that had closed for the season, and then decorated it with ornaments he had lifted from the tree in the hotel lobby.

By then Savalas, already sick, was doubtless pained by the knowledge that he didn't have much time left. "The challenge," he once said, "is to live long enough to raise my children." At times, other family relationships troubled him as well. Nicollette Sheridan had taken Savalas's name when the actor lived with her mother. Bui she later expressed bitterness toward him. "He left my life very abruptly," she said of Savalas in 1985, "and as far as 1 am concerned, he's out of my life for good." Savalas was also concerned about Nick, who has made tabloid headlines with his public spats with Tori Spelling.

Still, at his funeral, held at St. Sophia's Greek Orthodox Calhedral in L.A., Savalas was remembered as a man who had exiled life on a note of high-pitched harmony. "He was impulsive, impetuous, impractical," said the Rev. Spencer Kezios, who blessed Telly's flag-draped coffin. Nicollette and Nick were in attendance, as were Sally Adams and the actor's current and former wives. "We all love each other and we all get along," says Julie. All things considered, Telly was, as Christina says, "a wonderful papa." But he was also, in a very real sense, Kojak, the Who-Loves-Ya-Baby man. "Telly loved people," said Father Kezios. "He had an image to uphold, and he didn't want to let anybody down."

SHELLEY LEVITT
LOIS ARMSTRONG, TIM ALLIS and KAREN BRAILSFORD in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Lois Armstrong,
  • Tim Allis,
  • Karen Brailsford.