The second of five children born to Greek parents, Savalas served in World War II after he dropped out of Columbia University. He was honourably discharged with a Purple Heart disability.
During the early 1950s, he worked for ABC radio and eventually became the executive producer of his own popular talk show, 'Telly's Coffee House'. It was not until he was in his thirties that he decided to turn to acting.
Appearing predominantly as a TV villain, the bald-headed actor befriended Burt Lancaster, who cast him in 'Birdman of Alcatraz', in 1962. Savalas earned a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for his role as solitary prisoner, Feto Gomez. Still, producers continued to use Savalas as a supporting bad guy, playing character roles, often as sadistic or psychotic villains.
He was originally slated to play Luke in 'Cool Hand Luke' in 1967, but the producers were unwilling to wait for him to complete a holiday cruise from Europe to the U.S., and so Paul Newman famously played the role instead.
In 1973, he landed the part of tough-talking New York City detective, Theo Kojak, in the TV movie 'The Marcus-Nelson Murders'. His incorruptible, lollipop-sucking character was so popular that an eponymous spin-off series resulted, which ran from 1973 until 1978. Savalas’ popularity was so great that he was able to insist that his own brother be cast alongside him as his sidekick.
After 'Kojak' ended, he became involved in several European film projects, talk-show appearances and even an unsuccessful music career. During the 1980s he periodically revived the character of Kojak in a series of TV movies.
In the early 1990s, Savalas contracted bladder cancer, ultimately succumbing to the disease in 1994. He was survived by his second wife, Julie Hovland, and their two children, Christian and Ariana.
He was also the godfather of 'Friends' star Jennifer Aniston, with whom he shared Greek roots.