One of the ways you can tell Telly Savalas is in Cannes for the film festival (aside from the huge party thrown for his forthcoming picture and attended by cleavages of varying enormity) is by his mood. He won a bundle the night before at the casino. "You know the Arabs?" An eager light leaps into his eyes. "Yeah, well they backed off, Honey. By the end of the night, all the Arabs backed off."
Another way you know he's Cannes is by his fluffy white bathrobe, emblazoned with the name of the Majestic Hotel, his sole outfitter at the moment, and a not entirely adequate one, either. The robe falls open to mid-Kojak, tanned rivulets of tummy cooled by the fresh breezes of the Riviera. He doesn't appear to notice. He's out flogging "Mati," a movie about a psychiatrist and evil and other things which he wrote, directed and stars in. But it's the past he's thinking about:
"Fifteen years ago, I was a school-teacher. Then - allovasudden I'm an ac-tah." He shakes the large globe of his head in wonderment. "And I'm in Cannes with this motion picture, 'Love Is a Ball.' Yeah, Glenn Ford, Hope Lange, Ricardo Montalban. So I'm in the south of France in the Hotel Negresco with my mother and my wife."
He smiles dreamily. "How I loved getting dressed in all my finery, and my mother - in her gown. My mother is a total ar-teest, yeah, she's a painter.
And nobody here knew me. Sophia Loren - she was here too. She didn't know me. I loved it.
"Now - yesterday - Sophia Loren sees me here in Cannes. She says" - here he lapses into a accent more French than Italian - "Tel-le-e-e. Three-c-e next time you ahr een Pare-e-s, you mus' come see me. My leetle boy - he love your show."
He chuckles. "I love it. But - as my mother says - It's time to get off this merry-go-round. Yeah. She suspects my ego is going to become inflated.She thinks that could be dangerous."
The giant face intercepts a look. "Aw honey, as far as that's concerned, I've always been arrogant . . . Yeah, all this is fun and I like the applause and let's keep on blowing bubbles. But if it all bursts tomorrow, I'd just pick up my marbles and start over again. Don't look that way. I could I've done it before."
There is an abrupt pause as he gazes out the mammoth windows of the Majestic, at the swaying palms that frame the Riviera, gray today, spliced by the reluctant progress of yachts. "Beautiful view, isn't it?" He isn't fool enough to regret it, really. "Kojak," let us always remember, is Queen Elizabeth's favorite show, a circumstance that caused its star to be invited to a party in honor of Herself at the White House last year. While all the ladies crowded around him. "Yeah? Well then how come I cuddled my pillow all alone that night?" he demands, then shrugs.
"I used to walk around and they'd say, 'There goes Whatsisname.' Now they say, 'There goes Telly.' So you now I know the power of the media."
But at the same time, see, there's his mother. "Your old lady thinks you're a cop-out cause you're taking more an more bows," he mutters mostly to himself. "'When are you going to get on with it, Telly? When are you going to get off te merry-go-round?'"
In the bedroom, the phone rings he scuffles over to pick it up. Long island, N.Y., calling to be exact.
"Hi Ma." He is clearly delighted. "I'm just talkin' about you. It's fun, Ma. Yeah, we're talking about old reminiscences. Yeah, Ma, tell me what's happenin'. How's the weather? You want perfumes and things? All right, Ma. post cards. Yeah, well I wish you were here, too, you silly thing. Yeah, I promise. Get on a plane and come over, Ma. All right, all right. I'll go outside and say hello to the Riviera . . ."
A floor of Greek drowns the rest of this in obscurity. Savalas pads back with a sign. "I tell you something, Kid. As long as you got your old lady, you're still a little boy, just a little boy. But as soon as she goes - you're into the older generation."
You may wonder at his reluctance to make the leap, for Telly Savalas is 49; 49 and just about the toughest cop on prime time. Once upon a time (as he recounts with obvious relish) when he was in "Birdman of Alcatraz," (for which he nominated for an Oscar) United Artists advertised his presence in posters that read "Teddy Savalas." A gaffe unthinkable now - now that his bulges, his baldness represent all that is virile on CBS.
"Being an ex-schoolteacher," he decalres, deadpan, "I decided not to make Kojak a macho kinda guy who digs heroes. The bottom-line, honey, the bottom line is that he's not two on his face once in a while. We've all met our dangerous moments in life. Whenever Telly got into his dangerous moment I felt terrible going in an even worse afterward. Let it suffice to say I'll teach ny (five) kids to run the other way."
He looks up, a beam of pleasure creasing his face. "To run the other way with HONOR."
But isn't he now - after almost four years of this - sick of Kojak?
Well I'll be tired of it they keep me sucking lollipops and sayin' 'Who loves ya, Baby?' Christ, you know the least they could do is throw in a broad once in a while. They must think he's a fag or somethin'. . .
"But you know something?" The broad face melts, the thick lips part wistfully, "You know I ran across this cartoon a while back in some paper. It showed a little kid on his knees, prayin', and he was sayin', 'God bless Mama and God bless Papa and God bless Kojak.' I'm telling you I almost cried. Made the whole Kojak thing worthwhile, that aone."
Diabolical sentimentality, you're thinking? So be it. Ask about his marital status, and he'll reply after much prodding, "I'm married to every girl I ever married (three) - if you know what I mean." Ask about his youth, and he lauches unabashedly into a Paper-Moon soliloquy:
"My father," he remembers affectionately, "was the original razzle-dazzle guy. A contractor, a restaurant owner, and in between - periods of poverty. One day he was a millionaire; next day he had five kids on the back of his truck peddling cakes. But it was always fun. And that's why I say my career - it's been a merry-go-round for me. Because I can't believe that what I did for free all my life, now they're paying me for.
"Yeah, well, when the butter-and-egg man came to the door and my mother couldn't pay him so she hid in the closet, and sent me to the door to get rid of him - believe me I had to act.
"Of course in the beginning little Telly'd go to the door and say, 'My mother's not here because she's in the closet hiding.'"
He shrugs. "You soon learn. As I say acting comes naturally to some people. I don't have to use any methods or system or weep over some dead Russian's grave."
This is how his acting career came to be: After working for the State Department, then for ABC where he made documentaries and received a Peabody Award, then as Long Island school teacher, he received a call from someone who wanted to know if he knew someone who could play a judge with a foreign accent on a TV show.
He knew just the guy.
"Hey, Ma!" he said, after the audition. "They want me to do a TV show, 300 bucks. Whaddya think?"
"Telly, do it," she advised him, adding - unnecessarily perhaps - You'll be a glorious actor.
"My mother," he declares, "she's one of the best chicks in the world. She taught us to love the artists. Bad or good, love 'em.
He's very calculating, Telly Savalas, very calculating in the impression he wants you to carry home. Like most actors he had designed his own image to conform with his looks; tailored his looks to conform with his image.
"The talent I do have," he expalins, "is to represent the average guy's taste, even though I may be mingling as a participants in the clever world of Cannes and Hollywood. A year ago, someone said to me, 'Why not sing at the Academy Awards?'
"And I said, "why not?' Now some would say, 'Gee. What gall. What arrogance.' But to tell you the truth I did pretty good. I'm everyone's Uncle Harry. And when I get on stage and sing, they say, 'There but for the grace of God go I.' Now Sinatra's not out there worrying.It's just ol' Telly doing his thing. And that's the ballpark. I just keep blowing bubbles."
Around his thick neck he wears a gold necklace that spells out of the words TELLY'S POP. A tribute to the horse he co-owns, a brilliant beast who was, once he acquired that illustrious name, a favorite to win the Derby.
"Then - before the Derby - he loses. And he discover he ran his last three races with a broken leg."
Savalas leans back, awestruck "That horse is so courageous. So we retire him a year. And now we're bring him back.
He smiles broadly, every word ringing with triumph his only expectation for the future. "Now the fairy tale begins. These things happen."