Of Greek descent on both sides, the son of immigrants, Savalas was a soldier during World War II, although most of his enlistment records were destroyed in a fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1973. He later studied psychology at Columbia University under the GI Bill.
Iconically bald, he often played character roles, sometimes as sadists or psychotics. He became famous in the 1970s when his role as Det. Theo Kojak in the TV movie The Marcus-Nelson Murders (1973) was expanded into the gritty Kojak (1973) TV series (1973-78).