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Telly's Favorite Hotel Knew Him as a Regular Guy

January 25, 1994|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sunday mornings, Telly Savalas would hang around the bar at the Sheraton-Universal Hotel, sipping coffee, still in his slippers, watching football games on television.

"What's the line on this one?" someone would ask.

Savalas would shrug. "I got 6 1/2."

Forget the lollipops and the "Who loves ya, baby?" At this Universal City hotel, Savalas was one of the guys. A regular. He kept a third-floor suite and was around so often that the management named the downstairs bar after him. He spent afternoons in the lobby and evenings in the restaurant, laughing with friends, chatting with whoever wandered past.

"Are you kidding?" David Cocks, the general manager, says. "This was his hotel."

The past week has been a rough one at the Sheraton. The earthquake left substantial damage. Cocks and the regulars at Telly's bar say they were hit just as hard when, over the weekend, Savalas died of prostate cancer in his suite.

It is not unusual for celebrities to take extended hotel stays. At the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood, owner Andre Balazs regales the inquisitive with a litany of guests ranging from Errol Flynn to Robert De Niro, and a tale of Sting wandering down to peck a tune on the lobby's piano.

But such tales carry an aura, the glare of a star deigning to shine among commoners. With Savalas and the Sheraton, it was different. He first checked into the hotel in 1973, when "Kojak" was taping next door at Universal Studios and rigorous production days sometimes stretched past midnight.

"He became sort of attached to the place," says Mike Mamakos, a longtime friend. "It developed into a 20-year stay.

"I was probably with him a thousand times in that hotel, sitting in the lobby, sitting in the bar," Mamakos says. "He could be eating a sandwich, you know, putting something in his mouth and someone would come over and slap him on the back and say, 'How ya doin?' He'd say, 'Delightful.' "

A few years ago, Savalas and the hotel's manager began chatting about the downstairs bar, which wasn't doing much business. Savalas offered a suggestion.

"I said, 'Why the hell don't we call it Telly's?' " he recalled in a 1992 interview.

The actor figured he spent enough time in the hotel anyway. And the bar combined three of his favorite pastimes: sports, gambling and people.

"During the football season and the basketball season," he said, "it's a real raucous joint."

Mamakos recalls that Savalas walked into the bar one afternoon and became transfixed with a game on the television.

"He stopped dead in his tracks to watch this great play" and a man cursed at Savalas and told him to move, Mamakos says. "The guy didn't know it was Telly but Telly just said, 'OK.' He could talk to princes and to the common laborer with the same affection."

So, although he had no monetary stake in the bar, Savalas became a fixture at Telly's. Vacationers gawked. Regulars asked which team he liked on the day of the game. They challenged him to shoot pool and he rarely declined.

Telly's will not reopen until early February, after the Super Bowl but before the basketball playoffs. Hotel workers say it won't be the same without The Man. The regulars, too, will miss him.

"I never heard him say, 'Who loves ya, baby,' and I never saw him with a lollipop (Kojak's trademarks) but he was still a character," Gene Lang, a customer, says. "He had a presence and whenever I went to Telly's, I was hoping he'd be there.

"It made me feel good that he didn't pass away in the hospital," Lang said. "It's like the cowboy who's buried with his boots on. He died where he liked to be."

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