On January 21, 2022, Savalas would have turned 100-years-old. The Greek actor was just 72-years-old when he died on January 22, 1994 – just one day after his 72nd birthday. He made a profound mark on the James Bond heritage, however, playing an incredibly memorable version of Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the 1969 film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. He played opposite George Lazenby, one of the more boisterous 007 actors around.
Lazenby famously claimed the Bond role by walking into the offices of MGM and demanding an audition. The Australian actor did not have any previous acting experience but was so convincing in his screen test that he broke another actor’s nose during a test fight. When the 30-year-old arrived on the set for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he had an extremely odd experience.
Speaking to the Daily Express in 2010, Lazenby revealed: “I’d been given thousands of dollars of spending money and it was all piling up in my suitcase.” He was reportedly being paid up to £1,000 a day (approximate £16,832 in 2020), all of which he was storing in suitcases.
When Savalas caught wind of this massive amount of cash, he hatched a devious plan.
Savalas was keen to make a point with the new 007 star, so invited him to play a game. Lazenby recalled: “Telly saw [the suitcase] one day and asked: ‘Wanna play poker?’ Well, I’d never played poker and started losing.”
The Aussie actor reportedly lost quite a large chunk of change in the ensuing games, leaving Savalas extremely happy with himself. The loss was so devastating that the film’s management had to step in.
Lazenby remembered Saltzman confronting Savalas. He said: “[Harry] Saltzman put a stop to it and told Telly: ‘Leave my boy alone.'”
Despite the poker incident, it seems like both Savalas and Lazenby had a good relationship on set. Savalas was a well-known star at the time, having previously acted in such projects as The Dirty Dozen, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Fugitive. Lazenby shared a fond memory he had of Savalas on set, where the star was incredibly kind.
Lazenby said: “The only thing I remember coming from Telly that did help me as – we rehearsed the scene, our first scene together (I forget where it was but it was up on that mountain) and apparently they had forewarned him that I was a novice actor.”
Savalas was not going to stand for this kind of talk, so turned to the bosses and declared: “He doesn’t need any help. I’ve got to watch out, he will blow me off the screen.”
Lazenby added: “So that was in a way a compliment, because I came out remembering all my lines and Telly hadn’t had his down yet, although he did by the time we started to shoot, and I had to have mine down because if I didn’t there was no way I could remember them in five minutes like he can.”