Screen Pilates: Telly Savalas


Continuing our series on screen portrayals of Pilate that I began in 2011 during Holy Week.    The posts on portrayals of Pilate by Rod Steiger, Richard Boone, Barry Dennen and Hristov Shopov may be read here, here, here and here.

Telly Savalas in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) gives a fairly stolid performance as Pilate.  He portrays Pilate as a world weary Roman functionary to whom Christ is merely a problem he does not need.  When he transfers Christ’s case to Herod, we see Jose Ferrer who gives a strikingly good portrayal of Herod Antipas.  Ferrer portrayed Herod as a man touched against his will by the words of John the Baptist.  Now however he has executed John the Baptist, and has given himself up for damned, taking refuge in drink.

Herod sends Jesus back before Pilate, now seated as judge in public representing all the majesty of Rome.  Savalas underplays the scene, emotionlessly going through the process of having the mob choose between Barabbas and Christ, and then sentencing Christ to death.  His words are sparse, without gestures.  In sequences that are usually played for drama, Pilate is almost a passive observer, someone long predestined to play his role, like a character in a play, and powerless to do other than what he is fated to do:  condemn Jesus.  As he washes his hands, we hear Pilate’s thoughts:  Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.    Pilate is depicted as a mere instrument in the hands of God, his sentence an essential part of our salvation as set forth in the Creed.  One of the more thoughtful representations of Pilate on film.




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  1. Rod Steiger was undeniably a great Pilate and Jesus of Nazareth is one of my all time favorites. But when I picture Pilate in my mind’s eye, I see and hear Hristov Shopov. He was just perfect for the role. His physical look (much like Steiger), but also his ability to convey so much with his facial expressions. He is hands down my favorite ~ he’s who I picture when I think of Pilate.

    Funny how certain movies have left me with ALWAYS picturing a certain actor when I think of the real-life person. Shopov is Pilate. Cavaziel or Robert Powell for Jesus. James Farentino is Peter. Olivia Hussey or Maia Morgenstern for the Blessed Mother.

    The Passion and Jesus of Nazareth are definitely my all-time keepers.

  2. It was for this role that Telly Savalas shaved his head, creating the signature look that he kept for the rest of his career. So if it hadn’t been for Pilate, Kojak might have had hair….

  3. I have watched “The Passion of The Christ” and “Jesus of Nazareth” a couple of times and those films are amazing! I will have to watch “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and see how good the movie is. Thank you for a great movie suggestion. This will be a perfect film to watch tonight with the family and feel Jesus’ undying love in our hearts. Thank you!

  4. Telly Savales was a kind man. Many years ago, my brother Gerald was shopping in a hat store in NYC. He noticed that Mr. Savales was in the store and approached him to ask what sort of hat he wore on Kojak. Telly spent some time looking with Gerry to find one of the right size and then bought it for him as a gift. As far as we know, there were no bodyguards or any entourage. Just a simple, touching encounter with a humble and kind man. I don’t think my brother knew it was paid for by Savales until he went to the cashier. They’re both gone now but I hope they get together occasionally in the Lord’s presence.

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