Common and Preferred
The Iconic Actor, Most Lovingly Remembered As The Calculated Bumbler Columbo, Was Also An Artist, Thinker And Regular Guy
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine
Feb. 1, 2016 — “You can’t use an umbrella as a prop when the sun is out, but you can use a cigar under almost any circumstances,” Peter Falk announced in that gravelly, clutched rasp known to millions worldwide as the voice of Columbo – everyone’s favorite, rumpled television detective.
In 1996, when we sat down with him in at his home in the Beverly Hills flatlands, Falk was a spry 71. And he imparted that bit of actorly wisdom not while chomping on a cheap stogie (Columbo smoked cigars, but Falk told us he never did), but in between puffs on a True 100 cigarette which was seldom out of his hand.
“I’ve been chain-smoking cigarettes for 55 years,” he said, hunched in a chair in his office/painting studio. “My mother is 91 years old and still lights up. I’m trusting to luck that I’m blessed with her constitution.” (Falk made it to 83, dying of pneumonia in 2011.) Throughout our interview, so many ashes accumulated in the folds of Falk’s paint-smeared Oxford shirt and chinos that by visits end, he seemed to have morphed into a walking, talking smudge pot. The overall effect was as charming as it was unassuming and very much akin to his Columbo character.
Indeed, Falk belongs in that rare pantheon of TV actors who have originated truly unique personas. Don Knotts as deputy “Barney Fife” on The Andy Griffith Show was another complete original although the only thing the two characters had in common were “careers” in law enforcement and large Emmy hauls (Falk won four as Columbo; Knotts won five as Fife.)
As Columbo, Falk played the shambling hayseed to perfection; a seemingly hapless, absent-minded detective that lulled adversaries into thinking they had the upper hand while he implacably pieced the jigsaw evidence of a case together toward a final reveal. And it wasn’t just stagecraft that made Falk’s eight-year run in the series so indelible. Even his physical attributes played a part in deepening his TV character. Falk's right eye was surgically removed when he was three because of a retinoblastoma; he wore an artificial eye for most of his life and it was the cause of his trademark squint. Falk also incorporated into the role his speech impediment – the same nasal “L” that anchorman Tom Brokaw swallowed into the back of his throat during newscasts – to lull criminals into thinking he was flawed right down to his pattern of speech.
Perhaps more than anything else, meeting Falk face to face was like running into a Damon Runyon character fresh off a three-day poker bender. Following him as he padded around his beautifully-appointed studio, we wouldn’t have been overly surprised if he decided to launch into an impromptu version of “Luck Be a Lady” from Guys and Dolls.
As Falk pointed to a low shelf where those four Columbo Emmys rested, it became apparent that the actor and his most famous character are intrinsic and not an affectation. However, something seemed amiss. We finally realized it was Falk’s house; the kind of Beverly Hills brickpile that the intrepid police lieutenant (dressed in his shapeless raincoat and rayon tie) would fearlessly invade searching for clues, armed with just the tiniest pin to deflate the ego of its cocky owner. It was a spread that would’ve dazzled “everyman” Columbo, but Falk seemed right at home. (At that time, he lived there with his actress/wife Shera Danese.)
“I’m a Virgo Jew, and that means I have an obsessive thoroughness,” Falk said, making the correlation between himself and Colombo. “It’s not enough to get most of the details, it’s necessary to get them all. I’ve been accused of perfectionism. When Lew Wasserman (legendary Hollywood powerbroker, Steven Spielberg’s mentor, and, back then, head of Universal Studios) said that I am a perfectionist, I don’t know whether it was out of affection of because he felt I was a monumental pain in the ass.”
However, Falk’s mania to excel was tempered in the sweet-natured TV detective. “Colombo has a genuine mistiness about him. It seems to hang in the air,” Falk said. “He’s capable of being distracted. I remember one case where it was 20 minutes into the teleplay before he realized he hadn’t taken off his pajamas. Colombo is an ass-backward Sherlock Holmes. Holmes had a long neck, Colombo has no neck; Holmes smoked a Meerschaum pipe, Colombo chews up six cigars a day at a quarter a piece.”
The connection Falk feels – that Colombo is some sort of tattered stateside reincarnation of the famous Baker Street sleuth – is underscored by the fact that in a position of prominence, on a bookshelf right next to a copy of The Colombo Phil, was The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. Volumes that speak volumes about where the poor man’s Hercules Poirot ranks in the crime-solver firmament.
“The show is all over the world,” Falk said with genuine amazement. “I’ve been to little villages in Africa with maybe one TV set, and little kids will run up to me shouting: ‘Colombo, Colombo!’. When people weren’t calling out the name of their favorite shamus, strangers invariably yelled to him, “serpentine,” in reference to a hilarious, bullet-dodging scene in the 1979 film, The In-Laws. Director Arthur Hiller and co-star Alan Arkin had to convince a reticent Falk that the scene would work comically. He said he was thankful that he capitulated.
Curiously, Falk wasn’t particularly enamored by his unique voice which was as much a signature as the trench coat he wore that never saw the inside of a dry cleaners. “I never considered my voice part of my acting arsenal,” he told us. In fact, he believed his performances played much better when they were dubbed into foreign languages – especially French.
Whatever the combination, the voice allied to Falk’s peculiar brand of American unpretentiousness caught the eye of director Frank Capra who cast him in A Pocketful of Miracles (1961). The film, Capra’s last feature, was not the critical or commercial success he had hoped it would be, but in his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, Capra gushed about Falk’s performance.
“The entire production was agony … except for Peter Falk,” Capra wrote. “He was my joy, my anchor to reality. Introducing that remarkable talent to the techniques of comedy made me forget pains, tired blood, and maniacal hankerings to murder Glenn Ford (the film’s star). Thank you, Peter Falk.”
For his part, Falk said that he never worked with a director who showed greater enjoyment of actors and the acting craft. “You could see his shoulders shaking with laughter when we nailed a scene,” Falk said. “And there is nothing more important to an actor than to know that the one person who represents the audience to you, the director, is responding well to what you are trying to do.
“One time I remember we kept doing a scene after Frank had yelled, ‘Cut and print,’ Falk continued. “I asked him why, and he laughed and said that he loved the scene so much, he just wanted to see us do it again. How’s that for support?”
During another scene in the movie, Falk said he learned a valuable object lesson from Capra about playing comedy.
“I had a scene where I was mad and had to rather distractedly put on my overcoat and leave a room. The scene called for me to have trouble putting on the coat with the idea of mining a few laughs out of it. We did several takes but it never seemed to come off right. It looked too much like I was faking having trouble putting on the coat. Frank called for a five-minute break and during that time had some crew member sew shut one of the sleeves of the coat – unbeknownst to me. Well, when we did the scene again, I went crazy trying to put the damn thing on. Frank’s solution was perfect and truth came to the scene. His films are filled with moments like that. They are what you remember. After the scene was over and I realized what Frank had done, I went over and hugged him.”
For Falk, art was always in the details and not just in an astrological sense or as the lever that makes a scene succeed in a movie. Until he was in his mid-‘20s he pursued a career in public administration as an efficiency expert for the Connecticut Budget Bureau. But he soon grew tired of bottom lines and balance sheets and became involved in amateur theatricals. In 1955, with the encouragement of stage actress Eva Le Gallienne, he turned professional and his performance in the Off-Broadway production of The Iceman Cometh led to more work on Broadway, and in television and films.
During the filming of Castle Keep with Burt Lancaster in 1969, Falk broadened his artistic horizons in an area that seemed to take him by surprise. “I was holed up in this cell-like hotel room after the day’s shooting and I noticed an Italian leather valise on the floor half hidden under my bed,” Falk said. “I picked up a pencil and began to draw it. Instantly I became a compulsive sketcher.”
Although Falk admitted that a couple of years could pass before he approached an easel, his devotion to charcoal sketching (primarily nude figure studies) had been as constant in his life as, well, the ratty trenchcoat Columbo wore and which then hung in Falk’s upstairs bedroom. Falk told us that he had sold his work at galleries on just two prior occasions and that his sketches sold for about $400.
“They command a certain price because Columbo drew them,” he laughed “If you drew them, they wouldn’t be worth shit!”
All things considered, Falk said, as he showed us some several sketches on buff-colored paper, that he preferred regular movie work with a bit of Columbo thrown into the mixture but with ample time in between to be spent in his airy studio trying to fathom the confounding beauty of the human form.
As a parting shot, we tried to bait him out of his artistic reverie with a question about what it was like to work with Frank Sinatra and the rest of the “Rat Pack” during their heyday in the film, Robin and the Seven Hoods. (The whole “Swinger” scene was very retro-hip in the mid-1990s.)
Falk stiffened us with a glassy stare as if perhaps we had spent too much time confined in our own castle keep somewhere and said: “I don’t know or care about all that crap, I just like to draw.”
Straight to the point. For Falk as for Columbo, bullshit came in various advanced degrees and from many quadrants. And on those occasions, he was ready with that tiny pin!
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
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