It is to be expected that the obituaries and commemorations for Peter Falk, who passed away last Thursday, would center on his four-time Emmy-winning starring role in the long-running series Columbo (the character was first introduced in a 1968 TV movie, it was turned into an NBC series running 1971-1977, then ABC revived the brand in 1989 for 24 TV movies, the last airing in 2003). His role as the perennially rumpled, misleadingly bumbling, “Ahhh, just one more thing…” homicide detective was not only his most famous and memorable character, but one which achieved that rarified altitude of “iconic.” Think Falk; think Columbo.
And as deserving as the tributes are, as laudatory as the valedictories have been, they still don’t do justice to the range and power Falk demonstrated throughout his career as an actor on both large and small screen.
Even the laurels thrown on his work in Columbo focus on the visible elements, the “easy” part – the pretense of messy, shuffling ineptitude – and not the slyer, sometimes surprisingly darker elements Falk – in collaboration with series creators William Link and Richard Levinson along with their stable of writers – occasionally injected to keep the formula fresh and the character intriguing.
The show was always fun, but every so often it would hit some resonating chord, something hearkening back to J.B. Priestly’s 1945 play, An Inspector Calls, the pointed prototype for Columbo, which brought a human element to a TV genre that – then and now – was often about no more than putting a puzzle together, and forgetting the tragedy behind it. In some of those episodes, where Falk was matched with a performer of equal power, there was an element of real pity (opposite Donald Pleasance as a desperate winery owner who murders his crass brother to save the family business; Patrick McGoohan as a starchy military academy commander fighting to save his beloved institution) and tragedy (Janet Leigh as a past-it movie actress slipping into senility and not even remembering her crime; symphony conductor John Cassavetes’ humiliation of wife Blythe Danner when she learns he murdered to conceal an affair) that, at best, seems only perfunctory in today’s CSIs and Castles and the like.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing episodes was the awkwardly titled, “The Bye-Bye Sky High I.Q. Murder Case,” written by Robert M. Young, in which Falk goes up against Theodore Bikel as head of a Mensa-type organization of certified geniuses. There’s an absolutely chilling scene before the final reveal where Falk and Bikel sit together during a power failure, and as they pass the time in conversation – what the screenwriting gurus would maintain was a throw-away scene, but stands as one of the most memorable moments in the series – Columbo, for the only time in the series, explains himself:
“You know, sir, it’s a funny thing. All my life I kept running into smart people. I don’t just mean smart like you and the people in this house. You know what I mean. In school, there were lots of smarter kids. And when I first joined the force, sir, they had some very clever people there. And I could tell right away that it wasn’t gonna be easy making detective as long as they were around. But I figured, if I worked harder than they did, put in more time, read the books, kept my eyes open, maybe I could make it happen. And I did. And I really love my work, sir.”
It’s not just Young’s on-point dialogue, but Falk’s delivery that sends a chill through the scene: the sense of a committed obsessive, the slight touch of vindictiveness toward all those “very clever people” he’s outdone, and finally, the malevolent – maybe even slightly sadistic? – declaration that nothing gives him greater satisfaction than the way he toys with and manipulates and finally lowers the boom on a killer.
But anyone who knew Falk’s work before he landed Columbo should not have been surprised at what he could do with the part. He’d already been moving easily between film and TV and the stage, had been twice nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, picked up a Tony for his lead role in Neil Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue, and had already copped an Emmy for the 1961 TV movie, The Price of Tomatoes. He’d even already played a Columbo-esque character in the short-lived but critically-acclaimed early ‘60s lawyer series, The Trials of O’Brien. There was a reason he was considered worth the then considerable amount of $250,000 per Columbo episode, and that NBC and the producers were willing to accept his demand of doing the show on a rotating basis with two other 90-minute mystery series rather than as a weekly.
Throughout his career, Falk was a utility player, carrying leads (dim-bulb planner of one of the biggest robberies in U.S. history in the true-crime-inspired The Brinks Job ), supporting roles (the loving grandfather who narrates The Princess Bride [1987), or working in an ensemble (as a high-strung cabbie in the all-star comedy epic, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World ). He played broad comedy (Jack Lemmon’s inept henchman in The Great Race ), domestic drama (the frustrated husband who doesn’t understand the how or why of his wife’s breakdown in A Woman Under the Influence ), heroes (the war-loving corporal of Anzio ), or villains.
His breakout role had been in the true-crime-inspired Murder, Inc. (1960) playing Mob contract killer Abe “Kid Twist” Reles. Murder, Inc. had been one of a stream of punchy “B” caliber gangster flicks (I, Mobster , Al Capone , The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond , Portrait of a Mobster ) filling out double bills at the time, and Murder, Inc. shared all the same limitations of its contemporaries: obviously tight budgets, colorful but rarely memorable second tier casts, clearly back lot locations. But Falk’s performance as the ice-blooded sociopathic Reles is from some other A-caliber universe. Every scene he’s in is electric; and every scene without him suddenly feels leaden. A Murder, Inc. with a full cast equal to Falk would have been an all-time gangster classic.
The very next year Falk earned another Oscar nod playing the Dr. Jekyll version of his Mr. Hyde/Reles in Frank Capra’s adaptation of Damon Runyon’s Depression-era Mob comedy, Pocketful of Miracles. Tweaking the same kind of character that, in Murder, Inc., had sent a shiver down spines, he now charmed and tickled as the exasperated gangland secretary of state for Mob boss Glenn Ford, watching his carefully arranged deal for Ford with a bigger Mob go down the tubes as Ford attempts to do an ever-more-complicated good deed for a street corner apple-seller (Bette Davis).
It seemed there was no genre or style beyond Falk. In Sidney Pollock’s surreal antiwar story Castle Keep (1969), Falk hit the perfect note for Pollock’s dreamy, highly symbolic vision; he was a flat-out hoot in his largely ad libbed cameo in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; he was painfully life-sized in the TV movie A Step Out of Line (1971) as a financially-strapped working man looking to a bank robbery not out of greed, but for survival.
Along with friends Ben Gazzara and John Cassavetes, he would sometimes work just for a paycheck (the impressively bad Italian-produced Machine Gun McCain ) to help Cassavetes raise financing for his independently-produced films in which Falk did some of his best work: A Woman Under the Influence (with Cassavetes’ wife Gena Rowlands), and maybe Cassavetes’ most accessible work, Husbands (1970), with Falk, Cassavetes, and Gazzara as three friends on a midlife crisis-fueled bender following the death of a fourth buddy.
Watching Falk in Cassavetes’ largely improvised dramas back-to-back with him pulling off with equal adeptness the straight-faced silliness of The In-Laws (1979 – his explanation of “The Guacamole Treaty” which protects the giant flies preying on Amazonian natives is an exquisite piece of deadpan comedy) is a better appreciation of the breadth and depth of the actor than simply to tout how beautifully he pulled off Columbo.
Like the good lieutenant once said, “I figured, if I worked harder than they did, put in more time, read the books, kept my eyes open, maybe I could make it happen.” And every time Peter Falk stepped on a stage or in front of a camera, he made it happen.
– Bill Mesce