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Talk with Falk

Versatile actor Peter Falk returns to his role as the legendary cigar smoking sleuth, Columbo.
Arthur Marx
From the Print Edition:
Pierce Brosnan, Nov/Dec 97

(continued from page 1)

But the Falks had more serious problems than trying to make a living in those days. "When I was three years old, I was attending a pre-kindergarten school, in the Bronx," Falk recalls. "Because my mom was working in my father's store, there was no one at home to take care of me, so I attended one of those day-care places. One day my teacher called my mother in and told her that I ought to have my eyes examined, because I was always cocking my head to one side when I was attempting to look at something. So my mom took me to a doctor, who examined me and found a malignancy in my right eye. He took her aside and told her that I'd have to have the eye taken out right away. So like in a day or two, they checked me into the hospital. I remember standing in front of an open elevator door with my mother and the doctor in the hospital. I wasn't quite sure what was happening to me. Suddenly Mom said to me, 'You just get in the elevator, son. I have to go back to your room and get my purse.' Then the doctor took my hand and walked me into the elevator. I remember telling him, 'Just hold on a minute. My mother went to get her purse. She'll be right here.'

"The next thing I knew I was asleep, and it was all over."

Pretty traumatic for a three-year-old to wake up and find he had only one eye.

"Another memory I have of that period is of me and my mother standing in front of a store window, looking at eye patches. I wore one in the beginning, but after I was a little older they gave me a glass eye. Glass eyes aren't as practical as the plastic ones that came in a little later. In hot weather the glass eye used to stick. I remember being told to take it out every night and put it in a glass of water. Sometimes I did, and sometimes I got careless and just put it on the table next to my bed. After a while the glass eye starts getting scratched, and it has to be replaced if you don't want to look like you have a terrible hangover. But the plastic eye is much lighter, and more comfortable."

Falk admits that in the beginning he was terribly self-conscious about having a glass eye, and dreaded the moment when someone would ask him about it. "But then there's that time when you finally realize that no one gives a shit whether you have one eye or two. What helped me was knocking around doing sports with the guys."

Falk participated in most of the team sports in school, baseball and basketball in particular. He was good at both games in spite of his handicap, once he got over his self-consciousness. "I remember once in high school the umpire called me out at third base when I was sure I was safe. I got so mad I took out my glass eye, handed it to him and said, 'Try this.' I got such a laugh you wouldn't believe."

In spite of his size, the five-foot-nine Falk also made the town basketball team, which during the season went up against the Sing Sing team, inside the prison. "Because of my eye I wasn't a very good shooter, but because of my size I was fast as hell and that's why they used me. But the inmates were too tough for us. We got our ass beaten by them.I remember one inmate who was a terrific player. His name was Piggy Sands. He was in for life. But he sure could play basketball."

During his senior year, Falk received his first taste of acting (except for an appearance in a summer camp play several years before) when he filled in for a fellow student who had fallen sick two days before the performance. Ironically, he played a detective, taking the stage in the third act.

Although he was a good student, Falk had no idea of what he wanted to do when he got out of high school in 1945. The one way of making a living that never crossed his mind was becoming an actor. "In Ossining when I was growing up, I put my time in on the street corner, or in the pool room, and I liked sports but of course could never play any of them professionally because of my one eye. But I would have been embarrassed to tell any of my friends that I had any idea of being an actor. My conception of being an actor was very naive and very romantic. I thought actors were some rare species. I thought they were artists, and I thought artists were Europeans. I thought they were from Europe, because I never saw any actors where I came from."

In the summer of 1945, Falk enrolled in Hamilton College in upstate New York. "I thought college was going to be like high school, where I never worked too hard to get by. I loved everything about high school and I thought college would be the same. But when I got up there, I was in for a shock. No women. Small population because of the war. And half of the guys were veterans who had been in the war and were up there studying. They were very serious, so it was no fun there. And as I said, no girls. I only stayed about a month. So I thought I'd see if I could get in one of the [armed] services. The war was on its last legs, but it wasn't quite over."

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Comments   1 comment(s)

Giove Olimpo July 20, 2012 5:48pm ET

What is the name of Columbo's cigars?

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